Have you ever wondered what's so forbidden about the Forbidden City? It's called that because it was closed to the outside world for 500 years. This was the seat of the Ming and the Qing emperors, and no one could enter - or leave - the imperial domain without their permission. These days, the Chinese mainly call it Gu Gong, or Former Palace.
The Forbidden City, or Beijing Imperial Palace, is BIG - you'll need to allow at least one day for your visit. UNESCO have listed it as the largest collection of ancient wooden structures in the world. There are nearly 1,000 rooms in over 800 buildings. However, because it's been ransacked by invaders and gutted by fire several times (wooden buildings, lanterns, you do the math) most of the structures date from the 18th century on. As you move around the gardens and palatial buildings, which have now been converted to museums, you'll start to get a feel for what it was like to live the imperial life.
The Summer Palace - also known as Yiheyuan - was built in 1750. In those days, it was called the Garden of Clear Ripples, and was a lakeside oasis where the royal court could escape the dust and heat of the Forbidden City in summer.
It was razed twice by foreign armies and completely rebuilt, most extensively by Empress Dowager Cixi in the 19th century. To fund her projects, she's said to have diverted a bunch of money destined for the Chinese navy. Ironically, one of her grand schemes was a marble boat that sits at the edge of the lake.
The grounds were declared a public park in 1924. These days, the 290 hectares (716 acres) of the 'Gardens of Nurtured Harmony' are madly popular with both tourists and locals.
The gardens are liberally scattered with temples, covered walkways, pavilions and bridges. Longevity Hill, one of the garden's main features, was constructed from the earth excavated when the lake was extended.
A Ming temple, Temple of Heaven or Tian tan was built by the Yongle Emperor, who also built the Forbidden City, as a stage for the important rituals performed by the emperor, or Son of Heaven. Chief among these were the supplication to the heavens for a good harvest and the Winter Solstice ceremony, which was supposed to ensure a favorable year for the entire kingdom.
In those days it was believed that heaven was round and earth was square, so the architecture of the buildings (round, set on square bases) and the layout of the park (squared off at the Temple of the Earth end, rounded at the Temple of Heaven end) reflect this belief. The buildings are rich in symbolic detail - variations on the number nine, which represented the emperor; coloured glazes which represent heaven and earth; and pillars which represent the months of the year, the seasons and time. There are also echo stones where you can stand to hear your voice reverberate.
Beijing has modernized so rapidly that it’s hard to imagine what it must have been like in decades past. One neighborhood in Beijing has managed to hold on to its old-style hutong architecture, the Back Lakes (Hou Hai). Named after the three lakes in the area, the Back Lakes neighborhood is one of the last remaining places in Beijing where you can see traditional courtyard-style houses.
While wandering the hutongs lets you see Beijing as it once was, the streets surrounding the lakes, particularly Hou Hai -- the largest of the three -- shows you a modern, hip and international side of Beijing. The banks are lined with cafes, restaurants, bars and hookah dens catering to tourists, locals and the city’s sizable expatriate population alike. The best way to enjoy the Back Lakes area is to take a pedicab tour of the old hutong neighborhoods in the afternoon.
The Ming Dynasty Tombs, or Ming Shisan Ling, are located outside of central Beijing and are home to the tombs and mausoleums of the Yongle Emperor. Currently, these tombs are a UNESCO World Heritage site, and are listed as part of the World Heritage object, Imperial Tombs of the Ming and Qing Dynasties.
The Emperor, who built the Forbidden City, also chose the site for these Ming Tombs mausoleums according to the art of Feng Shui. Back in the Ming era, this secluded valley north of Beijing was closed to visitors and heavily guarded. The ground was considered so sacred that not even an emperor could ride a horse there. Three tombs are open to the public; only one, the Dingling, has been excavated (sadly, with artifacts being badly damaged). The other two tombs are more atmospheric. The highlight of the experience is probably the Spirit Way, the long approach to the mausoleums.
Jingshan Park (Yingshan Gongyuan), a green space in the heart of Beijing and home to one of the city’s few hills, was made from the earth dug out to make the Forbidden City’s moat. Covering about 57 acres (230,000 square meters), Jingshan Park once served as an imperial garden during the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties.
In the early morning hours, the park fills up with elderly locals who gather in groups to since or practice tai chi. Come early and climb to the top of the park’s central peak -- once Beijing’s highest point -- for views of the Forbidden City to the south, Drum and Bell Towers to the north and Beihai Park to the west. Each spring, the park’s flowers put on a colorful display, particularly in May when the 200 varieties of peonies begin to bloom. With around 20,000 peony plants, Jingshan Park is home to the largest peony garden in Beijing.
In just a few years since Beijing hosted the 2008 Olympic Games, the structures built within the Olympic Green (Olympic Park) have become just as representative of the Chinese capital as the Forbidden City or the Great Wall. While the Olympic Green houses half a dozen different venues, most visitors come to see the two most iconic, the Beijing National Stadium (more popularly known as the Bird’s Nest) and the Beijing National Aquatics Center (Water Cube).
Today, the Bird’s Nest is used mostly for concerts and other high-profile sporting events, while the Water Cube has been transformed into a recreational swimming facility open to the public. You can visit the interiors of either for an extra fee, but both are arguably more impressive from the outside, and it doesn’t cost anything to walk the grounds of the Olympic Green. If you want to see the Olympic Green at its most beautiful, plan your visit for the evening hours with both the stadium and the Water Cube are lit up.
The Lama Temple (Yonghegong), one of the most important Tibetan Buddhist temples in the world, started life in the late 17th century as a residence for eunuchs. It went on to become residence for a Qing dynasty prince. When he ascended to the throne, it became a monastery. The emperor's body was returned here on his death - hence the yellow-tiled roofs, which were reserved for royalty.
Inside you'll find five large halls, ornately decorated with statues of the Buddha in various incarnations, murals and carvings. The most notable of the statues is the Meitraya (the Future Buddha), which towers up to 18m (59ft) and is made from a single piece of white sandalwood.
Niaochao, more commonly referred to as the Beijing National Stadium or the Bird’s Nest, was designed and constructed for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games and has since become a major landmark in China’s capital. Chinese artist Ai Weiwei consulted on the Swiss-designed project, and the result cost $423 million to complete.
Since the Olympics ended, the stadium has served as a tourist attraction and a venue for both international and domestic sporting competitions, including the Supercoppa Italiana and the China Cup. The stadium is set to host the 2015 World Championships in Athletics as well. Niaochao is most impressive from the outside, where it’s bird’s nest shape is apparent. Situated on the Beijing Olympic Green, Niaochao is free to enjoy from the outside, but you’ll have to pay a fee if you want to enter the stadium. The Water Cube, the second prominent structure from the 2008 Olympics, sits adjacent to Niaochao and is also worth a visit.
Jinshanling and Simatai are two of the most remote and least restored portions of the Great Wall near Beijing. Visitors craving a more natural Great Wall experience, without the buses and crowds of domestic tourists posing for photos at every step, should plan to make the day hike between the two wall segments.
This stretch of the Ming wall was built here to protect the 17-mile (27 kilometer) defensible pass. The segment between Jinshanling and Simatai extends roughly 6 miles (10 kilometers), passing many portions of the wall left completely unrestored since the wall’s original construction.
From Jinshanling, it takes about 4 to 5 hours to hike all the way to Simatai, passing 43 watchtowers in various states of disrepair. Jinghanling, the starting point for the hike, sits 81 miles (130 kilometers) northeast of Beijing, so be sure to get an early start if you plan to complete the entire hike.
Few bucket lists are complete without a walk along the Great Wall of China, famously one of the New 7 Wonders of the World and a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1988, and undoubtedly the most visited section is the Great Wall at Badaling. Often visited on a day trip from Beijing, Badaling was the first part of the wall to open to tourists back in 1958 and now draws up to 10 million annual visitors. Built in 1502 during the Ming Dynasty, the wall at Badaling runs for 2.3 miles around the Jundu mountain, reaching an altitude of over 1,000 meters and spanning almost 6 meters at its widest point – wide enough for 5 horses to gallop abreast. The popularity of Badaling means that it is often overrun with tour groups, but there are still many good reasons to visit - not only is Badaling the most thoroughly restored section of the wall and offers magnificent views, but it’s the most accessible, with a cable car and pulley train available for those who don’t want to walk to the top.
Nanlouguxiang, an alleyway in Beijing lined with traditional hutong courtyard houses, has a history spanning more than 800 years. One of Beijing’s oldest hutongs, Nanluoguxiang was built during the Yuan Dynasty and today houses a collection of bars, restaurants, boutiques and galleries.
Located near the Drum and Bell Tower, Nanluoguxiang makes a convenient shopping stop if you’re looking for a way to spend an afternoon. Many of the shops in the area cater to foreign visitors with postcards, Communist-era propaganda posters, T-shirts and kitschy souvenirs to take back home with you. You’ll also find several boutiques selling high-quality Chinese handicrafts. While the neighborhood gets crowded, it’s quieter than the hutong near the Back Lakes.
There are two reasons to visit Wangfujing Street in Beijing: shopping and eating. The main portion of this commercial street is home to nearly 300 Chinese brand name stores selling everything from clothes and shoes to tea and herbs. In recent years, international and high end brands have also started appearing at this outdoor shopping venue, and while prices tend to be slightly more expensive than in the US, it’s still a fun place to people watch and window shop. The neighboring Wangfujing Snack Food Street appeals to intrepid tourists and adventurous local eaters. The hundred some food stalls lining this outdoor food market (only open at night) cook and serve a bizarre range of street foods. You’ll find centipedes, star fish, scorpions and honey bees being served alongside sheep innards, candied fruits and other delicacies from around the country. While the offerings may not all sound appetizing, rest assured they are safe, as each stall must meet strict hygienic requirements.
The Legend of Kung Fu at Beijing’s Red Theater tells the story of a young monk who dreams of one day becoming a Kung Fu master. The boy’s story is told through Kung Fu, dance and Chinese acrobatics staged by the leading stage production company in the country.
The best Kung Fu practitioners from around China are scouted for the production, and the average age of the performers is only 17 years old, a testament to their talent. While the 80-minute production contains no dialogue, a screen above the stage tells the story with English subtitles to help foreign visitors follow along; most Chinese tourists are already familiar with the tale. The Legend of Kung Fu premiered on the Red Theater stage in 2004, and the theater has hosted daily or twice daily performances of it ever since. Since the show is popular with both international and domestic tourists and is often included in package tours, it’s best to book your tickets ahead of time.
As you walk along the north-south axis of the Forbidden City, you’ll eventually walk through the Gate of Terrestrial Tranquility and into the Imperial Garden of the Palace Museum, the final section of the palace before the north gate exit. Built in 1417 during the Ming Dynasty, the 3-acre (12,000-square-meter) traditional Chinese garden served as a private green space for the imperial family living within the palace.
Unlike gardens in the West, Chinese gardens typically contain various structures, ponds and pavilions with pathways winding between, and the Imperial Garden is no exception. You’ll find around 20 structures within the garden, including the Hall of Imperial Peace in the center. Just in front of the hall, you’ll notice a pair of trees that appear as if embracing. These 400-year-old consort pines are thought to symbolize harmony between the emperor and empress. Pavilions at the four corners of the garden represent the four seasons.
Located in northwest Beijing, 798 Art Zone occupies a decommissioned military factory from the 1950s that now houses an edgy artistic community. The Communist-era factories and warehouses of the complex have all been converted into galleries, studios, boutique shops and cafes whose modern and sometimes whimsical contents sit in stark contrast to the austere Bauhaus architecture.
Give yourself at least half a day to explore the 798 Art Zone. Start with the eclectic collection of sculptures, photographs and paintings at the Long March Space, one of the best collections in the area. Other notable galleries include the Chinese Contemporary with its politically minded collection, the 798 Photo Gallery and 798 Space, one of the largest galleries in the area. Read up on art history at the well-stocked Time Zone 8 bookstore before stopping in at one of the cafes and restaurants in the district for lunch or a cup of coffee.
Before 1911, when the Qing dynasty ended, this park was attached to the Forbidden City. Built in the 10th century, it is one of the most lavish and important Chinese gardens. The landscaping references geological features from all over China. If you miss these subtleties, you'll still enjoy a day wandering among the lakes of water lilies, marvelling at the architecture and watching the calligraphers create their fleetingly beautiful poems in water on the flagstones.
The garden is actually mostly lake (Beihai means 'Northern Sea'), but there's plenty to look at on land. There's an immense white jade Buddha from Myanmar (bearing a war wound in the arm from the Boxer Rebellion days), a green jade jar dating from the thirteenth century, the 9 Dragon Wall with its cavorting dragons and clouds, a white stupa decorated with the sun and the moon, and countless other temples and pavilions.
For a uniquely local shopping experience, plan to spend a few hours at Beijing’s Pearl Market (Hongqiao Market). The market is famous for its three floors of dealers selling pearl strands from around the world and is the largest pearl market in the country, where you'll find freshwater and salt water items in nearly every shape, size, color and price point imaginable. If you’re planning to purchase higher quality pearls, know what you’re looking for before you go, since quality varies widely.
Contrary to the name, the Pearl Market does offer more than just pearls. The three basement floors house a massive seafood market where many of Beijing’s major hotels and restaurants come to bid on fresh seafood. On the ground floor, you’ll find electronics and watches, and the second floor houses silks, brand name clothing, shoes, handbags and luggage. Haggling is expected throughout the market.