Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Northern China
The Mutianyu Great Wall was fully restored in the 1980s as an alternative to the increasingly popular Badaling section of the Great Wall of China. The Mutianyu section is farther away from Beijing (about an hour and a half by car) than more popular sections, but it's also significantly less busy and features some fun, modern amusements, such as a cable car, chairlift, and toboggan. The long, flat segment—the longest fully restored section open to travelers—winds along heavily forested hilltops with 23 ancient watchtowers dotting the landscape.
The Forbidden City, or Palace Museum, is the world’s largest palace complex, with more than 800 buildings and some 8,000 rooms set in the heart of Beijing. Deemed off-limits to visitors for some five centuries, today this UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the city’s most popular attractions.
In 1750, the grand Summer Palace was commissioned by Emperor Qianlong as a lavish lakeside retreat from the heat of Beijing. With pavilions, walkways, gardens, and bridges, the UNESCO World Heritage site on Kunming Lake served as the seat of government for Empress Dowager Cixi during the last years of her life.
The Yungang Grottoes (Yungang Shiku) are ancient Chinese Buddhist grottoes that reside in the north cliff of Wuzhou Mountain near the city of Datong in Shanxi Province. Listed as a World Heritage Site in 2001, the Yungang Grottoes are a brilliant display of Buddhist rock-cut architecture dating back to the fifth and sixth centuries.
The Yungang caves are divided into east, middle, and western sections. Pagodas dominate the eastern parts, while the west comprises small to medium sized caves. The caves in the middle section feature front and back chambers with Buddha statues at their center. In total, the complex comprises 252 grottoes with more than 51,000 stone Buddha statues.
Sometimes known as the Hanging Monastery, the Hanging Temple (Xuankong Si) is built into the cliff-side of the mighty Hengshan (Mt. Heng) near Datong city in Shanxi Province. Held up by oak stilts slotted into holes chiselled out from the rock, the rest of the structure that supports the temple is hidden inside the bedrock. Built in 491, the Hanging Temple has survived more than 1,500 years. The face of the building hangs from the middle of the cliff under the summit, which has protected it from the elements over all the years.
The Hengshan Hanging Temple is the only temple that incorporates all of China’s traditional religions: Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. Visitors to the temple come in their droves to marvel at this architectural feat for themselves, and to peer over the railings onto the rocks 50 meters below.
Located in southern Pingyao County, Shuanglin Temple is famous for the 2,000 painted clay sculptures dating back to the Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties of China. The temple was originally founded in the late sixth century, but the current structures were built during the Ming and Qing dynasties.
The south-facing temple is divided into 10 halls, each containing its own collection of painted sculptures. Some of the highlights among them include the likeness of Avalokitesvara in the Hall of Sakya, a seated statue of Guanyu in the God of Battle Hall and a thousand-armed Bodhisattva inside Bodhisattva Hall.
Tiananmen Square, the world’s largest public plaza, has always been a symbol of Mao’s epic Communist project—and resistance to it. Despite its bleak history, the site of the 1989 massacre is today a bustling place, often teeming with tourists and local kids flying kites.
Built by the Yongle Emperor, the Ming Dynasty builder of the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven (Tiantan or Tian Tan) was a stage for important rituals performed by the emperor, or Son of Heaven. Chief among these were supplication to the heavens for a good harvest and the winter solstice ceremony, meant to ensure a favorable new year.
Located in the Xicheng District in central Beijing, Back Lakes (Houhai) is a neighborhood and one of the three lakes that make up Shichahai, along with Front Lake (Qianhai) and West Lake (Xihai). This popular area is known for its lakes, traditional hutongs (alleys) and courtyards, and a lively mix of trendy boutiques, restaurants, and bars.
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.
More Things to Do in Northern China
The Beijing Drum Tower (Gulou) stands just south of its sibling, the Bell Tower (Zhonglou), in the Beijing district that bears its name. First built in the 13th century, the striking red structure has been rebuilt several times. It originally held 25 drums that kept time for the city, and today it hosts regular drumming performances.
Located in the Xicheng District not far from Shichahai, Yandai Byway (Yandai Xiejie) is one of the oldest streets in Beijing. It’s a street of contrasts, blending the ancient Beijing with the modern city it has become today. Various shops and cafes cater to locals and visitors from far and wide, who explore the street on foot or by rickshaw.
Yandai translates as Tobacco Pouch and the street takes its name from the huge popularity of tobacco and subsequent tobacco shops during the Qing Dynasty. You may see it written Yandaixie Street, Yandai Xie Street, or Yandaixie Jie.
Most of the shops in Yandai Byway are situated on sidesteps and have large wooden tobacco pipe symbols at their entrances. Some even say that the shape of the street itself resembles a tobacco pouch.
The original ancient architectural styles found on Yandai Byway, along with its historical and cultural significance, saw the street named one of China's Historical and Cultural Streets by the Ministry of Culture in 2010.
A historic scenic area in the northern part of central Beijing, Shichahai comprises three lakes—Front Lake (Qianhai), Back Lake (Houhai), and West Lake (Xihai)—as well as the hutong alleyways around them. With ice skating in winter and pedal boats in summer, plus snacks and beers on offer year-round, it’s a lively part of Beijing.
The Lama Temple (Yonghegong), one of the most important Tibetan Buddhist temples outside Tibet, began as a palace for Emperor Yongzheng before he became the third emperor of the Qing Dynasty. Today, the resplendent temple, with its halls, courtyards, ponds, and bronze mandala, is a lamasery for some two dozen Tibetan monks.
The Legend of Kung Fu Show, which premiered at Beijing’s Red Theatre in 2004, tells the story of a young monk who dreams of one day becoming a kung fu master. The best kung fu practitioners from all across China tell the story through Chinese martial arts, traditional and modern dance, and Chinese acrobatics.
When the Tianjin Eye was completed in 2008, it officially became the first and only observation wheel in the world to be built over a bridge. The 394-foot (120-meter) tall wheel straddles the Hai River above the Yongle Bridge, offering stellar views (on clear days or nights) of this city of some 7.5 million people.
The wheel features 48 passenger pods, each with an eight person capacity. One rotation around the wheel takes about 30 minutes. The best time to ride is at night, when the wheel is illuminated in colorful neon lights, visible from around Tianjin.
Located in Jingsheng Town, Shanxi Province, the Wang Family Courtyard was built by the Wang family of Jingsheng, who were descendants of the Wang family of the city of Taiyuan – one of four of the most prominent families of the Qing Dynasty.
The Wang Family Courtyard isn’t a single courtyard as the name suggests; it is in fact a sprawling compound containing a cluster of courtyards and castles that demonstrate incredible examples of Chinese residential architecture from the Qing Dynasty period. The Gao Jia Ya and Red Gate Castle in particular have numerous courtyards and rooms built in this traditional architectural style.
Besides its fascinating architecture, the Wang Family Courtyard displays some ornate wood and stone carvings that demonstrate the artistic style of the time.
Just across the moat from the Forbidden City, Jingshan Park (Jingshan Gongyuan) is one of Beijing’s most popular open spaces. The 57-acre (23-hectare) park is a great place to watch elderly Beijingers take their morning exercise, with beautiful flowers in spring. The central hill offers sweeping views over the city on a clear day.
In the years since Beijing hosted the 2008 Olympic Games, the structures at the Beijing Olympic Park have become just as representative of Beijing as the Forbidden City or the Great Wall. While the Olympic Green houses half a dozen different venues, most visitors come to see the Beijing National Stadium and the Water Cube.
A series of temple-like structures and burial mounds, the Ming Tombs contain the remains of 13 of the 16 emperors who ruled China during the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644). Visitors come from all over to see the imperial grandeur of this UNESCO World Heritage site and learn about the cultural importance of ancestor worship.
The Beijing National Stadium, more commonly referred to as the Bird’s Nest, was built for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games at a cost of $423 million. Since the Olympics and all its fanfare, the stadium has become a major landmark and tourist attraction, as well as a venue for both international and domestic sporting competitions.
The best-known and busiest stretch of China’s iconic Great Wall, Badaling was restored and opened to tourists during the 1950s. The scenery is striking, with views of the wall winding its way over the rugged hills. A cable car leads up to the top, and the site offers everything from souvenir stalls to restaurants.
Overlooking Tiananmen Square, the Meridian Gate (Wumen) is the southernmost and largest of the Palace Museum gates, and one of the most recognizable landmarks of the Forbidden City. Comprised of five towers and five gateways, the Meridian Gate currently provides the only entrance into the Forbidden City.
Located within the grounds of the Forbidden City, the Imperial Garden of the Palace Museum was built in the Ming Dynasty as a private imperial garden. Covering around 129,000 square feet (12,000 square meters), the garden features numerous pavilions, halls, shrines, ponds, rock gardens, ancient trees, and sculptural objects.
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