We’ve been exploring life in Beijing on this blog for a while, including chatting to a couple of visitors who have experienced the city first hand. But if you are a visitor, either at the beginning or end of your Classic Trans-Siberian trip with very limited time, you may have to focus on seeing just a few of the grand sights. Here are the big five sights of this world famous city, covering over 3,000 years of history.
The Forbidden City
The Forbidden City palace was home to 24 emperors during the Ming and Qing dynasties and contains a complex of great halls and imperial gardens. The spectacular Imperial Palace was constructed between 1406 and 1420 by the third Ming emperor, Yongle. Consisting of some 980 buildings, it could take up to a week to view the Forbidden City in its entirety, but as a visitor you can take in the essentials in a day if you plan your time well. Many of the buildings were restored for the 2008 Olympics, including the Hall of Supreme Harmony. If you plan to end your visit to the Forbidden City by leaving through the south gate of the Hall, you will be sure to notice the stark contrast in aesthetics between the elaborately decorated Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square; unadorned and modest.
Tiananmen Square is a potent symbol of the Beijing and one of the most recognisable landmarks in the world. This square is dominated by a large picture of Chairman Mao and would appear to be an emblem of communist architecture. The original building of Tiananmen Square was first constructed during the Ming Dynasty in 1420, although it has been destroyed and rebuilt several times since then. The square is the largest of its kind in the world and is located in the heart of the city – this makes it a popular place for parades and rallies. The square is bordered on the north by by the Gate of the Heaven Peace (to the Forbidden City), the Great Hall of the People on the west side, the National Museum of China on the east side, and the Zhengyangmen Gate Tower marks the south end of Tiananmen Square.
The Temple of Heaven
Head to the south-east of the city to see the Temple of Heaven. This holy site used to be used by ancient leaders to pray to Heaven for good harvests. Construction of the temple complex took place between 1406 to 1420, during the reign of Yongle, the same Ming emperor who was responsible for the construction of the Forbidden City (as mentioned above). The temple is made of up several royal altars to Heaven, represented by symbolic forces of nature, including the sun, the moon and earth. The Temple of Heaven is surrounded by gardens in which you will find senior citizens singing, dancing, and practising kung fu and tai chi during the morning hours. Those who appreciate nature can view lines of century-old Chinese cypresses and juniper trees, some as old as 600 years.
The Summer Palace
The north-east of the city boasts one of Beijing’s finest sights, the Summer Palace: it is the largest royal garden in China covering over 10 square miles and was an imperial retreat. The Summer Palace is mainly comprised of Washoushan (known as Longevity Hill) and Kunming Lake. The imperial gardens capture the essence of Chinese garden arts. The site was added to the World Heritage List in 1998.
Climbing the Great Wall and enjoying the Beijing Opera are said to be part of a trio of must-do activities for visitors to the city. The third is not is not a landmark to visit, but an experience to be savoured: dining on Beijing duck! Also known as Peking duck, this is regarded as one of China’s national dishes; it is mostly crispy skin and thinly sliced duck which has been seasoned and roasted in a closed or hung oven. Some notable restaurants that serve Beijing duck are Qianman Quanjude in the Chongwen District, which was established in 1864, and Bianyifang, which was established in 1416, making it the oldest duck restaurant doing business in Beijing.
So, these are some of Beijings essential sights for visitors. For those who want to delve deeper into the life of the city, check out our recent blog posts (from Arrival in Beijing onwards) for a more personal perspective of Beijing.