Things to do in Beijing

Must-see Beijing sights

Laid out in a grid-like style according to feng shui principles, Beijing is the ultimate Chinese city for spectacular historical sites. The country’s capital boasts palace complexes, sprawling lakes and narrow hutongs that provide an insight into the city’s rich history, with a renewed interest in traditional culture and entertainment in the likes of acrobatic shows and opera performances. But it's simultaneously a modern metropolis, with forward-thinking architecture spiking the skyline and a brewing hipster arts scene; needless to say, Beijing is a city of superlatives.

  1. Get lost in the Forbidden City
  2. See the sights in Tiananmen Square
  3. Take it easy in the Temple of Heaven
  4. Explore the hutongs
  5. Summer Palace
  6. 798 Art District

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1. Get lost in the Forbidden City

At the heart of the teeming metropolis of modern Beijing is the unmissable Forbidden City. It’s one of the world’s best-preserved and largest historical sites, a vast labyrinth of interconnected halls, chambers and courtyards. Preserved as a museum since the 1920s, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987, the Forbidden City is usually entered from the south. From Tiananmen Square proceed through Tiananmen Gate (under the Mao portrait) and walk across the large courtyard, divided by another gate (Duanmen), to reach the 35 metre-high (117ft) Wumen, where the ticket office is located. Take in the impressive Hall of Supreme Harmony, the largest building in the palace, and the splendid Palace of Heavenly Purity, where the female members of the imperial family largely resided.

Best for: Spending the best part of a day surrounded by imperial history.

Nearby: JingShan Park, south of the site, which gives great hilltop views back over the Forbidden City and beyond.

2. See the sights in Tiananmen Square

Steeped in political history, Tiananmen Square was quadrupled in size during the 1960s so that it could hold up to a million people. Needless to say it’s a sprawling site, with the Monument to the People’s Heroes obelisk, unveiled in 1958, standing in the centre of the square. Immediately west of the square is the imposing, Soviet-neoclassical style Great Hall of the People, where meetings of the People’s Congress take place; it’s open daily, except when a meeting is in session. Also worth checking out while you’re here is the Chairman Mao Mausoleum. People come here to pay their respects, filing past his embalmed body in its rose-hued glass enclosure. Queues can be lengthy for this rather dubious pleasure, so it’s best to arrive before 8am if you want to check out one of the slightly more unique things to do in Beijing.

Best for: An on-the-ground insight into the politics of Communist China.

Don’t miss: The green-suited guards marching across the square.

3. Take it easy in the Temple of Heaven

A superb specimen of Ming-dynasty design surrounded by pretty parkland, a visit to the Temple of Heaven is one of the best things to do in Beijing. Although it’s one of the most popular places to visit in the city, it retains a tranquil and quiet atmosphere, which is perfect if you’re looking to escape the manic pace in the rest of the city. As you pass amongst the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, Circular Mound Altar and Hall of Ceremonial Music and Palace of Abstinence (and others), you’ll pass people practicing martial arts, groups of elderly men with their caged singing birds and even perhaps one-on-one music lessons. Locals really know how to make the most of the secluded space here – it’s a perfect escape from the manic pace and din from the rest of the city centre.

Best for: A quieter side to Beijing

Don’t miss: The Imperial Vault of Heaven with its Echo Wall, a perfect whispering gallery (just make like the other tourists)

4. Explore the hutongs

Amongst the modern architecture and sprawling historic sites, you might wonder what to do in Beijing that tells you more about the locals traditional way of life. For anyone keen to gain a sense of Beijing’s past, a stroll through one of the city’s old hutong neighbourhoods is essential. A dwindling labyrinth inner core of crumbling old grey alleyways date back several centuries, hutongs are today fast disappearing to make way for roads and other buildings. However, there are a few you can still visit; the area around Houhai Lake is the most popular but therefore crowded, so nearby Nanluoguxiang is a better choice. The three-storey houses overlook the courtyards, hidden away and boxed in, and are themselves closed off with wooden gates with carved characters intended to bring good luck. No matter what Beijing holiday packages you’re considering, a visit to a hutong is a unique experience that’s worth experiencing in a fast-changing city – who knows how much longer they will last.

Best for: Seeing a fast-disappearing part of Chinese heritage.

Don’t miss: Don’t just take photos; buy something from the stalls or cafes to really support the locals who reside in the hutongs.

5. Summer Palace

Once the exclusive retreat of the emperors, the Summer Palace is a beautiful landscaped park, centred around peaceful Kunming Lake and dotted with imperial buildings. Many of the palaces are linked with the Qing dynasty’s Empress Dowager Cixi, but you don’t necessarily need a tour guide to fully appreciate the sight; check out the pagoda-studded heights of Wanshou Hills with views stretching off into the countryside, stroll over the picturesque Jade Belt Bridge and take in the lotus-filled ponds and bridge-connected pavilions in the Garden of Harmonious Pleasures.

Best for: A greener side of Beijing

Don’t miss: The ‘old summer palace’, in nearby Yuanming Yuan

6. 798 Art District

Also known as Dashanzi Art District, the 798 Art District is outside of the city centre, and more en route towards the airport. The district is a thriving community of contemporary artists, shops, studios and galleries great and small. This modern art movement has a hipster-like campus-feel to it, with tree-lined streets, wacky sculptures and graffiti. Although some argue that it’s become a little commercialised, it’s still an interesting way to get to the heart of Beijing’s creative sanctum; but with high-quality art comes, of course, equally high prices...

Best for: Hipsters

Don’t miss: One-of-a-kind art pieces

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