Beijing has been China’s cultural and political centre for two millennia, and many of the great relics have survived the myriad wars and changes of power. As a result it has a number of world-class sites including Peking Man, the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, the Summer Palace, the Temple of Heaven and the Imperial Tombs – all are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Of course, you won’t be able to visit all of these during your first few months, but take the time to check out a few while you’re new. It will spark your interest in the city and provide a nice distraction from the stress of dealing with real estate agents.
In addition to being the home of some of the world’s great historical sites, Beijing has a booming art scene, highlighted by the 798 District in Lido and the National Art Museum. The China Science and Technology Museum is also a must for families. One of the highlights for expats visiting Beijing has always been the old hutong neighborhoods, which are sadly disappearing fast to make way for modern development.
The Great Wall of China
The Great Wall is one of the wonders of the world and the jewel in the crown of all tourist sights in China. It consists of a series of stone and earth fortifications built over hundreds of years in northern China. The original sections were built, rebuilt and maintained between the fifth century BC and the 16th century AD to protect the northern borders of the Chinese empire from Mongols and other nomads during various successive dynasties. Little of the original wall remains, however, and the majority of the existing structure was built during the Ming Dynasty.
It takes between one and three hours to reach the Great Wall, depending on which part you prefer to visit. The most accessible part of the wall is Badaling, although it’s extremely commercialized. If you’re up for a more rugged and beautiful hike, the best way to experience the Great Wall is to hike the section between Simaitai and Jinshanling. The 10 km trek takes about four hours at a comfortable pace (including photo stops), and reveals some of the grandest views in all of China. For a rewarding Wall visit, go with one of the many tour companies, such as China International Tour Service or Great Wall Adventure.
The Forbidden City
A massive enclosed palace, the Forbidden City was the exclusive residence of the last 24 emperors of China over a period of almost 500 years. At the beginning of the Ming Dynasty in the 15th century, when the capital was moved to Beijing, the emperor Yongle built the ultimate home for the ‘Son of Heaven’, a home which it took nearly a million workers 14 years to construct. Commoners were not allowed to enter what was then considered the centre of the universe. The Forbidden City runs 960 metres north to south and 750 metres east to west. It takes several hours to visit the myriad temples, gardens and halls, many of which display beautiful artifacts of Chinese antiquity. Be sure to get off the main tourist drag through the centre to find a bit of solace and the space to truly appreciate one of the world’s great spectacles of grandeur.
The Old Summer Palace (Yuanmingyuan)
The Old Summer Palace once rivalled Versailles in scope and opulence. However, its glory came to an abrupt end 150 years ago when it was destroyed and pillaged by French and British troops, which burned it to the ground during the Second Opium War. The Chinese originally preserved the ruins as a symbol of the suffering caused by foreign aggression, and it remains a beautiful and interesting place to visit. A full day can be spent walking around the park and maze, and there are plenty of quiet areas to rest and picnic. The overall feel of the Summer Palace is a special one: pagodas and temples perch on hillsides and rowboats glide under bridges and slide past willows. It’s open year-round, but definitely something to save for a nice day.
Beihai Park and the Hutongs
Before Beijing was a 21st-century megalopolis with thousands of glass towers and apartment blocks, people lived in hutong communities. Most of them have been leveled in the name of development over the past 50 years, but several original communities still exist around Beihai Park, which is a great destination in its own right. Beijing’s hutongs are a sprawl of narrow alleys and courtyards, small shops and single-floor family homes. The city’s residents regard them as one of Beijing’s defining characteristics, and they have represented the heart and soul of the city for centuries. Strolling through the hutongs is a pleasant and culturally engaging experience. It’s an excellent way to get a glimpse of traditional Chinese life and a feel for what Beijing used to be.