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Enter the Dragon: 10 Best Attractions to See in Beijing



The sprawling capital of China is knee-deep in history and is teaming with interesting things to gawk at, explore or poke around on.

You can admire sections the magnificent Great Wall of China right from your hotel room (check in Commune by the Great Wall), or have a bite of the curious dumplings and pancakes cooked by jolly aunties right by the street. You'll witness the grandeur of the imperial palace, praying sites and necropolis that had inspired numerous Chinese emperors or the liveliness in the buzzing maze of hutong alleyways, a lifestyle that's fast disappearing in modern China.

The Great Wall of China is the most astonishing site of all attractions. The wall itself was a symbol of power and might and represents the amazing organizational skills of the emperor's architects. You can visit the Wall either at the more touristy sections (Badaling, Juyongguan, Simatai and Mutianyu), or the unrestored wild sections off the beaten path (Huanghuacheng, Gubeikou, Jiankou).


The Forbidden City is also an astonishing feat of engineering. It was home to China's last 24 emperors during Ming and Qing Dynasty as they struggled from bad times to good and back again. Although the palace has been restored, you can see the magnificence it must have inspired in ancient eras. The Temple of Heaven and Summer Palace, likewise, inspire awe and wonder and lead any tourist to ponder the future world order when gazing at the organization of the Chinese past.



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Ming Tombs


 

Located about 50 kilometers northwest of Beijing city center, The Ming Dynasty Tombs are a must-do for history buffs. Spare at least half day touring this massive 40-square-kilometer necropolis, situated at the base of the delightfully named Mountain of Heavenly Longevity. A total of 13 emperors were buried here between 1409 and 1642 after the Ming Dynasty moved its government's seat from its original capital Nanjing in the south to Beijing. Three of the 13 tombs are open to the public, but only one, the Tomb of Emperor Wanli (Dingling), the 13th Ming emperor, has been fully excavated and laid out for visitors. Separate admission fees apply to each tomb, plus an additional charge for the Ming museum.


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Having occupied the former premises of an electronic factory in north-east Beijing since 2001, 798 houses a large number of art studios, design firms, fashion stores and is a pioneer in China's contemporary art scene. The 600,000-square-meter complex, also known as Dashanzi, is a world on its own, with modern graffiti painted near Cultural Revolution slogans and quirky, bright statues erected throughout the area. It's like an idealized and dramatized China. You can easily spend half day exploring Beijing's most artistic quarter. Among all the shops and galleries, Pace Beijing is one of the most popular stops. This 2,200-square-meter gallery is the Beijing branch of the New York-based Pace Gallery and is located inside a Bauhaus-style factory from the 1950s. The Ullens Center for Contemporary Art is another highlight. Founded by Belgian collectors Guy and Myriam, the space organizes Chinese contemporary art exhibitions regularly.


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Five year after the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, the sleek and modern Olympic facilities have become the city's hottest modern attractions. The main stadiums are in Chaoyang District in northern Beijing about 30 minutes drive from Tian'anmen Square. You can enter the Water Cube Swimming Center as a tourist for USD4.9; the 100,000-seat National Stadium, or the Bird's Nest, is open to public at USD8 per person; or just stand outside to marvel the two stadiums' impressive architectural feats. They cost more than USD 490 million to build. North of the two stadiums is the 6.8-square-kilometer Olympic Forest Park. The 6.8-square-kilometer park is a true gem of nature within the city.


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Xi Cheng District
Bei Hai Gongyuan


 

Beihai is one of the loveliest open spaces in Beijing and is only a relaxing retreat away from the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. Stroll through it, you'll see a different side of Beijing featuring taichi-practicing grandpas, red fan-dancing aunties and boat-rowing couples. Most of this huge and refreshing park is taken up by Beihai Lake which hosts ice skaters in the winter and pedal boats during the other seasons. Located on the site of a 12th-century palace, many of the structures in the park are reconstructions of originals dating from the 15th to the 17th centuries. Beihai Park is notable for the Round City, a palace established by the Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan (1214-94). At the heart of Beihai Lake is the Qiong Island, a manmade hill that affords panoramic views over the Forbidden City.


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Temple of Heaven Park
Photo courtesy of Temple of Heaven


 

For about 500 years from the 15th to 19th century, the Chinese emperors would lead processions on every winter solstice to the Temple of Heaven to perform rites and make sacrifices for the God of Heaven in order to be blessed with a fortunate coming year and a big harvest. Head to the magnificent site, situated five kilometers south of the Forbidden City, to reminisce the once powerful and spiritual Chinese empire. There are a number of structures within the park, such as the Imperial Vault of Heaven and the Circular Altar, but the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is the centerpiece as this was where the ritual of praying took place. The the 38-meter-tall three-tier building is a true architectural gem. The roofs are covered with blue crystal glasses and observe it from inside, you'll notice that not a single crossbeam was used during construction.


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Summer Palace


 

Situated in northwestern Beijing, the UNESCO World Heritage site was first built in 1750 as the imperial garden of the Qing emperors. After it was destroyed by the English and French armies in 1860, Dowager Empress Cixi shelled out a fortune to have it rebuilt as her retirement home. Largely composed by the Wanshou Mountain in the north and Kunming Lake in the south, the 70,000-square-meter park represents the epitome of Chinese garden building. Man-made architecture and natural landscape echoed with each other in a state-of-the-art fashion. Taking a boat on Kunming Lake is an ideal activity for a family day out.


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Hutong is the traditional form of residence of Beijingers. Dating back for nearly a century, these tiny alleyways are becoming an attraction of on their own right as they are fast disappearing due to urbanization. A typical Hutong usually stands about five meters wide (though some can be extremely narrow) and is flanked with courtyard houses shared by multiple families with a common open yard in the center. This is the place to experience Beijing's friendliness, vibrancy and livelihood. Try picturing vest-sporting grandpas exchange notes on petting birds, formidable cyclists whiz through the passage way full speed on a communist-era two wheel while chatty aunties arrange pink lady hangouts by visiting the local fruit and veg vendors. The best hutongs to explore include the buzzing and commerialized Nanluoguxiang and the more hipster and offbeat Baochao Hutong.


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Qianmen District
Tiananmen Square

 

Every day, thousands of visitors descend on the Tian'anmen Square from all parts of China to feel the country's beating heart. And of course to snap a selfie. The largest plaza in the world, the 440,000-square-meter complex was the gateway into China's last imperial palace The Forbidden City, through Gate of Heavenly Peace, which is situated on the northern side of the square. It's also where Mao Zedong announced the founding of People's Republic of China in 1949. The square is flanked with the most important buildings in Communist China, including the Great Hall of the People on the west, National Museum of China on the east, Mausoleum of Mao Zedong on the south and The Monument of People's Heroes in the middle. When you're tired of roaming around the square, find a spot to sit down and simply enjoy people-watching in the world's most populous country.


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The Forbidden City


 

Occupying roughly 72,3600 square meters in size, the yellow-roofed and red-walled Forbidden City is the largest wooden palace in the world and was home to the last 24 emperors of China in the past 500 years. Today, the magnificent complex houses the Palace Museum, the top destination to find the best artistic treasure of imperial China. Founded in 1925, the palace contains 1,052,653 pieces of exhibits including the 528-centimeter-long masterpiece painting Along the River During the Qingming Festival as well as the emperor's stamp made with sandalwood. All items are displayed in various imperial halls, from the Empress's bed chamber to the Emperor's office.


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The formidable fortification is what makes a journey to China complete. The fortress spans a total length of 8,851.8 kilometers, snaking from the country's eastern coast deep into the Gobi Dessert, but the Wall near the capital are the most visited and best revamped sections. Officially, there are four stretches of the wall that travelers can access: Badaling and Juyongguan northwest of Beijing, Simatai north of Beijing and Mutianyu northeast of Beijing. They add up to about 30 kilometers in length. However, there has been a growing interest among tourists to see the Wall in its natural decaying status (though the Chinese government doesn't encourage tourists to do so). The most popular sections of "wild Great Wall" are Huanghuacheng, Jiankou and Gubeikou.


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Meet Tracy You Xiaoying

Tracy You Xiaoying is a bilingual journalist based in the United Kingdom. She writes culture, travel and lifestyle articles about China and Britain in English and Chinese.

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