What to see
Temple of Confucius
The Temple of Confucius (Běijīng Kǒngmiào) holds great importance in China as a place of worship throughout the period of the Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties. The temple is found on Beijing’s famous Guozijian Street, and was built towards the end of the Yuan dynasty in 1302 in honor of the great Chinese philosopher. The site was later expanded and now covers 20,000 square meters, with 4 main buildings and 4 separate courtyards. The Xianshi Gate, Dacheng Gate, Dacheng Hall and Chongshengci are all worth a visit. The temple is notable for the stone tablets inside which hold the names of scholars who passed the Imperial Examination, along with other collected items over the temple’s illustrious history. So if you’re looking to get a sense of Chinese history while enjoy peace and serenity, then the Temple of Confucius should be one of your first stops on your trip to Beijing.
Great Hall of the People
The Great Hall of the People (Rénmín Dàhuìtáng) is one of the Ten Great Constructions built in 1959 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Impressively, this monumental building was completed by volunteers in just 10 months. The Great Hall of the People houses the National’s People’s Congress (NPC), which is the highest legislative body in China. When it’s not in use, it’s open to tourists. Each of the 34 provinces, autonomous regions and special administrative regions of China have their own hall in the building, and it also houses awe-inspiring conference and dining rooms.
Prince Gong Mansion
West of the city center, on the north border of Shichahai Lake sits the Prince Gong Mansion (Gōng Wáng Fǔ), which features large siheyuan-style hunting mansions with spectacular gardens. It was built in 1777 during the Qing Dynasty. In 1851, the emperor Xianfeng gifted the mansion to his brother Prince Gong (Yìxīn), after whom the mansion is named. After the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1921, the mansion was taken under the auspices of the Order of Saint Benedict of the Catholic Church and was then used both as a university and a music academy. In 1982 it was declared a Major Historical and Cultural Site Protected at the National Level and its buildings and gardens were opened as the museum, as it still serves as today.
Temple of Heaven
The Temple of Heaven (Tiāntán) was built in 1420, during Emperor Yongle of the Ming Dynasty’s 18th year of rule, and was then expanded during the reign of Ming Emperor Jiajing, as well as Qing Emperor Qianlong. The temple itself is located in 273 hectares of grounds, and during the Ming and Qing Dynasties it would be used for harvest prayers. In 1918, the temple’s grounds were converted into a park, and since then it’s become one of the city’s most visited historical sites. The Temple of Heaven is divided into two sections by two walls – the inner alter and the outer alter. Perhaps the most interesting section of the temple is the magnificent Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. According to ancient Chinese beliefs, heaven is round while the earth is square, and this belief is reflected in the architecture of the temple, with the northern section being circular and the southern section square.
Set in a district of disused factories built by East Germany in the 1950s, 798 Art Zone is now a thriving center of art in Beijing, and full of fascinating art galleries. This collection of industrial buildings was constructed at the height of the Soviet regime and communism’s power, and you still see Maoist slogans and statues around the district. These huge factory buildings are now the workshops and galleries of Beijing’s art scene, and the multimedia instillations you’ll find there are particularly intriguing. There’s art on display in a whole range of mediums in 798 Art Zone, in its galleries, shops, cinemas and multi-purpose spaces, and is certainly one of the best places to get a feel for the city’s vibrant arts scene.
Old Summer Palace
Construction of the Old Summer Palace (Yuánmíng Yuán) began in 1707, in the northwestern part of the city. It holds a special place in Chinese history, though sadly it was burned to the ground in 1860 by invading French and British forces during the Second Opium War. This sacking and burning of the Old Summer Palace is seen by many history books as China’s most humiliating defeat. Among the best-preserved of the ruins which have survived to this day is the Haiyantang Fountain, which gives some idea of how grand the palace once was. The Imperial Gardens of the Old Summer Palace are also rather beautiful and consist of three distinct sections – the Garden of Perfect Brightness, the Garden of Eternal Spring, and the Elegant Spring Garden.
In the past, the Summer Palace (Yíhéyuán) is where the emperors would go to escape the city’s stifling heat during the summer months. The spectacular design, large lake and views of the surrounding hills are what make the Summer Palace stand out, and this is all added to by the palace’s charming rustic setting. Despite being expanded and improved throughout the 18th century, some parts of the palace were destroyed by the French and British forces during the Second Opium War which took place between 1856 and 1860. The palace itself is made up of towers, bridges and pavilions, all designed in a strikingly beautiful style, overlooking the huge lake below. If you’re interested in Chinese history, or just want to take some fantastic photographs, the Summer Palace is well worth visiting while in Beijing.
Right in the center of Beijing stands the Forbidden City, a complex of palaces which served as the seat of emperors for over 500 years and to which the public were forbidden from entering some time during the 1600s. In the northern part of the Forbidden City stands Jingshan Park (Jĭngshān Gōngyuán), spread over 23 hectares of open space. This was once the private garden of the emperors, but was later added to the grounds of the Forbidden City and opened to the public in 1928. The focal point of the park, the artificial Jingshan Hill, which has a history going back over 1,000 years. The hill was created during the rule of the Ming Dynasty, and stands at almost 46 meters tall, and was the product of the efforts of both man and beast. There are four other hills found in the Jingshan Park, each with an elegantly designed pavilion standing atop it. The park is the perfect place to take a leisurely stroll while in Beijing, so be sure to take the opportunity to visit.
Yonghe Temple (Yōnghégōng) is one of the most impressive Buddhist temples in Beijing, and indeed one of the city’s most popular tourist destinations. If you’re only going to see one temple while in Beijing, make sure this is it. Its curious roofing system, eye-catching murals, impressive arches, tapestries and incredible wood carvings make Yonghe Temple one of the city’s must-sees. It’s one of the most famous Tibetan Buddhist temples outside of Tibet, and it became a monastery after Emperor Yongzheng’s ascension to the throne in 1722. Today the monastery is used for worship and it also opens its doors to weary pilgrims travelling from afar. The street on which the temple stands is also often filled with pilgrims, and you’ll find Buddha statues, incense and other signs of the Buddhist faith lining it too.
The Forbidden City
Considered the heart of Beijing and surrounded by a 52-meter-wide moat, the Forbidden City (Zǐjinchéng) is China’s largest and best-preserved collection of historical buildings. As you enter through the huge entrance gate and walk out into the central courtyard, you’ll be surrounded by the structures which make up the Forbidden City, including halls, bridges, gates and gardens. Among the several grand exhibition halls is the Hall of Supreme Harmony, with its striking depictions of Chinese dragons. Within the Forbidden City, you’ll see gardens which reflect the Chinese art of gardening, particularly in the Imperial Garden, where you’ll also find stone walking paths, mansions and cypress trees which seem to have defied the ages. After living together for centuries, a rift began to emerge between the ideas of the imperial families and the people they ruled. It was for this reason that the wary emperor forbade the public to enter the 720,000 square meter area, for fear that he or his family might be assassinated. It wasn’t until 1949 that it would again be open to the people. The Forbidden City has been the subject of many films and novels, the best known of which is “The Last Emperor”, which portrays the life of the last Chinese emperor Pu Yi, and won no fewer than 9 Oscars. Visiting the Forbidden City today, you’ll still get a sense of its mystery along with a glimpse back into the country’s history.
What to eat
Peking duck (Běijīngkǎoyā) is a plucked duck is first covered with a warm, wet cloth, then with salt. Air is pumped under the duck’s skin to separate it from the flesh – this is the secret to making the skin really crispy. It’s stuffed with a mixture of hoisin sauce and spices, and the cavity is then sewn up with a skewer and the duck is left to hang. Meanwhile aromatic spices are added to a wok full of boiling water, which will used to tighten up the skin after it’s been hung for several hours. A mixture of honey and vinegar is used to make the glaze for the duck, and this is generously poured over it before being put in the oven. The roasted duck is served with cucumber, onions, hoisin sauce and thin pancakes to roll them all up in. It’s a classic Chinese dish, and extremely tasty, so be sure to try it while in Beijing.
In Chinese cooking culture, hot pot (huǒguō) is a two-chambered pot which somewhat resembles the Ying-Yang symbol is called a “hot pot”. When you order this dish, this pot will arrive at your table, along with the ingredients you’ll cook for yourself. A flame is placed under the pot, which is filled with stock, and all you have to do is throw in what you want, and wait for it to cook. There’s a range of things you’ll be able to cook in the hot pot, like fish, meat, poultry and vegetables – it’s up to you. You’ll find these hot pots are available in several Asian countries, and they’ve even become popular in the USA. It’s a really entertain feature of the countries culinary tradition, so go ahead and take a more hands-on approach to your dining in Beijing!