The ancient heart of the People’s Republic of China, Beijing literally means ‘the northern capital.’ All aspects of Chinese life from commerce to culture to politics, at some time or another, must cross this rapidly modernizing city.
By the numbers
Population: 21,700,000 (city); 24,900,000 (metropolitan )
Elevation: 43.5 meters / 142.7 feet
Time Zone: GMT+8; China Standard Time (CST)
Average Annual Rainfall: 57.2 centimeters / 22.5 inches
Average January Temperature: -8.4°C / 16.9°F
Average July Temperature: 22°C / 71.6°F
Did you know?
Beijing’s Forbidden City is the largest palace complex in the world, with 980 different buildings.
Mao’s Mausoleum, which houses the preserved body of Chairman Mao, also contains an exact replica of the Great Helmsman’s corpse made entirely of wax.
To the first-time visitor, Beijing seems a vast and sprawling city. It is characterized by long, wide boulevards and a labyrinthine network of overpasses and freeways that comprises six ring roads.
Fortunately, there is order in the chaos. At the heart of Beijing lies the Forbidden City, the absolute center of the capital, from where the ring roads emanate in concentric circles. First Ring Road surrounds the former imperial complex and land that is now mostly parks and museums. More important to travellers is navigating the Second and Third Ring Roads. Second Ring Road was built where Beijing’s ancient city walls once stood, and the old city is comprised within, including the districts of Dong Cheng, Xi Cheng, Chong Wen and Xuan Wu. The area within Third Ring Road is also considered the center of the town where the most concentrated portion of public transit exists, including Chao Yang and Hai Dian districts. The fourth, fifth and sixth rings are useful for commuting to the airport, university and technology districts, and outlying suburbs.
There are 16 urban districts and two rural counties in Beijing municipality proper, with each district containing distinctive neighbourhoods. Most areas of interest are in the eastern Chao Yang and central Dong Cheng and Xi Cheng districts.
Dong Cheng District, with Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and Mao’s Mausoleum within its boundaries, is one of the most visited places in Beijing. Not surprisingly, major hotels such as the Grand Hotel Beijing are found here. Dong Cheng is the district where many of Beijing’s distinctive neighbourhoods are found, including Wang Fu Jing Shopping District, the area surrounding the Drum Tower and Yong He Gong Lama Temple.
Wang Fu Jing
This is Beijing’s premier shopping area. It is partially closed to cars and crowded at all times of the day and night. The wide, sprawling central street is a showcase the best of Beijing’s commercial success. Stop off at the Beijing Foreign Language Bookstore to pick up a Chinese dictionary or the latest bestseller. Dip into Sun Dong An Plaza, Beijing’s mammoth shopping mall, to browse the big name labels that are feeling more at home in China. Feeling peckish? Try some deep-fried scorpion or other heavily spiced oddities on a stick at the Wang Fu Jing Night Market. If the idea of chomping on insects does not appeal, try upscale dining at one of several four- and five-star hotels in the area such as Huang Ting in the Peninsula Hotel for a taste of traditional Beijing cuisine.
Chao Yang District
As the most concentrated commercial and residential area in Beijing, Chao Yang offers many areas of interest for visitors. Within this district are Chao Yang Park, the San Li Tun diplomatic and nightlife area, and the Jian Guo Men and Ri Tan business and embassy districts. Chao Yang is also home to Beijing’s pulsing artistic community, Da Shan Zi, which grew out of an abandoned factory. Outer Jian Guo Men and Ri Tan You will always see a wide mix of international faces here: tourists, business-people and locals. The main street, Jian Guo Men Wai Avenue, is a mad hustle of people, cars and vendors selling everything from pirated CDs to rickshaw rides. There are many major hotels and office buildings in the area, including the massive China World Hotel, where the fabulous restaurant and wine bar Aria is located. Tourists can try their hand at bargaining at the ever-crowded Silk Alley. Just a few blocks away, however, one can find peace and quiet in the graceful tree-lined streets of the embassy area and in the serene Ri Tan Park.
San Li Tun
Originally the embassy district, San Li Tun is home to some of the best of Beijing’s nightlife. This is a loosely designated area of bars and pubs with San Li Tun North and South Streets at its heart. With the reconstruction efforts for the Olympics, the actual street and its many fabulous bars and restaurants have shifted, much to the confusion of return visitors to Beijing. Besides the ubiquitous cafes and bars, you will also find numerous boutiques selling everything from framed prints to Tibetan handicrafts and clothes. The lending library and gourmet cafe Bookworm is one of the unofficial community centres of the international community here, as well as home to an annual literary festival. Nighttime always reveals the decadent side of San Li Tun. Bar and club goers can start out the night at Q Bar for top-notch cocktails, and then head to VICS.
Chao Yang Park
The expansive Chao Yang Park rivals San Li Tun for nightlife fun. Upscale bars, pubs, restaurants and shops have recently located here, catering to Beijing the relaxed community of young families that centres itself near the park. Legendary staples like Annie’s Italian Cafe have been in Beijing long enough to achieve institution-status. World class clubs can be found within the park, such as 1920s Shanghai-flavoured World of Suzie Wong Club and the ultra fashionable Block 8. During the 2008 Summer Olympics Chao Yang Park was the venue for the volleyball competition.
Da Shan Zi
The Bauhaus-inspired factories and workshops of Da Shan Zi once produced the audio equipment for the Workers’ Stadium, and Tiananmen Square, now they house tinkering sculptors, paint-smudged artists and lots of space to display the energies of Beijing’s avant-garde art community. Central to Da Shan Zi is 798 Space where events, fashion shows, and exhibitions are often held. If you are in Beijing in October, they also host the most outstanding Halloween party in town. The former factory grounds are open to the public free of charge and offer a campus-like feeling with quiet, tree-lined paths, creative whimsy and plenty of galleries to see artistic history in the making.
Xicheng covers a great deal of the old city. It is just west of the Forbidden City and epitomizes the blending of an old and new China. Once the home of wealthy merchants and people loosely associated with the court, it is now considered the cultural, historical, business, financial, and political district of Beijing. The financial and commercial districts, centered at Jinrong Jie, are located here. For the ultimate experience of Old Beijing visit Bei Hai, Beijing’s oldest park, dating back to the 10th century. The Hou Hai area offers entertainment and dining (Beijing punk made its early debut here) and is also the gateway to Beijing’s famous hutongs, an architect’s delight. For good drinks and music visit the East Shore Live Jazz Cafe or the Buddha Bar.
Chong Wen District
Located in the south of the city, this is a long-established commercial area, selling everything from eyeglasses to sporting goods. Check out the Qian Men Shopping Area for some of Beijing’s oldest stores. The area is also worth visiting to see the beautiful Temple of Heaven and the Hong Qiao Market a treasure-trove of objects both banal and bizarre. The open markets still capture some of the Old Beijing atmosphere and are fun for browsing even if you are not shopping.
Feng Tai District
This southwest district Beijing houses the Yangtai Sports Center where the Olympic softball tournament was held. Mainly an industrial area, there are several cultural and historical sites worth visiting, such as the Beijing Air and Space Museum, Feng Tai Park and Marco Polo Bridge.
Hai Dian District
This northwestern part of the city is also known as the university district. Along with Beijing University and Qinghua University, who compete to be China’s top school, there are ten major national universities within a 4-mile (6.43 kilometre) radius. Owing to the youthful student population, this area has a reputation for being hip and full of cheap eats and dive bars. Hai Dian district is also designated a high-technology zone, so this is where you will find start-ups and high tech companies, such as Sohu and Google’s China headquarters. Interesting shopping can be found along Chengfu Road. Check out the old map section in 02 Sun Bookstore or get an incredible chocolate confection at Awfully Chocolate. The Summer Palace , a World Heritage site, and Ruins of the Old Summer Palace , or Yuan Ming Yuan, are also in Hai Dian.
Xi Dan and Xuan Wu
Like Wang Fu Jing, these areas are known largely for their shopping. While the former is a place to be seen, Beijingers shop in Xi Dan and Xuan Wu. In imperial times Xuan Wu was home to the lower classes unconnected to court life. After the republic was established, it became known as “Little Lanzhou” because the large number of Hui or Uighur families, restaurants and shops here. Browse the small shops and stalls for bargains on clothing, shoes and CDs. Shopping centres here include Parksons and the Xi Dan Department Store.
Dining and drinking
Beijing offers a staggering supply of places to eat, drink and be merry, and the number only continues to grow. As capital, the cosmopolitan flavours available should not be shocking except to those who remember the days when choices were limited to incredibly sumptuous Peking duck banquets or greasy attempts at Western cookery. How times have changed.
Chinese cuisine is a regional affair. Southwestern Sichuanese food is notoriously spicy, Cantonese food includes dishes familiar to the west but best known for unusual ingredients combined in absolutely inspirational fashion. Northern Chinese cuisine includes Mongolian hotpot and plenty of lamb. Beijing specialties include imperial delicacies (think Peking duck) but also the everyday cuisine of the lao bai xing or regular folks not connected to the court. North China eats more wheat than rice, as is reflected in the delicious and cheap snacks widely available. Breakfast items such as dou zhi with you tiao, or warm fermented meng bean milk (not unlike soy milk) with an unsweetened Chinese style doughnut, also make an excellent midnight snack. Steamed baozi and jiaozi are two kinds of meat or vegetable dumplings within a doughy wrap. Chinese style crepes with scallions, or you bing are also a popular, widely available, and cheap.
If you are ready for a different flavour, there is not shortage of international cuisine from any part of the globe, including a number of cozy Western comfort food stops of increasing quality. Just about every kind of food in Asia is available, as is a great variety of Russian staples.
You will find most of the city’s restaurants in east and central Beijing, in the Chao Yang and Dong Cheng districts, respectively. Due to the wealth on offer, it is not possible to cover them all here. However, the places in the following areas are highly recommended.
Chao Yang District
Anything you want to eat is found here. For Chinese cuisine try Green T. House, with its devotion to taking the culinary history of China to a new level. Craving Peking roast duck? Beijing Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant, with its long standing popularity, will surly provide you with the experience you seek. Chinese dumplings reach their height at Bao Yuan Jiaozi Wu. What about Japanese? Try Hatsune with its plethora of fresh sashimi and delectable rolls. There is also Brasserie Flo, the famous French restaurant which is as close to Paris as you can get in Beijing. An evening at Lan will not soon be forgotten with its scrumptious cuisine and decadent decor. Vegetarians will be delighted by the Lotus in Moonlight. The ultra hip can cool down over a shaved ice desert at Bellagio. It has been unofficially agreed that a visit to Taj Pavillion is an integral part of a journey through Beijing. Although the selection of native beer in China may be on the light side, good selections of Belgian beers can be found at both Tree and Schiller’s. The truly chic martini lounge Centro is a place to see and be seen as well as enjoy a chocolate martini with some live jazz.
Chao Yang Park
This once humble park is rapidly becoming one of the hippest spots for dining and drinking. Beijing’s favorite Italian restaurant, Annie’s, can also be found here. For new interpretations on Chinese classics give the cozy Andie Anniang a try. French inspired authentic Vietnamese has found a home at Muse. If you would like to sample an imperial style meal, reserve a private room at Summer House. Their meals fit budgets from affordable to royal, and are truly a one of a kind experience. The evening destination Ultra-i not only has regular events but also an interesting drinks menu.
San Li Tun
The cozy cafe in The Bookworm, offers delicious dining and excellent atmosphere for conversation. For something more sophisticated try the award winning Morel’s where you can get some of the best Belgian food and beer in town. If you are looking for upscale Thai cuisine, try Purple Haze, the much talked about restaurant and bar that has received honorable mention from several different Beijing city guides. A late night pizza carving will meet its match at the Kro’s Nest. Any place on San Li Tun Bar Street is good for a drink, but for those who want more ambiance with their beer, Havana Cafe is alive with Cuban rhythms and beats. Q Bar, the bar sporting Beijing’s best cocktails, can also be found here. With so much to choose from picking the perfect drink is a difficult task so don’t limit yourself to one. A drinking tour through San Li Tun is best ended at Rickshaw, where it does not matter the hour, breakfast is served all day. If you seek a place to dance and drink, VICS by the Workers Stadium offers patrons space to do both. Speaking of space, long time Beijing nightspot Public Space is still going strong.
Jian Guo Men Wai & Ri Tan
From fast food to fine dining, this area has it all. Naturally, you will find the standard Pizza Hut, McDonald’s and Starbucks franchises. For those who want more variety, Mexican Wave, an expat favorite, serves decent Tex-Mex. For Chinese food at affordable prices and in a romantic courtyard atmosphere, the Xi He Ya Ju Restaurant near Ri Tan Park is an excellent choice. Also located near the park is the fabulous Schindler’s Tankstelle, a which serves delicious cold beers and tasty German food you won’t get anywhere else. If you are craving wood-fired pizza, then Adria is the spot to head towards. Tradition and comfort are taken to new heights at Xiao Wang’s, where classic Northern Chinese flavour dominates the menu.
Northeast Third Ring Road
This area is renowned for its plentiful restaurants. For those who crave Thai but are on a budget, the Asian Star is a good bet. You can also sample a variety of Chinese, Indian and Malaysian dishes here. For American food with hearty servings, T.G.I. Fridays is hard to beat. For something out of the ordinary try Whale Inside for a meal in the dark! Dining at the Chapter at the Conrad Hilton is an incredibly pleasing experience, and promises a captivating epicurean journey.
Dong Cheng District
With many different styles of restaurants from east to west, this part of town is yet another of Beijing’s culinary treasures. For classic and delicious Chinese fare order yourself a hot pot at Ding Ding Xiang. Their sesame sauce will be hard to forget. Looking for a place to take a date? Rain Club offers fresh cuisine straight from their own garden made to order while Waiting for Godot is a cafe and meeting ground only possible in Beijing. For dinner accompanied by Beijing style live theatre head to East is Red for a musical supper. Within the twists and turns of the hutongs here, folks on foot often find themselves at Pass By Bar for either a meal or a drink. With an extended library of titles and a lovely courtyard, it is easy to see why.
Wang Fu Jing
Dining in Wang Fu Jing is akin to shopping here, with the high class selection, everything looks fabulous, but after awhile, it also begins to look the same. Several of the hotels have restaurants with excellent reputations and well known chefs. Jing in the Peninsula is just one example. If you are feeling adventurous, you are in for a treat at the Dong An Night Market, where traditional night market foods (i.e., fried or grilled and eaten off a kebab stick) are served up every night. This may be your best chance to try garlic fried scorpion, or indulge in chili covered grasshoppers with a chaser of roasted squid. Not feeling THAT adventurous? Then try the sweat pasty desert served from a dragon kettle.
Xi Dan & Xuan Wu
For Peking Duck, you cannot go wrong at any one of the Quan Ju De Roast Duck Restaurant branches in the city. But for sheer opulence, try the flagship branch on Qian Men Avenue. For a total tea experience accompanied by healthy organic food try out Geng Xiang Shi Fu. Jin Yang Restaurant offers a unique dining experience as the restaurant is over 100 years old, an elegant rarity in Beijing.
Xi Cheng and Hou Hai
Lotus Lane at the entrance to Hou Hai sports an ever changing make up of small restaurants and bars. Some of the music venues here are the best places to hear live music in Beijing. Within the immediate area are also some of Beijing’s oldest and most reputed restaurants, such as Hong Bin Lou, at over 100 years old and serving traditional Hui cuisine, it is not to be missed. The Beijing opera star Mei Lan Fang used to live here, and his home is now the excellent Mei Mansion restaurant, serving imperial style cuisine. Zhejiang cuisine reaches inspirational levels at Kong Yi Ji. A dinner here may inspire you to rethink your travel plans and dip down to see the southern province that inspired the food. If you are looking for a more quiet location on your night out, try Taozhi Yaoyao for a special spot with a particularly traditional feeling. Guangfuguan Greenhouse was originally a Taoist temple complex. As a bar and music spot, it is especially wonderful on a warm summer evening.
Hai Dian District
To fit the student budget, there are many cheap “hole-in-the-wall” style establishments that serve some of the best Chinese food in town. Wu Dao Kou, known as Korea Town, has many small, authentic Korean restaurants catering to the large, Korean student population. If you want to eat like the locals and love Korean barbecue, Han Na Shan is an absolute must. Vegetarians can eat to their hearts content at Buddhist-run Still Thoughts. To try unique regional cuisine from Shandong head to Feng Ze Yuan Fanzhuang. For an extra treat reserve one of their 17 private rooms for a party. Old school and always open, Lush is a bar, a 24 hour restaurant, a music venue, and just about anything else you might want it to be, just as long as you ask. Part of the punk legend of Beijing, D-22 serves up plenty to drink.
Beijing’s cultural canvass is painted by a legacy of longstanding traditions and regional art that developed over several dynasties and centuries, although new and modern facets of culture keep making their way into its rich tapestry. It is no surprise then, that Beijing’s entertainment realm is balanced by an impressive slew of options for the curious visitor, from a wealth of galleries, museums and cultural venues, to a fervent nightlife.
Beijing has a flourishing art scene. Contemporary painting enjoys a certain popularity in the city’s art galleries. For modern exhibitions, try the China Art Gallery. The Da Shan Zi art district centres at 798 Space and the 798 Red T Space, a must see for art lovers. Internationally recognized Ullens Center for Contemporary Art has regular exhibitions. Photography buffs should check out the Three Shadows Art Centre, the first gallery in China exclusively devoted to photography. You will also find traditional art, such as landscape painting and calligraphy, but this work often tends to be overlooked in favour of more modern styles. If you are visiting Beijing during September be sure not to miss the annual art events Art Beijing and the Da Shan Zi International Art Festival where you can see the works of cutting edge artists from all over the world. Dangdai International Art Festival is also held in the fall and features a new theme each year. Closer to the center of town are BANG Beijing Art Now Gallery and Red Gate Gallery. For a pleasant day trip visit the Song Zhuang Art Community’s Artists Village Gallery.
Designed to expose foreigners to Chinese cinema, Cherry Lane Movies features Chinese films subtitled in English. Alternatively, why not join an eclectic audience at the Sculpting In Time Cafe and catch a subtitled foreign film on movie nights. If you are willing to stray from the city center, you can also visit the China National Film Museum. This enormous 63-acre (25-hectare) museum is truly a film buffs fantasy, featuring 20 permanent collections and 1,500 films.
The city of Beijing has played host to various international dance troupes such as the Joffrey Ballet. The Central Ballet is the premier ballet company of China and gives annual performances of Western classics such as Swan Lake. Venues for these performances include the Poly Plaza International Theatre and the brand new National Center for the Performing Arts.
Beijing offers a full quota and wide diversity of museums—some museums are educational, such as the Beijing Museum of Natural History (infamous for its pickled human specimens!) and the high-tech Beijing Air and Space Museum. For those eager to learn more about Chinese history and culture, visit historical museums such as the Confucian Temple and the Former Residence of Soong Ching Ling. For the ultimate history lesson, though, venture over to the Forbidden City where the Palace Museum resides. Once the home of the emperors, this gigantic museum is the largest in China, featuring a collection so vast that it cannot all be seen in one day. The National Museum of Modern Chinese Literature houses folios, manuscripts and photographs in a variety of languages and holds regular exhibitions. The Beijing World Art Museum houses a fantastic old and new technology collection and some black and white Picasso prints.
Classical music concerts are held at various locations in Beijing. The most impressive auditorium is the Beijing Concert Hall which seats up to 1,000 people. The upscale Century Theatre is another major venue for a classical music fix. Various hotels across the city, such as the Palace Hotel and Jianguo Hotel also host soothing musical performances. For a taste of local culture, try the San Wei Bookstore and enjoy traditional Chinese music played with such instruments as the erhu and pipa. Cultural complex Imperial Granary has transformed a district of ancient buildings into concert and theatre space that is often used for small non-traditional music and performance art.
Music is everywhere in Beijing. Big international names often perform at the MAO Livehouse and Workers’ Stadium. For those interested in alternative music, D-22 hosts both national and international acts by popular and up and coming artists. Across from the Workers Stadium is live music venue Yu Gong Yi Shan, often featuring exciting acts. Live jazz has also found a few welcoming homes in Beijing. In Qian Hai check out the East Shore Live Jazz Cafe or in San Li Tun the Japanese Restaurant and jazz club Jazz Ya.
The city has a burgeoning nightclub scene that caters for all tastes. Most clubs are concentrated in the downtown area but you will find a few in the Hai Dian student district as well. Downtown clubs are naturally more expensive but they have a slicker atmosphere. Club Nightman and Destination cater to an underground gay scene. The Kai Club hosts music for a young hip crowd playing indie and electronic music. For those who want to groove to South American sounds, drop in to Havana Cafe has a live band and offers salsa dance lessons. Conversely, the chic and trendy loft Lan, and the incredible World of Suzie Wong Club have raised nighttime decadence to new heights! Also inside Chaoyang Park is the ever eventful Block 8.
Characterized by vivid costuming, face make-up and a vocal pitch akin to caterwauling, this traditional form of performance art dates back to the 16th century. Beijing Opera proves extremely popular with tourists and is performed in various tea houses and theaters such as Lao She Tea House and Liyuan Theater. You will enjoy the experience more if you make sure to see a piece that features subtitles.
Touring this ancient city is one way to travel back in time as well as experience the transformation of modern Beijing.
The Great Wall
Without a doubt, the Great Wall is one of the most amazing structures ever built. Seen from a distance, the Wall is an awesome spectacle, snaking across the hills of northern China seemingly without end. The Wall stretches from Shan Hai Guan Pass on the east coast to the Jia Yu Guan Pass in the Gobi Desert, far to the west. Originally built 2,000 years ago during the Qin Dynasty (221-207 BC), the Wall was designed to keep out foreign invaders—in which capacity it succeeded at times and failed at others. Constructed with beacon towers, it also served as an enemy alert system by using smoke systems to warn of approaching enemies. In peacetime, the Wall has proved useful as a highway, transporting people and supplies over large distances. Most stretches of the Wall close to Beijing were rebuilt or fortified during the Ming Dynasty. Of the eight sites of the Great Wall, there are four sections near Beijing open to tourists: Badaling, Mutianyu, Huanghuacheng and Simatai. The majority of visitors see Badaling, which at a distance of 70 kilometres (44 miles) is relatively close to the city. Restored in 1957, Badaling is the most commercial section of the Wall and comes with such modern conveniences as restaurants and a cinema. Here you can also visit the Great Wall Museum to acquaint yourself more with this historical marvel. Mutianyu, 90 kilometres (55 miles) from Beijing, is the second site of the wall open to tourists and is also fairly commercial. For those who want to see the Great Wall in an unspoiled state, Simatai is the place to go. You can spend an enjoyable day hiking there and the site is quieter and less crowded than Badaling or Mutianyu. Although both peaceful and beautiful, Simatai is also a physical challenge. Some parts of the wall are very steep and can be dangerous so it is best not to go alone. Wear sturdy shoes and keep your hands free.
Forbidden City (Gu Gong)
Home to two dynasties, the Ming and the Qing, the Forbidden City was constructed in the 15th Century and was home to about 24 emperors. Under the reign of Yong Le of the Ming Dynasty, the construction of the Imperial Palace complex required the effort of a million labourers. Most of the buildings have been rebuilt or restored as the originals were destroyed during the tumultuous events of recent Chinese history. Many people choose to join the tours that start at Tiananmen Gate. Others sign up for the self-guided audio tour. Located inside is the Palace Museum, where you will see various grand temples and halls but the main highlights are the Three Great Halls and the Hall of Supreme Harmony. The latter hall was traditionally the most important structure used for imperial ceremonies such as the Emperor’s birthday. Immediately surrounding the outer walls of the Forbidden City to the north and west are two ancient parks. Zhong Shan Park to the west offers paddle boats for hire, which make a fun way to view the outer walls of the palace from its former moat. Behind the palace is Jing Shan Park and Bei Hai Park. Jing Shan was created as a quarry for stone during the construction of the palace and now serves as a peaceful outdoor retreat for Beijingers. It is also the site where the Ming Dynasty came to an end. Bei Hai holds some incredible traditional gardens and the Mao Ying White Stupa, constructed in part by Genghis Khan’s tolerance for many faiths. On an island within the park is the famous Fangshan Restaurant, where Empress Dowager Ci Xi once enjoyed 112-course meals. Mere mortals and tourists can try out imperial style cuisine in the opulent halls if they make reservations. Continuing through Bei Hai Park it is possible to walk to Hou Hai lake district’s Lotus Lane. Or, if you have not yet gotten a sense of Old Beijing, head to the Beijing Museum of Ancient Architecture, which elaborates on the the achievements of the tradition of unique Chinese architecture. The Wang Fu Jing Shopping District is a short walk up Riverside Street from here.
Directly in front of Tiananmen Gate, the traditional entrance to the Forbidden City, is Tiananmen Square, a fitting symbol of China’s recent history. It was from the Tiananmen Gate the Mao Ze Dong declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949. The square was designed as a military parade ground, similar to Red Square in Moscow. In the center of the square is the Monument to the People’s Heroes, with representations of the workers, labourers, soldiers and farmers who participated in the revolution. To the east of the square is the Great Hall of the People where the Communist Party Politburo meets. Mao’s Mausoleum is also located within the square, where the Great Helmsman’s body lays on display, dimly lit in a crystal coffin. Directly behind the Mausoleum is the ancient Zheng Yang Men Gate and across the street is Qian Men. These two gates were the original entrance to the now gone cloistered warren that surrounded the Forbidden City, filled with servants to the court. Continue walking past Qian Men and enter Beijing’s oldest shopping district, Qian Men Walking Street, which received a facelift shortly before the 2008 Olympics. Some of Beijing’s oldest shops and well-reputed restaurants are found here. Particularly of note are the tea shops.
Temple of Heaven (Tian Tan)
The Temple of Heaven was built during the Ming Dynasty and was considered sacred until the end of the dynastic era. The Emperor would perform ceremonial rites here to ensure a good harvest. This place is also remarkable for its outstanding architecture and is located within the grounds of the Beijing Museum of Ancient Architecture and the Beijing Museum of Natural History. The upper parts of the temples are circular while the base is square (reflecting the traditional Chinese belief that heaven is round and the earth square). Next venture to the most significant Tibetan Buddhist temple outside Tibet itself, the Lama Temple – a beautiful structure containing a massive statue of Buddha carved from sandalwood (the largest such statue in the world). This temple has a rich and turbulent history, having survived wars, uprisings and rebellions. Declared as a historical relic in 1949, the building escaped the Cultural Revolution without a scratch. There are five “must see” halls in total: Lokapala, Yong He Dian, Yong You Dian, the Hall of the Wheel of Law, and Wan Fu Pavilion. After walking through the temple complex, head over to Vineyard Cafe to enjoy their courtyard dining room and their wood-fired pizza. If you are still in the mood to stretch your legs, head over to Di Tan Park, a less frequented park created around an alter once used by the emperor of China to pray for good harvests; it is especially pleasant in the late afternoon.
Districts of historical architecture were preserved in the preparations for Beijing’s 2008 Olympics. Located at the city center, these intricate alleyways wind around classic courtyard houses, called siheyuan. The most visited of these neighbourhoods lies between Hou Hai and the Lama Temple. While exploring on foot can lead to exciting discoveries, bicycle rickshaw tours are also available. The Former Residences of Soong Ching Ling, wife of Sun Yat-sen, Twentieth Century writers Mao Dun and Lao She have all been preserved for visitors. The former residence of Mei Lanfang, most recognized Peking Opera singer in the West, has been turned into the decadent restaurant Mei Mansion. Tiny shops, beautiful embellishments at gates and many other surprises await the traveler to these tiny lanes too small to fit a car through. The street facing Qian Hai is called Lotus Lane. Several bars and restaurants are located here and the nightlife is vibrant. Walk along here, then pass over a footbridge at Xiao Shi Bei and walk along the narrow ancient street Yan Dai Xie to find some revolution era souvenirs and plenty to point your camera at. From Yan Dai Xie turn left onto Di’an Men Wai Street and walk up to the Drum Tower and its nearby companion the Bell Tower. Around sunset, the swallows that were once ubiquitous around Beijing can be seen flying up to nest here. After all that walking, hop in a cab and head to the Pass By Bar to treat yourself to a lovely courtyard meal.
Scenic cruises throughout Beijing will leave you wishing your visit was longer. With so much to see and do, try one of the various tour companies to fulfill your stay in Beijing.
Gray Line Tours (+86 10 6528 6655 / https://www.grayline.com/ )
Sinoway Travel (+86 20 2282 2049 / http://www.sinowaytravel.com/)
China Odyssey Tours (https://www.chinaodysseytours.com/)
Beijing has a long and tumultuous past. Archaeological evidence unearthed at nearby Zhoukoudian introduced the world to Peking Man, a hominid who inhabited the area half a million years ago. More recently, the city has seen imperial dynasties come and go along with wars, rebellions, foreign invasions and revolution. Since the 13th Century Beijing has dominated as the capitol of China under the Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties, and serves as capitol today for the People’s Republic of China.
The earliest records of human settlement in Beijing date back to 1000 BC. During the Warring States Period (453-221 BC) the town of Ji served as a trade outpost for Koreans and northern tribes. Ji became Yanjing, or the capital of the Kingdom of Yan, and its strategic position led to struggles for control between Mongolians and Manchurians.
In 1215 AD, the city fell to the Mongolian empire builder Genghis Khan. By 1267 it became Khanbaliq (Khan’s Town) or Dadu (Chinese for Great Capital), and capitol of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), from which Genghis’ grandson Kublai would rule one of four Mongolian khanates, Beijing served as capitol to most of South and East Asia. It is believed that the outer wall of the city at the time ran along the canals near Xueyuan Lu near Qinghua and Beijing Universities.
In 1368 mendicant monk Zhu Yuanzhang led an uprising against the Yuan Dynasty and seized the Khan’s great city. Thus began the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Under Zhu’s control, the city changed its name to Beiping (Northern Peace) and was replaced as imperial capital by Nanjing (Southern Capital) in the Jiangsu Province. In the early 1400s, the third ruler and usurper to the throne Yong Le (reign 1403-1425), fearing the ghosts of his recently executed political rivals in Nanjing, returned to his base of power in the north and renamed it Beijing (Northern Capital). Because the Mongolian capitol had been completely wasted at the end of the Yuan, it was at this time that the foundations for the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, and the Bell Tower were laid.
The Sinicized northern Manchu tribe put an end to the Ming in 1644, establishing the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Under the Qing, Beijing was further expanded and modernized with the construction of the Old Summer Palace and the (new) Summer Palace. The popularity of Chinese tea and silk in Europe brought prosperity to China during the Qing, but the court was unable to adjust to western style trade and diplomacy, which served to destabilize the Confucian social order. By the end of the 19th century, wars, foreign occupation, and rebellions had weakened the Qing court, then ruled by the Emperess Dowager Cixi (1835-1908). The Qing Dynasty finally collapsed in 1911. With the leadership of Sun Yat-sen, the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) rose to power and the Republic of China was founded. Warlord power and foreign influence limited the control of the Nationalist government and encouraged corruption. Modernizers and intellectuals flirted with new ideas, such as democracy, Marxism, and modern science. The blending of nationalism and education culminated in the May Fourth Movement of 1919, based at Beijing University, and writers such as Lu Xun encouraged the updating of the Chinese written style to more accurately reflect life in modern China.
Meanwhile, the Chinese Communist Party was founded in Shanghai in 1921. During the war with Japan, the Kuomintang under Chiang Kai-shek, allied with the Communists to seize control from the warlords and foreigners to reunify China. The alliance was never whole hearted and World War II lead to civil war. Defeated, Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists fled to Taiwan, and on October 1, 1949, the People’s Republic of China was formally declared by Mao Zedong (1893-1976) from Tiananmen Gate.
Under Mao’s leadership, China struggled to create social equity and collectivity, erase the effects of feudalism and build a new nation. Progress met with hiccups of power struggle such as the Great Leap Forward (1958-1960) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), both of which led to disastrous results for Beijing and the country. In an attempt to eradicate all capitalist or exploitative influences, the youth-lead Red Guards destroyed temples, monuments and works of art, and persecuted intellectuals and writers. Political infighting and power struggles within the Party further contributed to the chaos, which remained until Mao’s death in 1976.
In 1979, Party leader Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997) launched the four modernizations which began the shift to market socialism. The effects were felt politically in Beijing and the creation of the Democracy Wall in Xi Cheng was representative of the student- and worker- lead Democracy movement that abruptly ended in July 1989 in the Tiananmen Square Incident. At the turn of the 21st Century, Beijing is once again being revitalized as a new center of culture. The fireworks that accompanied the announcement of World Trade Organization membership in 2001 and fanfare surrounding the 2008 Summer Olympics have encouraged the massive updating of infrastructure and reinterpretation of cultural importance for post-Mao China.
Getting there and getting around
Beijing is China’s vibrant cultural center. In order to see everything it has to offer, you’ll need to spend a lot of time commuting. This guide provides an overview of the city’s various transportation options.
From the Airport
Bus: There are a number of services that provide transportation from Beijing Capital International Airport to destinations in and around Beijing. The Airport Shuttle bus (+86 10 6459 4375) offers three bus lines to points along the Xidan, Gongzhufen, and Zhongguancun routes.
Taxi: Metered taxis are available outside the airport, but it is advisable for travellers to have their destination written in Chinese.
Rental Cars: Having access to a car is the easiest way to travel to rural areas outside Beijing but beware of the city’s hectic traffic. Rental car companies in Beijing include:
Beijing is accessible by Chinese Railways (www.chinamor.cn.net). The Kowloon-Canton Railway Corporation (http://www.kcrc.com) offers transportation to Hong Kong. Beijing is also situated along the Trans-Siberian Railway, which offers service to London via the Trans-Mongolian and Trans-Manchurian routes. Domestic destinations include Tianjin, Shanghai, Qinghuangdao, Harbin.
Beijing Train Station (Beijing Zhan), the central station, is located at Jian Guo Men within the Second Ring Road. The Beijing Subway has a Train Station stop (Beijing Zhan) and buses to several parts of the city leave from the west part of the station (follow the signs).
Beijing West Train Station (Beijing Xi Ke Zhan) (+86 10 9510 5105) is in the Feng Tai district and is not immediately accessible by subway at this time. It is the biggest train station in Asia and 300,000 passengers go through its doors daily. Trains to China’s west and south are available here, including direct trains to Lhasa, which can be booked up to ten days in advance. Typically, train tickets to any destination in China can be purchased at any train station three days in advance. During busy times such as major holidays, assistance through CITS may make your travel plans easier. Other stations in Beijing include Beijing North Train Station (+86 10 6563 6122 / +86 10 6563 6223) and Beijing South Train Station (+86 10 6563 5222)
The five major bus stations offering citywide and national service: Dongzhimen (+ 86 10 6204 7095) near the Lama Temple with a stop on Metro line 2, Muxiyuan(+86 10 6726 7149) in Feng Tai District, Lian Huan Chi (+86 10 6346 4027) near Liu Li Qiao on the Third Ring Road Liu Li Qiao (+ 86 10 6386 1262) in Feng Tai District Zhao Song Kou (+86 10 6722 9491) on South Third Ring Road
Beijing has an extensive subway system. All of the signs in the stations are written in both Chinese and English. Tickets can be purchased at any subway station, with fares varying according to the line. The average cost is RMB2. If you will be using the subway often, the best idea is to purchase a Public Transportation Card, called a Yikatong. The minimum deposit for a Yikatong card is RMB20, and it can be refilled as needed at select subway stations.
The Beijing subway is comprised of five main lines: Line 1, Line 2, Line 5, Line 13 and the Batong Line. Line 1 runs in a straight line from east to west, through Tiananmen Square and other major commercial areas. Line 2 runs in a loop following the old city walls, with stops at each of the gates, most major tourist attractions and the Beijing Railway Station. Line 5 runs in a straight line from north to south and also stops at various tourist attractions. Line 13 runs through the northern end of the city. The Batong Line runs from the eastern end of Line 1 to the suburbs. Line 8, also known as the Olympic Branch Line, runs south to north from the National Art Museum through the main Olympic areas, including Olympic Park. Line 10 runs along a larger loop around Line 2. The Airport Line will run from the center of the city to Beijing Capital International Airport.
Understanding how the bus system operates can be confusing since there are hundreds of different routes. A first-time tourist may want to use the subway or take a taxi instead. If you have a comfortable understanding of the bus lines, however, you’ll be able to navigate your way around the city quickly for an affordable price. Lines 1 through 199 are used for day transportation in the inner city. Lines 200 through 299 are used for night transportation in the inner city. Lines 300 through 399 are used throughout the outer city and suburbs. Lines 400 through 599 travel from the inner city to the outer city. Buses numbered below 200 charge RMB1. Buses between 300 and 599 charge RMB1 for the first 12 kilometres and an extra RMB0.5 for every 5 kilometres after that. Please visit http://www.bjbus.com/ for more information.
Beijing is one of the easiest cities to get a cab in. A licensed cab always displays the driver’s license with a photograph and the official seal just above the meter on the dashboard. A sticker in the back window tells you the rate of the cab, usually around RMB2. Cab drivers in Beijing often do not speak English so having your destination written out in Chinese or on a map is very useful. Having the card of your hotel will also make getting home by cab trouble free. Most cab drivers have a personal business card and cell phone. If you particularly enjoy a cab ride or want to take a longer trip outside the city, these can be arranged in advance with a driver. Day fares, depending on destination, typically start around RMB500.