I first visited Beijing in 2009. My second visit was in June 2016. By then, I had very vague memories of Beijing and I was very excited to visit the Chinese capital again. Formerly known as Peking, it is the world’s second most populous city proper, with the population of 21.7 million in 2017. Beijing is rich in history. It has been a political, cultural and educational centre of China for much of the past eight centuries. Mountains surround the city on three sides. That’s why Beijing was strategically chosen to be the residence of the emperor, it was in a perfect location for the imperial capital. The city has seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
I travelled from Nanjing to Beijing by a high speed train. My train departed from Nanjing South (Nanjing Nan) railway station. It arrived to Beijing South (Beijing Nan) station. I took the train at 12.09pm and I was in Beijing at 3.55pm. The train covered the distance of 1160km in 3h 46min. Pretty impressive! The journey was very easy and comfortable. On arrival to Beijing, I still had a part of the afternoon and the whole evening for myself. I paid 443.5 yuan for my one way 2nd class ticket.
I stayed the Beijing International Hotel, not far from Jianguomen metro station. The hotel was good, but not in the best location. In order to move around the city, I had to take a metro every day. This wasn’t really a problem as Beijing is a very big city. Inevitably, you will have to use metro to arrive to places that you want to visit. But, there are better locations where you can choose to stay and they are either near Wangfujing pedestrian street or in the area near Xidan metro station. Both locations are full of shops and restaurants. In fact, you would want to visit them while in Beijing. Both are also within the walking distance from the Forbidden City.
I was in Beijing for 4 days, which is enough time to see the most famous historical sites. Because of their size or location, three of them require nearly one full day. However, there is much more to see and do in Beijing, in case you decide to stay longer. This is what I visited during my stay in Beijing:
1. THE TIANANMEN SQUARE
The Tiananmen Square is a big square right in the centre of Beijing. Its name comes from the Tiananmen (the Gate of Heavenly Peace). The gate is in the north part of the square and it separates it from the Forbidden City.
You will find the Monument to the People’s Heroes, the Great Hall of the People, the National Museum of China and the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong in the square. Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China in this square, on the 1st October 1949.
The Tiananmen or The Gate of Heavenly Peace is a monumental gate, widely used as a national symbol of China. It was built during the Ming dynasty in 1420 and it served as an entrance to the Imperial City.
2. FORBIDDEN CITY
The Forbidden City is a huge palace complex in the centre of Beijing. It served as the imperial palace of the Ming and the Qing dynasties from 1420, the year when the complex was finished, to 1912 when the last emperor of China abdicated. It is now the Palace Museum. Chinese emperors and their families used it as their home, as well as the political and ceremonial centre, for nearly 500 years. Built in a traditional Chinese palatial architecture, it was declared the UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. The palace contains the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world.
The Forbidden City is indeed a magnificent palace and unsurprisingly it is a major tourist attraction. You will need to present your passport at the time when you purchase your ticket to enter into the Forbidden City. You will not be able to buy a ticket without the passport. To avoid huge crowds, go there as soon as it opens. However, that’s not a guarantee that you will be able to enjoy its serene tranquillity as, undoubtedly, many other people will have the same idea.
The whole palace complex is very big and you will need at least 3 to 4 hours to see everything properly. If you want to gently absorb its beauty and immensity of everything around you, you will probably need more time.
Apart from main imperial buildings, there is also the whole city, with houses and streets to visit and this takes time. I tried to imagine the life as it must have been within the confines of palace walls.
3. THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA
The Great Wall of China is not one continuous wall. Rather, it is a series of fortifications generally built across the historical northern borders of China, to protect against nomadic invasions. Several walls were built as early as the 7th century BC. They joined them later into one bigger and stronger wall. Throughout its history, the Great Wall was rebuilt and enlarged. Most of the existing wall is from the Ming Dynasty.
Some parts of the wall have been restored and are now open for tourists. I visited – Badaling and Mutianyu. Of these two, in my opinion Mutianyu is a much better choice. It is in a more attractive location. Also, it seemed less touristy, although this is a relative notion, as it was still very busy when I went there. It is 90km north of Beijing. You can book a tour in your hotel. Try to book a tour without visits to factories. They will take you directly to the wall and then back to the hotel. You will also get a lunch.
The way it works is, they come with a mini-bus and collect you in front of your hotel at 7am or 8am. After that, the bus makes stops at other hotels and collects more tourists. Once the bus is full, it departs for the wall. You just need to be in front of your hotel at the designated time.
When you arrive to Mutianyu, to reach the wall, you can either hike up the very steep hill or you can take a cable car. You will have to pay for the cable car, but it adds to the adventure. The cable car takes you to the watchtower 14. From there, I walked all the way to the watchtower 23. That is the official end of the wall that is open for tourists, in that direction. Our guide recommended to walk that way.
If you manage to reach the watchtower 23, you will arrive to the non restored part of the wall. I did not venture much further beyond that point, because the wall did not seem safe. Parts of the wall were in a very bad state and I also had to go back. It took me approximately 1 hour and 30 minutes each way, although people fitter and younger than me can probably cover that distance much faster. As a matter of fact, there were only a few of us that far. To arrive to that point, you need to invest significant physical effort and to climb some very steep steps. That may not be easy for some people.
The difference between the restored part of the wall and the authentic one is very interesting to see. I believe that it would be too costly to restore the whole wall, although I fear that, with the passing time, a further damage will occur. It’s a pity, because the wall is so historically significant.
After the visit to the wall, I took the cable car back to the entrance area. There, we had a very nice Chinese lunch in a restaurant near to the ticket office. We departed back to Beijing after lunch. When you arrive back to Beijing and as soon as the bus enters the greater city area, if you spot a metro station, ask the driver to stop and to let you get off the bus. It will be much better if you take a metro from any far away station back the centre. The option is to be stuck in a horrible traffic. My journey back from the wall was unnecessarily long because of the traffic. Also, the bus first stopped at other hotels before taking me back to mine. Unfortunately, I thought of the metro option only after I had arrived back to my hotel, obviously too late.
4. SUMMER PALACE
The Summer Palace was an imperial garden in the Qing dynasty. It is a vast complex of lakes, gardens and palaces. The construction of the Summer Palace started in 1750, as a luxurious royal garden for royal families, to entertain and rest. It became the UNESCO World Heritage Site in December 1988. The palace is a true masterpiece of the Chinese landscape gardening. The natural landscape of hills and lakes is combined with pavilions, halls, palaces, temples and bridges in superbly harmonious way.
Together with the Great Wall of China and the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace must be on every visitor’s list. The palace is 15km from the centre of Beijing. Getting there is easy, take metro line number 4 to Beigongmen station. The entrance to the palace is almost next to the station. That is not the only entrance, but it is the most convenient for visitors that arrive to the palace complex by metro.
The whole palace complex is very big. You will need a full day for your visit, although I don’t think that it is possible to see everything in one day. However, you can visit the main part and walk along the lake. Like all main tourist attractions, it can get very busy, but if you arrive there when it opens, perhaps there won’t be too many people.
5. BEIJING TEMPLES
The Temple of Heaven is an imperial complex of religious buildings that the emperors of the Ming and the Qing dynasties visited for annual prayer ceremonies to Heaven, for good harvest. The temple complex was constructed at the same time when the Forbidden City was built. The complex was extended and renamed the Temple of Heaven in the 16th century. It became the UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998. To get there, take metro line number 5 to Tiantan East Gate station.
The Yonghe Temple or the Lama Temple is a temple and a monastery of the Tibetan Buddhism. It is a combination of the Han Chinese and the Tibetan architectural styles. It was built on a site where there was previously the official residence for court eunuchs, in previous dynasties. The building work on the Lama Temple started in 1694, during the Qing dynasty. It then became a residence of Yinzhen (Prince Yong). After he became Yongzheng Emperor in 1722, half of the building was converted into the lamasery – the monastery for monks of the Tibetan Buddhism. The other half of the building remained an imperial palace.
Qianlong Emperor, who succeeded the Yongzheng Emperor, elevated the temple to the imperial status, by replacing its turquoise tiles with yellow tiles, exclusively reserved for the emperor. The monastery became the residence for large numbers of Tibetan Buddhist monks from Mongolia and Tibet. The Lama Temple became the national centre of the Lama administration.
The temple was declared a national monument in 1949 and it was closed for 32 years. It reopened in 1981 and it is both the functioning temple and a very popular tourist site now.
To get there, take either metro number 2 or number 5, to Yonghegong Lama Temple station. But, be careful as the temple closes at 4.30pm. You will need 1 hour to properly visit this outstanding place.
6. THE REST OF BEIJING
Qianmen Street is a famous pedestrian street that runs from the Archery Tower of Qianmen in the north, to the Tiantan Park in the south. The street is 840m long and it contains late Qing dynasty style buildings. Qianmen Street has history of more than 570 years. The street and the whole surrounding area are full of shops that sell various Chinese products. From there you can also easily venture to nearby Hutongs. Hutongs are typical Beijing residential areas. Qianmen Stret is very close to the Tiananmen Square.
National Centre for the Performing Arts is the art centre and Beijing’s new opera house. Constructed as an ellipsoid dome in the middle of an artificial lake in 2007, the opera house is immediately to the west of the Tiananmen Square.
This is what I visited during my stay in Beijing. What you do, it depends on how long you are planning to stay. In any case, there are many more things to see that I missed. For example, the Beijing Zoo has a very large panda enclosure and that’s something that I would have loved to see. Maybe next time, if I visit this city again.