Traveling to Beijing means traveling to a place of contrasts. The Chinese capital is one of the largest metropolises in the world with a history stretching back over 1,000 years. More than 21 million people live in small houses interspersed with tall skyscrapers. Do you want to lose yourself in its streets and among its people? These are some of the must-see sights.
Tiananmen Square is very close to the Forbidden City where you can find some of the most iconic places in the city, such as the National Museum of China, the Monument to the People's Heroes and the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong. You're bound to find long queues to see the embalmed body and to get in you'll have to leave cameras and backpacks in storage.
Beihai Park is as beautiful as it is huge. If you have time, go to the White Dagoba, which you can find on the island in the middle of the lake. It was built for the Dalai Lama's visit to the city in 1651. The park is also home to several Buddhist temples.
Traveling to Beijing and losing yourself in its streets is a wonderful experience, but if you want to see it from a vantage point to get a panoramic view, go to Emperor's Hill. It was created using the earth that was excavated when the moat of the Forbidden City was built, and now offers incredible views of the city. The best, in fact.
Most of these old and narrow alleys were demolished to build the stadiums that hosted the 2008 Olympic Games. However, some can still be visited. Do it on foot or hire a rickshaw. The most authentic ones are next to the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower.
24 Chinese emperors from the Ming and Qing dynasties ruled the country from this fabulous complex, which includes not only the imperial palace but also the buildings used to house the entire court.
The visit to the complex, classified as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, lasts a minimum of two hours. You can see the emperor's private rooms and the Hall of Supreme Harmony, among other things.
During the summer, the emperors would leave the Forbidden City and spend the hottest months in the Summer Palace, at a location largely occupied by Lake Kunming. Its waters keep the complex cool; here you can see the Garden of Virtue and Harmony, the Tower of Buddhist Incense, the 17-Arch Bridge, the Long Corridor, and the Stone Boat. Reserve an entire morning or afternoon for this visit.
Only 5 kilometers northwest of the Summer Palace are the ruins of a former residence. Its gardens were built in the 17th century and you will see its clear European influence. The English invasion did considerable damage to the palace, but it's still well worth a visit.
You can't travel to Beijing without visiting one of its most sacred places: The Temple of Heaven. It was built during the Ming Dynasty as an offering to the heavens, in gratitude for abundant harvests and also to ask for good harvests in the future. Chinese temple names are very descriptive. In the Temple of Heaven, you will find the Hall of Abstinence and the Imperial Vault of Heaven. Don't be surprised if you find people practicing tai chi in its gardens.
Beijing is well known for its markets and shopping malls. If you're looking for deals and bargains, this is your city; and the most commercial area is Wangfujing, right in the center. You'll find shopping malls, department stores and many souvenir shops here. Don't miss the nocturnal market to savor the strange cuisine based on spiders and snakes served on skewers.
And if you're going to Beijing to do some haggling, go to the Silk Market. Here you'll find more than 1,700 stalls offering crafts and silks. Watch out for fakes!
If you've decided to travel to Beijing to see its finest temples, you mustn't miss Yonghe Temple. It's the most important Tibetan Buddhist temple outside Tibet. It dates from the seventeenth century and in its time served as a spiritual refuge for the lamas. You'll recognize it by its golden roofs and the carving, from a single piece of wood, of the Maitreya Buddha.