Beijing – The Northern Capital City Guide (part 1)

Want to know what to do in Beijing? This blogpost will tell you about all the highlights of this fascinating city.

For my Tourism Management study, I spent 7 months in Beijing, the capital of China. I worked in a 4-star hotel in the heart of Beijing’s business district, close to two of the city’s most well-known tourist attractions: Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. I have always felt attracted to Asia and to China in particular, because of its interesting and, quite frankly, strange culture. Why I love China? There are more than enough things not to love: the overwhelming crowds, feeling like a zoo animal, the pollution, lack of hygiene & manners. However, the kind people and the immense variety which you will see on the streets everyday make up for all that. Everywhere you go, you will see the mixing of old and new, traditional and modern and do not be surprised if you see someone walking outside in his pyjamas, a little child wearing split-pants pooping in a public bin, or people singing karaoke in the park.

Places to see
The three most well-known sights in Beijing are Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven, but there are many more places to see. Next to these three must-see’s, I will tell you about the city’s other highlights.

Tiananmen Square
Tiananmen Square is a large square in the centre of Beijing and contains the monuments of the heroes of the revolution, the great hall of people, the national museum of China and Mao Zedong Memorial Hall. It is one of the top ten largest squares in the world and several important events in Chinese history took place here.

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Forbidden City
The Forbidden City was the imperial palace from 1420 till 1920. It used to serve as the home of the emperors, their household and was also the ceremonial and political centre of Chinese government. It is named the Forbidden City, because nobody was allowed to enter or leave the palace without the permission or the emperor.

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Temple of Heaven
The Temple of Heaven served as the place where the emperors would worship the god of heaven and pray for good harvest. The total complex is 267 hectares and is also used  as park, playgrounds and exercise areas. There are three main constructions: The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, The Imperial Vault of Heaven, and the Circular Mound Altar.

Lama (YongHe) Temple & Confucius Temple
The Lama Temple is the most famous Tibetan Buddhist temple outside Tibet and is still active as a place of worship and attracting pilgrims from all over the world. It is very well maintained and beautifully decorated. The Confucius Temple was built to pay respect to Confucius and is generally less crowded than the Lama Temple.

798 Art District
If you are into art, you should definitely pay a visit to this old factory ground. Known and less-known artists display their works of art here. It is around 0.6 square kilometres and is characterised by modern art.

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Nanluoguxiang
Nanluoguxiang is a hutong area with shops, galleries and cafes. Walking here is like taking a step back in time. Many hutongs are being destroyed because of Beijing’s urge to build new things. Even though Nanluoguxiang is very touristic, it is nice to see the old Chinese houses. I recommend to go off the main street. The side streets are quieter.

Birds Nest (National Stadium)
It was the main stadium during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games and is located in Chaoyang district. After the Olympic games were over, it opened as a tourist attraction. The building is called the Birds Nest, because the entire steel structure is exposed making it look like a birds nest.

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Summer Palace (Yiheyuan)
The Summer Palace once was the holiday home of the imperial family, but nowadays it is a popular tourist attraction. You can easily spend a whole day at this place. It is very big and hosts many beautiful buildings, temples and parks. Take a rest from the busy city crowds and rent a boat to float on the lake.

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Old Summer Palace (Yuanmingyuan)
The Old Summer Palace, also called the Garden of Perfection and Light, is a lot less known than the  Summer Palace and is therefore quieter. The garden is a mix of Chinese scenery with western architecture. The majority was destroyed in the 1980’s and since then, the park became a ruin site. Walking around the ruins, it is easy to imagine the former grandeur from the buildings.

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Fragrant Hills Park (Xiangshan Park)
Fragrant Hills is an imperial garden in the north western part of Beijing. It is best to visit in autumn, because the whole park will be coloured with the beautiful autumn leaves of the red smoke tree. It is a big park and it will take approximately three hours to hike around the whole park. I recommend you to go to the top of the mountain. There you will have a panoramic view of the park and, if the sky is clear, also a little bit of Beijing. There is a gondola going to the top for if you do not want to walk.

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Great Wall of China
The Great Wall is, by far, the most famous and most impressive landmark of China and part of this immense wall is not far away from Beijing. So if you have the time to go outside the city, definitely go here! Badaling is closest to Beijing, so if you are on a tight schedule but want to see the wall, I recommend you to go to this part, because it will only take half a day. Be warned that it can be extremely busy with all the tourists. A little bit further away is Mutianyu. This part of the wall requires a bit more climbing, but the view is better, because there are less people and you get to see unrestored parts of the wall. Mutianyu is a full day trip. There are many other (wilder) parts of the wall where you can go for a hike but these two are closest to Beijing.

Insider tips
– Public toilets in Beijing are the traditional squat-style and often very very dirty. Try to avoid if not absolutely necessary.
– Many Chinese students will talk to you to practice their English. This is fun, but do not accept their invitation for dinner or drinks, this is most likely a scam.
– Take a morning walk through the park to see people practicing Tai-Chi. In the afternoon, the parks are often used for dancing or karaoke.

Guest author: Jolien Peters
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