Best Things To Do in Beijing
The close proximity of Beijing's top attractions makes touring this massive city very manageable. First, your impulse will be to head to Tiananmen Square, which hosts the Forbidden City, the National Museum of China and several other monuments. From there, you can retreat from the busy plaza to the lush green spaces of Beihai Park or the Summer Palace. You'll also want to pay a visit to the Dashanzi Art District and Nanluoguxiang neighborhood for some urban adventures, like souvenir-hunting and gallery-hopping. When you've exhausted Beijing's offerings, make the pilgrimage to the Great Wall.
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Just north of Beijing, you'll find one of the most famous monuments in the world: the Great Wall of China. Although it's unlikely you'll see the whole thing, you should aim to experience a portion of it. That begs the question: Which section?
Only an hour's drive northwest of Beijing, the Badaling section is convenient, hosts a large souvenir market, and has a gondola to whisk visitors up and down the wall. Sounds perfect, right? Well, and that's why thousands of tourists decide to venture here. This can create mob-like scenes that can spoil the trip, but it's unpredictable. Plenty of visitors rave about this section of the wall and say a visit is a must. Entrance to the Badaling section of wall (not including the gondola ride) costs 40 yuan (about $6) in the winter and spring and 45 yuan (about $6.60 ) in the summer and fall. You can start hiking the Badaling portion at 6:40 a.m., and you must be down by 6:30 p.m. every day.
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When the bustle of Beijing becomes too much for you, do as the emperors would do and retreat to the Summer Palace. Located in the northwest suburbs, this oasis – literally, an oasis with serene Kunming Lake – is home to several attractions. Nearly every gate, pavilion, hall and tower has a unique history and merits a photo. Despite the palace's historic appeal, most tourists are charmed by what's outside: The Summer Palace possesses the largest imperial garden in China. The Seventeen-Arch Bridge stretches into Kunming Lake, providing excellent views of the east bank and South Lake Island. And at an impressive 2,388 feet in length, the Long Corridor garners lots of attention.
Travelers are rarely disappointed by the wonders of the Summer Palace. Many advise visiting early in the day to avoid crowds, but regardless, most call the palace amazing. Reviewers suggested setting aside at least half a day to wander the grounds. Visitors also recommended seeing the site with the help of a guide, who can help you understand its vast history.
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Operating under the official title of "The Palace Museum," the Forbidden City (also known as the Imperial Palace) has been a place of wonder and mystery for more than 500 years. This massive complex sits on the northern edge of Tiananmen Square at the epicenter of Beijing. Beyond its towering fortifications, you'll find an intricate labyrinth of squares, halls, gates, pavilions, sleeping quarters and temples. In some of the structures, curated art and historic relics have been placed; however, the greatest achievement is the compound itself. Not-to-be-missed highlights include the Meridian Gate, the Turret, the Antiquarium and the Imperial Garden.
Recent visitors, who called the park fascinating, suggest giving yourself plenty of time to tour and buying tickets in advance if you can. Others were disappointed by the sheer volume of tourists and recommend avoiding a weekend visit if possible. You'll also want to wear a hat and sunscreen as there is little shade. Several reviewers also suggested hiring a guide to help you navigate the site and better understand its history, or at the very least, purchasing a map which doubles as a souvenir. Audio guide rentals are another option.
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After the concrete jungles of Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, head to nearby Beihai Park for a breath of fresh air. Whether you're under a tree overlooking the lake or in an ancient pagoda, you'll see why this former imperial garden has been a preserved sanctuary since its creation in A.D. 1166. Over time, the park has acquired more and more monuments. Not-to-be-missed highlights include the Temple of Everlasting Peace, White Dagoba and the Circular City.
Visitors love its peaceful setting, saying even with lots of people around, you can still find a quiet place to reflect. Some reviewers recommend riding a boat on the lake to reach different attractions, while others suggest setting aside several hours to walk its grounds (it is massive, spanning more than 170 acres).
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North of the Forbidden City, this neighborhood packs so much character into its narrow streets (hutongs). Nanlouguxiang continually surprises you with exciting discoveries in boutique shops and tantalizing flavors from unassuming vendors. When you need a shopping break, visit the Bell and Drum Towers that also reside here. While this bohemian district has witnessed an increase in tourist volume, it has avoided the commercialization and urban renovations that characterize other Beijing areas.
Many visitors appreciate the blend of new and old and enjoy spending time browsing around. Reviewers said this is a great place to browse for souvenirs.
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Up there with Times Square, Red Square and St. Peter's Square, Tiananmen Square is among the world's most famous public spaces. Almost anyone can recognize the Gate of Heavenly Peace emblazoned with a portrait of Chairman Mao as a symbol of Beijing. The square is the geographic, political and tourist center of the city, which makes it unavoidable. Although Tiananmen Square looks like a field of concrete (which it is), you'll want to see it for the surrounding attractions: The Great Hall of the People, the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, the National Museum of China and the Forbidden City sit on the edges.
Recent visitors warned the area is usually crowded, with lots of guards, which some found disconcerting. Nonetheless, most visitors said it's a must-see landmark. Plus, taking a picture here is almost required to prove you've been to Beijing.
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Fact: The arts are booming in Beijing. You only need to tour the Dashanzi Art District to witness this creative surge. The epicenter of this artistic explosion is 798 Space (also known as Factory 798), an old electronics manufacturing site and warehouse. Originally designed by East Germans in the 1950s, the stern architecture beautifully juxtaposes the richly colorful contents of artist studios. The 2-million-square-foot venue boasts galleries, eateries and bars, making it a one-stop-shop for hip locals and curious tourists.
Recent visitors said the neighborhood appeals to nearly everyone because of the diverse offerings found here and recommend giving yourself plenty of time to simply wander around. Reviewers said you'll want to take a bevy of pictures thanks to the colorful atmosphere. Many others suggested purchasing souvenirs here as the offerings are quite unique. If you're an art lover, heed the advice of past travelers and plan to make multiple visits.
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Sometimes called the "Giant Egg" due to its unique shape, the National Centre for the Performing Arts is actually home to three different venues: the Opera House, the Concert Hall and the Theatre. Everything from ballets to dramas are staged here. The unusual property also has an artificial lake and lots of green space surrounding, it making it a magnet for locals and visitors alike. The exterior of the building is a unique titanium glass oval shell and all the passages and entrances into it are built underwater, which lends a surreal aspect as you enter.
Recent visitors were wowed by the architecture and highly recommend checking it out. It's free to wander outside, but there is a small fee to enter the building. English language tours are also offered for a fee.
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You'll immediately notice the rigid symmetry of the complex, which derives from the imperial architectural style. As the seat of Tibetan Buddhism in Beijing, you'll see this temple of prayer is still used by religious followers, so be respectful. Throughout its halls, you'll see Buddha temples, statues, murals and carvings.
The humble grandeur of the Lama Temple and its accompanying buildings impresses many visitors, who find the temple a pleasant surprise in the bustling city. Meanwhile, others delighted in the peaceful, incense-filled air.
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For a survey of Chinese history, head to the National Museum of China. Positioned on the eastern edge of Tiananmen Square, the exhibits in this museum neatly outline the nation's past for visitors, both native and foreign. After a massive renovation, the facility reopened in the spring of 2011 with updated displays and an interior facelift. Among the many treasures (more than one million), you'll find entire rooms dedicated to jade, porcelain and bronze artifacts.
When looking at the collection, travelers are generally impressed, with many saying you need at least two to three hours to even begin to see all the treasures it holds. Visitors also appreciate it is free to visit. If you plan to visit, keep these tips from reviewers in mind: stop by the museum at the start of your trip to Beijing to better understand the city and Chinese culture overall; the museum is better suited to visitors interested in history and archaeology than art; English translation is lacking in certain areas.
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Once used as musical instruments and later as the official government time piece, the Bell and Drum Towers crown the charming Nanluoguxiang district. Amid the maze of alleys, you'll appreciate having these two historical pillars to guide your exploration of the neighborhood. You'll immediately notice the 150-foot Drum Tower from its vibrant red walls, turquoise roof and decorative symbols. The Bell Tower is the more subdued gray sister, standing nearby. These ancient landmarks (the original structures date back to 1272) offer exceptional views of Beijing, but you'll have to take a hike to reach their peaks. Most visitors agree climbing the steep stairs is worth it for the views.
If you wish to climb the stairs, you'll have to fork over 15 yuan (about $2) for the Bell Tower and 20 yuan (about $3) for the Drum Tower or 30 yuan ($4.40) for both. The towers open daily around 9 a.m. and close at 5 p.m. every day. The closest subway stop is Guloudajie on lines 2 and 8.
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Deemed China's coming-out party, the 2008 Summer Olympics placed Beijing in the world spotlight. Beijing carved out huge tracts of land to construct this international stage. The excitement has since passed, and the park and some of its facilities have been repurposed for public use. The surviving structures include the National Stadium (or the "Bird's Nest"), the National Aquatics Center (or the "Water Cube") and the Olympic Forest Park. New buildings, like the China National Convention Center, have changed the park's landscape.
The majority of past travelers still enjoyed making the pilgrimage to Olympic Park and recent visitors expressed their amazement at its architecture, especially at night when some of the structures are illuminated. During the day, you'll frequently find locals flying kites. However, some reviewers were underwhelmed with the complex and advise against making a special trip to see it.
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To reach the Temple of Heaven, you don't have to have an untimely passing. Just get off the subway at Tiantan Dongmen. As you'd expect, this green space is a peaceful asylum, immune to the urban bustle. In the Confucian spirit, the park offers respite among ancient cypress trees alongside remarkable structures. You shouldn't miss the Zhaoheng Gate, the Animal Killing Pavilion (no longer functioning as such) and the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests.
Travelers are regularly floored by the beauty (and people-watching) in the park and say it's a highlight of any visit. Others were relieved to find the site wasn't as crowded as the Forbidden City. As with many of the other top sights in Beijing, travelers recommend you hire a guide to get the most out of your visit. Though there is an audio guide available for rent, some visitors were disappointed with its breadth.
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