The seven wonders of the city
Any tour of the Chinese capital must start with the big seven. Kick things off with the Forbidden City, constructed in the 15th century as an imperial residence for the Ming and Qing dynasties and named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. The scale of the place is simply jaw-dropping: it measures 720,000 square metres, features 9999 rooms and has half a millennium of history behind it.
The Forbidden City is accessed via Tienanmen Square, one of the largest squares in the world and home to the famous Mausoleum of Mao Zedong.
To the north-west of the Forbidden City is the tranquil oasis of Beihai Park, a former imperial garden which contains sacred buildings and important monuments such as the White Pagoda and the Nine-Dragon Wall, dating back to 1756. Beihai Park also holds UNESCO World Heritage status, along with two other masterpieces of Chinese architecture: the elegant Summer Palace and the Temple of Heaven, built in the 15th century as a Taoist temple.
Weather permitting, be sure to take trips to the 13 Ming Tombs and one of the best-preserved stretches of the Great Wall of China (to the north-west of the city), which is universally recognised as one of the wonders of the world.
The ancient hutongs
It’s easy – and fun – to get lost in the web of narrow alleyways of the hutongs. Among the most impressive are the hutongs near Gulou and Shichahai Lake, the Dashilan hutong with its stores and authentic restaurants, and the hutong near to Nanluoguxiang, which is one of the most famous and popular with tourists.
Getting to know Beijing is all about ambling through the streets and trying traditional dishes. A few yuan will get you a serving of the world-famous noodles or rice dumplings, while for those with more demanding palates and bigger budgets, bird’s nest soup is considered a delicacy by the Japanese, as are the excellent ray or shark fin soups.
If you find yourself in Nanluoguxiang, in the Sanlitun and Houhai districts, which are buzzing with trendy bars and restaurants, or in the Wangfujing hutong, you must try Peking duck, wontons (steamed dumplings), chuan meat skewers and candied Tanghulu fruit skewers.
Make sure you experience the ancient tea ceremony (the art of preparing and serving it), which provides a snapshot of its 4000-year history. There are countless varieties of tea to be sampled in any one of Beijing’s great many teahouses, but don’t miss the Laoshe Teahouse and Maliandao tea market.
The slow pace of Tai Chi
Tai Chi is an oriental discipline with over 1000 years’ history behind it, and close ties to Chinese medicine. Many young and not so young people in Beijing practice the art, either on their own as part of a group. You can see people at any time of the day or night, in the street or in parks – or event in the big hotels as park of a tourist show.
Just watching the slow, circular movements done in unison, like a fluid dance, has a calming and relaxing effect – the perfect way to recharge your batteries before throwing yourself back into the chaos of Beijing’s streets!
798 Art District
The 798 Art District, a former factory turned arts and culture district, is home to a number of various local and international artists’ studios and workshops, as well as plenty of art and design galleries. It’s a really picturesque, buzzing complex where visitors can admire virtually any type of art (multimedia installations, murals, sculptures, photography and videos by emerging artists).
How to shop like a true Beijing local
Shopping is seen as a form of art in Beijing, one that reaches the pinnacle in the markets and stores of the Chaoyang district.
The Dongdan market, meanwhile, is perfect for people interested in local craftsmanship, while Xiushui street and the Panjiayuan market are the places to go for artwork, artisanal products and antiques. The Sanlitun Yashou market offers an incredible range of footwear, bags and cases, clothing, jewellery, fabric and toys.
If you’re after something a little more precious, such as jade, lacquer, cloisonné (decorated metal objects), jewellery boxes decorated with mother-of-pearl and ceramics, it’s important to go to a store that has a certificate of authenticity. And last but certainly not least, lovers of antiques must make sure the don’t miss Liulichang Street.
Temples: places of worship and relaxation
Of all the many temples in Beijing, one of the most beautiful – a perfect place to relax – is the Beijing Temple of Confucious (1032-1036), an oasis of peace and quiet filled with statues, ancient pavilions and centuries-old cypress trees. Also worth a visit is the majestic 17th-century Lama Temple (Dongcheng district), a Tibetan place of worship packed with tapestries, frescoes, drums and prayer wheels. The Wanfu pavilion here is home to an immense statue of the Buddha Maitreya, carved from a single block of sandalwood.
The most beautiful parks
Beijing has an abundance of parks created in various eras (and across several different dynasties). These green spaces are home to temples, pagodas, flowers and fragrant plants.
Zizhuyuan Park, in the Haidian district, is one of the biggest in the city and features stunning lakes, over 50 species of bamboos and more than 140 types of tree.
Jingshan Park is without doubt one of the prettiest, partly because of its gorgeous views of the Forbidden City.
Last but not least, it’s worth making the trip to Xiangshan Park, in the west of the city. It’s a vast swathe of hills and forests with several panoramic viewpoints which is particularly beautiful in autumn, when the leaves of the maple trees turn countless shades of red.
In order to enter China, you need an entrance visa which is issued via a procedure that varies according to your reason for travel. Visa requests are sent to the Chinese embassy or consulate in your country, even if you’re applying via a travel agency. Tourist visas entitle you to enter the country once only, for a maximum stay of 30 days. No visas can be issued at the border, so anyone who arrives on Chinese soil without a visa will be turned back. It is possible to apply for a transit visa for Beijing, valid for 144 hours.
The following documentation is necessary for you to apply of a tourism, business or short-stay visa:
- Passport with at least six months’ validity and two consecutive blank pages;
- Photocopy of the passport pages;
- Completed and signed Chinese visa application form;
- Return flight booking to and from China.
For more information, please visit http://www.ebeijing.gov.cn
Beijing has very short autumns and springs and long summers (June to September) and winters (November to March), during which time it’s not recommended that you visit the city. The days are particularly muggy and hot in summer, with temperatures capable of hitting 40°C, while winter can see temperatures dip below zero.
The climate is more pleasant in spring (March to May), with rain scarce and temperatures of between 10°C and 24°C.
The air does get cold in the evenings, however, and there can be strong winds some days.
The best season to visit Beijing is autumn (late August to November), when long sunny days and clear skies make it a pleasure to enjoy the great outdoors and admire the colourful parks.
The most important festival in China is without doubt Chinese New Year, also known as the Spring Festival. This two-week event sees a constant stream of folklore-inspire celebrations, dancing to the beat of drums and gongs, tastings of gastronomic specialities and processions featuring brightly coloured dragons.
Another traditional celebration is the Lantern Festival, which denotes the end of winter and the start of the flower season and sees Beijing fill with lanterns of all shapes and colours while the locals eat traditional tangyuan (sweet rice flour balls).
September/October sees Moon Festival, or Mid-Autumn Festival, which takes on the day when the moon is at its biggest and brightest, according to traditions. It’s also during this period that the Xuannan Cultural Festival and Beijing International Tourism Festival take place, both of which feature theatre shows and other themed events.
Another two stand-out events are the Beijing International Kite Festival (April), with its stunning kite shows, and the Dragon Boat Festival (late June), which features traditional dragon boat racing.
Many people may only have seen Beijing, literally meaning "Northern Capital" in Chinese, in Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1987 cult film The Last Emperor. Yet the city has history stretching back three millennia, with temples erected by ancient dynasties coexisting with modern architecture and neighbourhoods. And although on first impressions the city seems chaotic and crowded (it’s one of the most populous in the world, after all), in reality Beijing has a wealth of gorgeous temples and well-maintained parks, which serve as silent oases perfect for enjoying a few moments’ peace. While the city has maintained its centuries-old traditions and charms, in recent years the Chinese capital has witnessed significant urban development, with new places of cultural and artistic interest springing up next to on-trend bars, fusion restaurants and hi-tech districts which contrast markedly with the 1950s barracks dotted around the city.