If Kate Melua is to be believed, there are 9 million bicycles in Beijing. Since the Chinese capital has a massive population of 21.5 million people, that figure isn’t hard to believe. While a metropolis this size has more to experience than can possibly be summed up in one travel piece (or one trip for that matter) there are some must-sees visitors to bustling Beijing should be sure to include in their itineraries.
The Forbidden City
Holding court in the center of Beijing, the palatial Forbidden City is a recognizable Chinese icon. Fortunately left relatively untouched during the cultural revolution, this stunning complex, which served as Imperial Court during the Ming and Qing dynasties, is the largest palace complex in the world. Pass over the moat, through the Meridian Gate, and into this fascinating bit of preserved history. Allow yourself at least half a day to explore. Audioguides (cheaper and much more trustworthy than the guides at the entrance) are available in more than 40 languages. Avoid Saturdays and Sundays, when the crowds of domestic tourists are especially dense.
Adjacent to the Forbidden City, through the Gate of Heavenly Peace from which it takes it name, is the historically resonate Tiananmen Square – the world’s fourth largest public square. Early risers can catch the flag raising ceremony, performed by the People’s Liberation Army, though you’ll have to arrive early to snag a spot where you can see through the crowds. Tiananmen is best (or perhaps worst) known for the events that took place there in 1989, when the army forced prodemocracy demonstrators out of the square. You can still feel that tension in the square, complete with security checks on entry and close police monitoring. Other than some interesting communist architecture, there’s not much here after you’ve soaked up the historical significance- though the interested can see Chairman Mao’s body for free from 8am-noon Tuesday through Sunday.
If you’re short on time, put the Lama Temple (Yonghegong) and the Temple of Confucius are the can’t-misses amongst Beijing’s temples. The Lama Temple is amongst the most important Tibetan Buddhist temples outside of Tibet itself. It’s a beautiful (and active) place of worship, resplendent with stunning frescoes, carpentry, Tibetan prayer wheels and breathtaking statuary- including an 18 m high Buddha at the very back of the temple.
Much more quiet is the serene Confucian Temple, only a few hundred meters west of the Lama Temple. In addition to beautiful carvings, you’ll find here the 51,624 names of the advanced scholars, or Jinshi, of the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, carved into 198 stone tablets.
Buyers and browsers alike will delight in a visit to Beijing’s markets. For a fun mishmash of everything under the sun, try the Panjiyuan Flea Market. You’ll find antiques of all kinds in its over 3,000 stalls, as well as handmade goods by local artisans on the weekends.
The Donghuamen Night Market, on the other hand, is more of sensory experience. Not the place for picky eaters, come here to sample fried scorpions, lizards and crickets on a stick – as well as an array of other culinary adventures and tamer choices like noodles, dumplings, and savory pancakes.
The Great Wall
You can’t visit China without making a stop at its most iconic site. Head a little out of town (1 hour by train, 1.5 hours by bus) to visit a bit of China’s weaving wonder. The most famous (and most accessible) segment is the Badaling section, though you may find the extent of the restoration and the crowds her spoil some of the wonder. If you have the time and inclination, travel a little further to the Jinshanling, Huanghuacheng or Simatai for less crowded views.