Beijing is a modern and fashionable city whose cityscape is changing almost daily. However, it is still possible to see parts of the city that have changed little for millennia. Must-sees on any visit include the Forbidden City, built in the 15th century and a forbidden area for 500 years until the revolution of 1911, the intricately carved and colourfully decorated Temple of Heaven and the Imperial Summer Palace, located just outside the city. It is also possible to visit the Great Wall on a day-trip from Beijing.
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Top things to do in Beijing
Afternoon tea at the Summer Palace
To avoid the intense heat and humidity of the Beijing summer, the imperial family would leave the Forbidden City for this tranquil, lakeside retreat on the outskirts of the city. The original Summer Palace was laid out in the 12th century and is set within 2.5 sq km of gardens on the willow-fringed Kunming lake. Stroll around the pavilions and palaces of the complex, enjoying the fine gardens or take a boat trip across the lake to see the marble boat on the north shore, a folly associated with the Empress Dowager, a one-time resident, who had it refurbished with misappropriated funds that should have paid for the modernisation of the Chinese navy. For something special, visit the 5-star Aman at Summer Palace hotel, which occupies a series of historical dwellings just steps away from this iconic site, where you can enjoy afternoon tea in these tranquil and enchanting surroundings.
City walking tour & food tasting
The oldest and most traditional neighbourhoods of Beijing are characterised by hutongs, labyrinthine networks of narrow ancient streets and alleys formed by lines of siheyuan, traditional courtyard residences that are typically home to generations of Chinese families. Join an expert local guide on a walking tour of the area, who will lead you to places of interest along the way and describe life in the city. Along the way, sample different kinds of local snacks: look out for fried dumplings, sugar-coated hawthorn berries and rou jia mo, a sandwich of pork and coriander.
Tai chi at the Temple of Heaven
Located in the centre of Tiantan Gongyuan Park, this spectacular Ming temple has become regarded, and is widely used, as the symbol of Beijing. Dating from 1420, its wooden pillars support a curved ceiling without cement or nails to a height of 38 metres. The temple’s intricate carving and bright colours illustrate the opulent Ming style. Also in the temple complex is the Echo Wall, a circular structure composed of polished bricks on the inside. The temple and its surrounding altars, gates and park are a meeting place for the people of Beijing. See the locals enjoying a game of chess or practicing the ancient art of tai chi, which you can join in with if you wish.
The Great Wall with champagne picnic
Stretching from the Gobi desert to the Yellow Sea, the Great Wall is the largest man-made structure on earth and an amazing feat of engineering, labour and sacrifice. The original wall was begun 2,000 years ago to keep out marauding nomads. Its construction required hundreds of thousands of political prisoners and an estimated 180 million cubic metres of packed earth. At Mutianyu, a short distance from Beijing, a section with 14 watchtowers is open to the public. The view as you step from the cable car that takes you up to the wall is breathtaking. After exploring the wall, enjoy a champagne picnic lunch from a ridge-top viewpoint above Mutianyu village, with spectacular views of the Great Wall snaking across the skyline and into the distance.
Tiananmen Square & the Forbidden City
Tiananmen Square, the largest public square in the world, is the focal point for the city of Beijing and a place of enormous significance in China's modern history. See the Qian Men (Front Gate), the Great Hall of the People and the Gate of Heavenly Peace with its huge portrait of Mao, from where it is possible to enter the legendary Forbidden City. The largest and most complete group of ancient buildings in China, the Forbidden City was built in the 15th century, and was a restricted area for 500 years before the revolution of 1911. It was home to two royal dynasties, the Ming and Qing emperors (24 in total), and it is from this palace that the emperors governed China, rarely stepping out of its confines. The entire complex consists of 8,706 rooms in which an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 people lived including 3,000 eunuchs, as well as maids and concubines, all within 68 hectares. The palace would regularly go up in flames, some fires accidental, some not, and most of the present buildings date from the 18th century.
Visit remote sections of the Great Wall
Stretching from the Gobi desert to the Yellow Sea, the Great Wall of China is the largest man-made structure on Earth and an amazing feat of engineering, labour and sacrifice. The original wall was begun 2,000 years ago, when China was unified under Emperor Qing Shi Huang, to keep out marauding nomads, then later lengthened and upgraded during the Ming dynasty. Much of the wall is in disrepair but sections around Beijing remain in a good state or have been restored. The wall at Mutianyu, 1.5 hours' drive from Beijing, offers superb views and is accessible by cable car. Jinshanling Pass, a 3.5-hour drive from Beijing, is much less developed and sees far fewer visitors, allowing for a more peaceful experience. Huanghuacheng ('Yellow Cliff') is a beautiful area beside a lake and about 2 hours' drive out of Beijing, but the wall here is mostly in disrepair and walking is difficult.
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"Every moment was special, there were so many amazing events - walking along the Great Wall of China, looking down over the rice terraces in Longsheng, seeing the giant pandas in Chengdu, watching the shiplocks do their work on the Yangtze."