Beijing and Tianjin
As the capital of China, Beijing receives millions of foreign visitors every year who flock here to see a collection of sights which can only be described as breathtakingly fabulous. For centuries Beijing was home to the ruling emperor of the time and during two distinctly different dynasties incredible structures, gardens and palaces were built with all the scale, grandeur and richness which befitted the Chinese royalty.
Each of these astonishing leftovers can be explored by Beijing’s visitors today and there are so many unique and globally important sights that it is impossible to cover them in one day. With regard to UNESCO World Heritage sites alone Beijing has no less than seven and to this can be added literally hundreds of other highlights. Among this rich tapestry of ancient treasures is interwoven every sign of 21st century progress which is characterized by broad boulevards and contemporary architecture; a design which gives the city something more of an airy feel than that encountered in other densely populated Chinese metropolises.
Besides sheer numbers, another aspect which makes taking in too many of the sights somewhat difficult is its spread out nature. While some of the city’s most iconic treasures are clustered together others are flung further afield so you will need to be clever in planning your itinerary. The good news is taxis are plentiful and relatively cheap which means getting around, even to the more distant sights, is achievable. Additionally, the city has a smooth and extensive subway system which also happens to be one of the cheapest on the planet.
Lying around 81 miles (131km) south-east of Beijing can be found the major port city of Tianjin which has carved its place in history as both a key location during the bloody 1899 Boxer Rebellion and as home to the very last emperor of China. Among its many sites of interest are a wealth of 19th century protected colonial buildings which are intermixed with a thoroughly modern city.
A Windstar Cruise to Beijing is the perfect way to see all the sites below. Together these two cities promise the visitor an exotic journey and an exploration of their fascinating layers of history, all of which tell the story of one of the greatest empires the world has ever known.
A Morning in Beijing
As already touched on Beijing has an incredible wealth of sights, every one of which could be described as an essential inclusion. However, several of these sites are extensive in the extreme and could be said to merit an entire day’s exploration all on their own. Added to this is the fact that the city’s attractions are widely dispersed. Those who have been here before you typically advise against trying to cram too much in but instead taking your time to explore the key highlights without looking to achieve the impossible and spending too much precious time charging from point A to B.
It is with all this in mind the following itinerary has been put together to offer you the best of the best along with attempting to keep an element of relaxation in your day. It also allows you to make choices of your own as the day unfolds where certain alternatives are concerned.
Exploring the Hutongs
Once-upon-a-time Beijing’s neighborhoods were characterized by twisting labyrinths of criss-crossing alleyways and lanes leading to courtyards where dwellings clustered. But times change and as the vast city developed much of this traditional Beijing was demolished and replaced with wide thoroughfares and more up to date buildings. However, if you know where to look examples of this medieval charm still exist and are a wonderful experience for visitors in search of authentic Beijing life and encounters with welcoming locals. Exploring these old lanes – known as hutongs – offers a charming introduction to the city as well as providing an intimate glimpse into its culture and history. Most come complete with a range of boutique and one-of-a-kind shops, small independent restaurants, tucked-away bars and micro breweries and quirky cafes to add even more interest.
There are many hutongs in Beijing close to the center, most of them dating back to the 13th and 14th century, where tourists can wander both the main hutong and the side streets which radiate from them. Some of the most often visited by tourists include Houhai, Yandai Xiejie (Skewed Tobacco Pouch Street), Guozijian Street and Liulichang Street. This latter is known for its plethora of antique stores – many of them having been in business for centuries – and a place to buy rare thread-bound books.
While each hutong has its own charm a good choice for those on the hunt for souvenirs is well-preserved Nanluogu Xiang with its Bohemian feel and the added bonus of the historic Drum and Bell Towers in close proximity. Nanluogu Xiang is packed with character and made up of one main street which runs for about 800 meters with eight hutongs branching off on either side. As you wander these ancient lanes and courtyards whose history first began more than 700 years ago, you will encounter cute cafes, trendy bars, shops both quirky and chic selling everything from silk shawls to second-hand books and a plentiful supply of handicrafts for sale.
Within this district, located close to each other, can be found the Drum Tower and the Bell Tower which date from 1272. Such towers were traditionally used throughout China for telling the time by way of ringing a bell or beating a drum and the structures used to contain these instruments typically became landmarks. Although Nanluogu Xiang’s drum and bell fell silent for an extended period of history after the fall of the last emperor the tradition has been revived in recent times and today the drum is heard four times a day and the bell every New Year’s Eve.
While the Bell Tower is a fairly drab structure the Drum Tower is more vibrantly colored in red and turquoise with some decorative embellishments. Both towers can be climbed and doing so gives you a great view of the labyrinthine hutongs from above along with further reaching views of Beijing.
You can wander the hutongs on foot but if you want to preserve some energy a very popular way to explore them is by rickshaw or pedicab.
Morning Coffee Break in Beijing
For many years Beijing visitors bewailed the absence of establishments serving high-quality coffee – perhaps not surprising in a nation known for its tea-drinking traditions. These days however cafes catering to the discerning coffee connoisseur are not so hard to find with new names cropping up all the time and freshly ground beans and skilled baristas no longer a rarity.
One such is Berry Beans Cafe on Bada Hutong which is placed conveniently close to Tiananmen Square where your Beijing adventures continue after you have had you morning coffee break. Tucked away amid the Dashilan hutongs, Berry Beans Cafe sits in an area which was once a red light district during imperial times and the building itself was actually once a brothel. The glass-fronted interior here is bright and modern but the real gem is the lovely plant-dotted roof terrace. From here you can sip your coffee and watch the goings on in the hutong below you.
Another great choice for the discerning coffee drinker is Voyage which, located in Nanluogu Xiang, means you won’t have to stray too far to get your caffeine fix if you opted to explore this hutong earlier.
In general the environments of many of the Beijing cafe choices can sometimes seem a little austere or industrial so if you prefer a more lounge-like and colorful space head to flower-filled Dandelion on Gulou Dong Dajie which is located close to the Dongcheng hutongs. As this little gem which serves a good range of coffee choices and cakes is located right next to the flashy Cafe Zarah it is often totally overlooked and frequently empty of customers; a perfect choice if you are looking for a little peace and quiet.
Located in the heart of the city, Tiananmen Square might be one of the most famous squares in the world but don’t come here expecting pretty because you will be disappointed. It is basically just a vast swathe of concrete – one of the largest public squares on the planet – but it has enormous cultural and historical significance and therefore needs to be on the Beijing visitor’s list. It is also the point from which you will enter the Forbidden City – your next stop – so is part of your route regardless.
Dating back to the 17th century and today serving as venue for the city’s most important parades and rallies, Tiananmen was the platform from which Chairman Mao made his history-changing1949 proclamation which established the country as the People’s Republic of China. In 1989 it made world news again when hundreds of civilian protesters – many students – died at the hands of government troops, During this time, TV screens across the globe were filled with unforgettable images of tanks rolling across the square while dwarfed protesters faced them. Daily at sunrise and sunset the square sees the flag raising and lowering ritual accompanied by trooping soldiers which is a spectacle many tourists gather to watch.
Flanking or within the square can be found the 38m high obelisk which is the Monument to the People’s Heroes, the vast state building of The Great Hall of the People, the National Museum of China, the Forbidden City and Chairman Mao’s mausoleum. The other main sight in Tiananmen Square is the huge portrait of Chairman Mao. You won’t be able to miss this because it hangs above the portal of the gate tower – the Gate of Heavenly Peace or Tiananmen Gate – through which you will need to pass to arrive at the Meridian Gate for the Forbidden City. (There are other points of access as well besides Tiananmen Gate but all lead eventually to the Meridian Gate.)
The Forbidden City
Also known as the Palace Museum and the Imperial Palace, the incredible Forbidden City is undoubtedly Beijing’s jewel in the crown by quite some way and this is saying something in a city which has no shortage of impressive must-see sights. The Forbidden City – widely considered to be one of the world’s top museums – is not just Beijing’s most popular attraction but the single most visited in the entire country.
Once separated from the rest of Beijing by the outer walls of the Imperial City surrounding it, today the Forbidden City’s own red-hued 10m high fortification walls still remain, stretching for 3.5km and screening the UNESCO World-Heritage listed ancient citadel within. Entry into the complex is via the enormous Meridian Gate which one served as the emperor’s very own point of access.
In essence the Forbidden City is a palace complex which served as reclusive home to the ruling emperor and his court for centuries but one so massive that a visit of several days may still leave parts unseen. And not only is it huge but is, according to UNESCO, the ‘largest collection of preserved wooden structures in the world’ which gives it enormous importance on a global scale. The whole is a labyrinth of beautiful temples, regal pavilions, grandiose living quarters, picturesque courtyards, galleries, majestic gateways and grand halls with museum collections dotted around. Prepare to be dazzled, overwhelmed and enchanted because the Forbidden City is nothing short of mind-blowing and other-worldly.
Although the palace has stood in this spot since the 15th century a series of fires and sackings over the years has meant various rebuilds. Much of what you will see during your visit actually dates from the 18th century during the Qing Dynasty – the last era of imperial rule in China.
While scales are almost impossible for the mind to compute the following statistics might give you some idea – the whole complex covers 178 acres (720,000 square meters); there are almost 1000 buildings and in total these are made up of around 9,000 rooms. Overall it is three times the size of Paris’s Louvre and almost three times the size of the Kremlin in Russia. It is thought around 1 million laborers were needed to complete it. Many visitors wander independently or with the help of audio guides but the general consensus seems to suggest signing up for a guided tour. This way you will not only be able to have a greater understanding and appreciation of what you are seeing but also be sure you are missing none of the most significant highlights.
While the sheer scale is a major feature in itself the detailing everywhere is astounding. The Chinese architectural embellishments – most often seen on the rooftops and eaves – typically have significant cultural symbolism such as offering protection, attracting luck and prosperity or denoting supremacy or eternity. Carvings and statuary are also beyond count and include dragons, phoenix and lions – all also signifying something; this is another reason to tour the site with a knowledgeable guide so that such things can be explained to you and to enrich the whole experience.
Along with the buildings themselves the Forbidden City is also a packed treasure chest of priceless ancient artifacts; nowhere else in the world has such an important collection of Chinese historical art items. Ceramics and porcelain, jade pieces, bronze-ware, clocks, paintings and calligraphy along with other exquisite treasures make up a collection of more than a million pieces. Several exhibition halls display many of these ancient artworks in themed collections such as the Paintings and Calligraphy Gallery located in the Hall of Military Eminence.
As many who come here are limited on time it is impossible to see everything so a standard 2 hour snapshot exploration tends to head along the central route to take in the halls and museums which line this axis. This typically means these areas are the most crowded. If you want to escape the hordes head to the lesser halls and side halls such as the Palace of Earthly Tranquility which was both imperial bridal bedchamber and harem quarters. These lesser halls, although smaller than the Great Halls, still have plenty of interest for the visitor. Many include eclectic exhibitions ranging from exquisite gifts given to the emperor by visiting diplomats and dignitaries to personal objects used by the imperial household.
Also an almost compulsory must-see on any visit to the Forbidden City is the finely landscaped Imperial Garden, itself complete with about 20 buildings. These vary significantly in style and are each designed to harmonize with their surroundings of trees, flowers, rock gardens and sculpted statuary.
Interestingly, about 40% of this wondrous place is still off limits to the public although new sections and features are being opened up all the time such as the perimeter wall walkway which gives elevated views of the Forbidden City and the Garden of Compassion and Tranquility which was a sacred and private area for empress dowagers.
Last but not least on any Forbidden City visit is a short climb up the hill of Jingshan Park which you arrive at on exiting the city through the Gate of Divine Prowess. The elevated terrain here gives you the opportunity to look down on the entire spread of the Forbidden City and goes some way to helping you understand its astounding scale.
The National Museum of China
Located on the eastwards side of Tiananmen Square can be found the National Museum of China. Normally, a museum of this caliber would feature as a must-visit attraction however Beijing has such a wealth of high level highlights there really is not time to fit them all in and if it is treasure you are looking for the Forbidden City is always going to be the obvious choice. However, the excellent National Museum is free to enter so if you do want to take a quick peek inside or have a whistle-stop tour you can do so without committing your money or too much of your time.
An Alternative Morning in Tianjin
While most would agree that Beijing wins the competition for the more iconic and grander sightseeing option Tianjin is far from short on things to see and do. For all those who prefer to start out (or even stay) closer to port the following gives a summary of the Tianjin possibilities so you can decide where to direct your footsteps. You can of course mix and match the most appealing from both Tianjin and Beijing to create your perfect Chinese day.
The Jingyuan Garden of Serenity – Home to China’s Last Emperor
When the era of Imperial China came to an end and the very last emperor was expelled from the Forbidden City in the 1920s Jingyuan Garden was where he made his home for a short time along with his wives. With such a significant history these gardens and the buildings they incorporate are considered a must-visit for Tianjin tourists. Its story aside, Jingyuan is also considered noteworthy for its blend of architecture – both Spanish European and Japanese. The 21 rooms furnished in their original opulent style can be explored along with the courtyards and gardens made up of ponds and pavilions. There are also various exhibits, including photographic displays, pertaining to the life of the last emperor.
The Tianjin Eye
Also known as the Yongle Bridge Ferris Wheel, this instantly recognizable giant Tianjin landmark sits on the Yongle Bridge which spans the Hai River. Whether or not the claim that this attraction is the only bridge-located of its kind in the world is true there is no doubt you are going to be rewarded with fantastic views. 40 minutes rides are taken inside one of the wheel’s exterior-suspended transparent capsules to glide to a height of 120 meters. When the weather is fine the fantastic views from the top stretch for 40km in every direction.
Tianjin has several parks and its lovely Beining Park is generally considered one of the city’s most scenic spots. This is particularly true during spring when the flowers and trees create a rainbow-colored sea of blossoms.
The serene park is made up of a series of tranquil ponds and picturesque pavilions linked by no less than 29 bridges which range from pretty to the highly ornamental. The park’s central focus is the multi-tiered Zhiyuan Pagoda with its interior murals and a view from the top of its 244 feet by way of steps or an elevator.
The China House Museum
While China has no shortage of ornately adorned temples and palaces you would be hard-pressed to find anything quite like the extraordinary China House, also known as the Porcelain House. Privately owned by an art collector, this astonishing building was once a 5-storied colonial residence but today is covered both outside and inside by exquisite decorations made up of porcelain fragments. From windows to drainpipes and interior handrails to ceilings, the thousands of porcelain pieces dating from various historical eras, along with glittering crystal chips, adorn everything the eye can see. Traditional Chinese themes such as dragons, lions and phoenixes for attracting prosperity and luck are incorporated in details everywhere including the giant coiling dragon on the roof.
The outer walls are embedded with priceless vases while inside the house is also filled with marble sculptures, ancient vases, masterpiece paintings, antique furniture, woodcarvings and all kinds of decorative art features, many of them centuries old. Some of these have also been made into mosaic-like or fabulous decorations which defy description. In short, this contemporary museum is nothing short of an astonishing Aladdin’s Cave of treasure and is truly one-of-a-kind.
The Radio and Television Tower
Soaring upwards and way beyond anything surrounding it, this elegant and completely water-surrounded tower rises more than 415m into the sky and is impossible to miss. The communications tower is the fourth tallest of its kind in the world (only Toronto, Moscow and Shanghai have higher ones) and also in the top 10 list of the world’s tallest free-standing towers. While the structure is impressive to gaze upon it is its high-rise observation deck which is the real draw with incredible unobstructed views which take in water, cityscape and beyond. If you just can’t drag yourself away from the view you can linger awhile in the ‘hanging’ restaurant here.
The Ancient Cultural Street – Guwenhua Jie
While this area is undoubtedly touristy and often crowded with visitors there is a very good reason for this. This third of a mile long street incorporates some truly ancient buildings such as the 600 year-old Yuhuangge Taoist Temple and the14th century Tianhou Palace (also known as Niangning Palace and The Queen of Heaven Palace) which is one of China’s only surviving temples dedicated to the sea goddess Mazu. The rest of the street is a living and working recreation of a Qing Dynasty Chinese street. A true feast for the eyes and senses, many of the buildings are a riot of red and green featuring paper doors and are embellished with painted images, rippling banners, carvings and ornate lanterns.
Scenic in the extreme and with the ability to transport you back in time, the street is also filled with functioning independent shops and picturesque booths selling everything from antiques to artwork and craft souvenirs to kites while the food vendors are also plentiful.
In front of Tianhou Palace can be found an open-air stage where cultural shows can be watched for free by passersby.
The Tianjin Museum
Housed inside a distinctive ultra-modern building intended to represent a swan in flight, this free-entry museum’s collection of Tianjin history and fine arts is extensive and diverse. Among its 200,000 exhibits can be found ancient calligraphy, jade-ware, historical documents and paintings.
Lunch in Beijing
After a morning of exploration and covering the vast magnitude of the Forbidden City you will have certainly earned a relaxing pause for lunch. As you might imagine a city of this size offers endless choice with venues ranging from the charmingly rustic to the opulently luxurious and cuisine types which cover every Chinese region as well as other Asian fare and international choices.
The following have each been chosen as they are easily reached on foot from where your morning adventures ended – the Forbidden City – or where those of the afternoon will begin at the Temple of Heaven.
If your idea of lunch heaven includes al fresco dining and a Chinese cuisine type you are unlikely to have sampled before head to Dali Courtyard tucked away in the Dongcheng District’s historical hutongs. Noted for its friendly service and pretty-as-a-picture courtyard, Dali Courtyard’s dining atmosphere is casual and its surroundings charmingly quirky. The cuisine here is from Yunnan – a province tucked into the country’s south which borders Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar. Distinctly different to any Chinese food you may have previously enjoyed in your own country, Yunnanese food has been influenced by its geographical neighbors and so incorporates detectable elements of Thai, Vietnamese and Burmese dishes along with wild mushrooms and unusual herb flavorings.
The menus are set to make life easy for those happy to leave things in the hands of the chefs who have decided the day’s offerings after scouring the morning markets for the freshest and most appealing seasonal ingredients. Obviously this means complete pot-luck but expect something which includes a little of fish or seafood, meat and vegetables.
67 Xiaojingchang Hutong, Gulou Dongdajie, Dongcheng
If you have your heart set on elegant lunch dining direct your footsteps towards Dongcheng’s My Humble House which is something of a misnomer if ever there was one. Considered one of the city’s major players in the made-to-impress refined dining category, both the lovingly-crafted cuisine and the beautiful surroundings here suggest anything but humble. The dining is in a light-filled atrium with tables placed around a pond strewn with rose petals while a miniature bamboo feature adds a splash of greenery amid the elegant creams and wood tones. As far as the cuisine is concerned My Humble House offers a successful and subtle Chinese/Western infusion range, including plenty in the way of seafood choices, which carry poetry-like names and are presented as works of art.
An Afternoon in Beijing
With lunch over and legs hopefully rested you can start deciding which of Beijing’s incredible highlights to focus your afternoon attention on. The choice is two of the city’s most iconic highlights – the Temple of Heaven and the Summer Palace World Heritage Sites – or a trip out to see the Great Wall of China – another of Beijing’s UNESCO sites and one of the ‘New 7 Wonders of the World’.
The Temple of Heaven
Having served as one of China’s most significant sites for the religiously devoted for more than 500 years, the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Temple of Heaven is considered an essential inclusion in any Beijing itinerary. Originally constructed in the 15th century by the same emperor who founded the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven is not just one single structure but a complex set in a large park. Opened to the public in 1918, the Temple of Heaven was once a place of annual pilgrimage for the reigning emperors of both Ming and Qing dynasties to come and pray to ensure good harvests.
The main points of interest of this tranquil Confucian-designed complex are clustered together in three groups which make for easy exploration. You can of course wander where you will but the following lays down the most logical route which begins from the East Gate.
The Long Corridor
Today a hang-out spot for the city’s more mature locals to play chess and cards or listen to the radio, the Long Corridor traditionally served as a route for moving sacrificial offerings of fruits and grains to the altars in preparation for the official imperial ceremonies.
The 350m long covered walkway flanked by scarlet pillars is topped by a beautifully painted ceiling in turquoise, green and blue.
The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests
Considered by most visitors to be the complex’s jewel in the crown, this 38m tall wooden structure is raised on a platform approached by way of a series of white marble steps. Vibrant in shades of jade, blue and yellow, embellished with golds and topped by a three-tiered roof, this hall was the focus of prayer ceremonies in imperial times to ensure rich harvests for the year to come.
Majestic from the outside, this beautiful building’s interior decoration is breathtaking with painted detail stretching from walls to interior dome summit and with a central carved dragon to symbolize the might of the divine emperor. It is all the more impressive when you realize this pillar-supported structure is held together without the use of nails but instead uses intricate interlocking of its wooden components for structural integrity.
The Animal Killing Pavilion
Located to one side of the prayer hall, the Animal Killing Pavilion is not open to the public but was once – as the gruesome name suggests – the place where animals such as oxen and sheep were sacrificially slaughtered.
The Chinese Rose Garden and 100 Flower Garden
If you are visiting at the right time of year (around May for rose blooming time) and want a quick break from the majority of other visitors you can take a quick detour through the West Annex Hall for a stroll around the flower-filled gardens.
The Pavilion of Longevity
Built during the 18th century but only transferred to its present location in the 1970s, this beautiful little double-ringed, open-sided column-supported pavilion with its ornate two-tiered roof is beautifully decorated and often quieter than elsewhere in the complex.
The Fasting Palace
In order to have the best chance of having his prayers listened to the emperor would spend some time at this moat-surrounded hall during his imperial visit. As the name suggests, this is where he would undergo abstinence – not just with regard to food but also all other earthly pleasures – to prepare himself for the sacred rituals ahead. The giant bronze bell which was rung to herald his arrival and departure can still be seen in the gardens.
The Nine Dragon Tree
This wonderfully gnarled 500 year old tree is said to have the form of nine dragons. As both the number nine and dragons have great symbolism in traditional Chinese culture the tree is considered a highly important part of the complex. It is often swamped with visitors intent on touching its trunk which is said to bring luck.
The Circular Mound Altar
While neither the prettiest nor most impressive of the complex’s buildings this tiered white marble altar is considered significant thanks to some clever engineering. From making any noise while standing at its heart stone at its core some impressive amplification is generated. Along with the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests and the Imperial Vault of Heaven it makes up one of the complex’s three most important buildings.
The Imperial Vault of Heaven
Connected to the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests by a bridge which served as a pathway for the emperor, the octagonal Vault of Heaven is something of a twin to its beautiful neighbor although smaller sized. This structure – which held ritualistic items – is surrounded by the Echo Wall which throws whispers from one side to the other by way of an acoustic quirk.
The Summer Palace
Whether you call it the Imperial Garden Museum or use its more common title of the Summer Palace, this vast collection of gardens, pavilions, palaces, temples and bridges set around and amid a huge lake ranks as a Beijing tourist essential. Occupying 742.8 acres (3 square kilometers) – an even greater space than the giant Forbidden City – as you might guess from the title this UNESCO-listed site served as grand scale garden and an alternative summer residence to emperors.
Located 15km from downtown Beijing, today the country-side feel Summer Palace site offers tourists a break from the bustling city center in much the same way as it once served as an airy retreat for the rulers of the Chinese Empire. Some kind of imperial garden has occupied this site for at least 800 years but it owes its current large-scale grandeur to the 1800s Qing Dynasty era.
This wonderful place, infused with incredible history and culture and oozing both natural and man-made splendor, mainly consists of Kunming Lake which dominates the site and Longevity Hill which peers down over the park’s entirety. Just as with the Forbidden City an afternoon visit cannot hope to show you everything – this is after all the largest imperial park in China – but no matter where you roam here you are going to have plenty to keep you interested and be continuously dazzled by its beauty.
Set by the East Gate are the principal palace buildings which served as both residence and administrative area for the emperor and are made up of halls, courtyards and fascinating exhibits. One of this section’s highlights is the Garden of Virtue and Harmony which served as an entertainment venue for the last Empress Dowager and was frequently used for staging Beijing opera performances for her diversion. The delicate tiered wooden stage of the Grand Theater – the largest of its kind in the country – is stunningly beautiful.
Also located in the parks northern extremes is Suzhou Market Street which is a personification of charm. Although these traditionally-styled waterside shops you will see today were only built in the 1980s they are a faithful reconstruction of the original 18th century ones. During this period they served as a form of entertainment for both emperor and concubines who wanted to play at shopping – an activity that it was impossible for them to enjoy in reality. Members of the imperial household acted the part of shop-owners, street vendors and other customers. Today the shops and eateries here include teashops and souvenir stores along with banks, drugstores and dyers where staff dress in Qing Dynasty period costume.
The tree-clad Longevity Hill which throws its reflection into the lake above which it perches is an especially lovely section. Alone it has enough to keep you busy for some time with its collection of enchanting pavilions and temples including the Buddhist Fragrance Tower and the Cloud Dispelling Hall with the Sea of Wisdom Temple crowning the hill.
The lakeside pathway section which wends its shady way from the Fragrance Tower includes a magnificently roofed colonnade called the Long Corridor. At the end of this and sitting south of a stretch of picturesque boathouses you will arrive at the exquisite Marble Boat which could have jumped straight from the pages of a fairytale book.
The lake around which all is centered is itself an attraction which in summer can be crossed by ferry or explored by self-drive pedal boats. On the lake’s eastern shores can be found the Grand Pavilion from which the grandiose Seventeen-Arch Bridge allows visitors to arrive on Nanhau Island. While far from being the park’s only bridge – there are more than 30 – at 150 meters long and with a width of 8 meters it is the largest.
If you find yourself in need of escaping the majority of visitors take a stroll along the willow-tree lined West Causeway – its sections are joined by a series of picturesque bridges – which separates the West Lake from the main body of water.
An Alternative Afternoon in Beijing
The Great Wall of China
At its closest located around an hour’s drive north from Beijing’s center, the incredible Great Wall of China has many claims to fame. It is perhaps one of the most instantly recognizable monuments on Earth, arguably the greatest military defense structure ever erected and without doubt the longest structure made by man on the planet. It is also one of the ‘New 7 Wonders of the World’ and a World Heritage Site although the much bandied about tale that it is the only man-made structure visible from space is – so NASA tells us – a myth.
In total, the Great Wall of China which was originally built to keep the empire protected from any aggressive raids from beyond, snakes its way across the country’s terrain for an astonishing 21,000km (13,000 miles) when measured in its entirety. Most of what can be seen today dates from the Ming Dynasty era which stretched from 1368 until 1644 although certain sections have roots as far back as the third century BC. Despite its name the Great Wall of China is rather a colossal string of fortifications linked together by walls and made up of stone, brick, earth and wood and any visit here typically involves some form of hike along a certain stretch.
The stretches of the Wall that can be visited are divided into eight sections; closest to Beijing and therefore the most visited because of its convenience is Badaling. This chunk of the wall – which is also the site for a large souvenir market – has been extensively restored and is often crowded although there is a gondola for getting you up to the wall which means minimum effort is required.
If you would prefer something a little less blatantly touristy and heaving with people it is also quite straightforward to get to the wriggling Mutianyu section which originally dates from the 6th century. Not only is this 5,400 meters (3.4 miles) stretch well-preserved but it also comes complete with stunning and color-filled mountain views and more than 20 closely set watchtowers along with a wonderfully isolated feel; it is possible to have a Great Wall stroll here in comparative peace with a cable car system to make life easy. You can even sled back down again if you feel so inclined.
The other sections of the wall open to the public are Juyongguan, Simatai, Jinshanling, Huanghuacheng, Jiankou, and Gubeikou which are all further afield.
Quite how long a hike you take along any section of the wall really depends on your energy levels and time restrictions but most recommend around a two hour slot to see all points of interest in any one location.
Several of the wall sections are accessible by bus – direct and via connections – and the Badaling section is also accessible by train. For both of the two nearest sections mentioned here many tourists choose to arrive via taxi with many drivers offering competitive round trip prices including waiting time. If you want to arrive in style there are even choices such as riding side-car in a vintage motorcycle.
The Ming Tombs
Yet another of Beijing’s UNESCO sites, the imperial resting place known as the Ming Tombs is close enough to the Great Wall of China to combine the two if you have an interest. While this site has huge cultural and historical interest as the burial site of the majority of the Ming Dynasty emperors and has a scenic setting it might not be especially fascinating for you unless you have a particular passion for such things.
There are currently three tombs open to the public following excavations – Ding Ling, Cháng Líng, and Zhāo Líng. Access is via a 7km (4 mile) path known as the Sacred (or Spirit) Way lined with sculptures which passes first through a beautiful 16th century marble triumphal archway carved with images. After another 1k you will arrive at the Great Palace Gate with its yellow-tiled roof.
Entrance to the tombs themselves, which each have a gate, courtyards and hall, can be something of a steep climb but only Ding Ling allows you entrance to the actual burial chamber proper.
Pre-dinner Drinks and Dinner in Beijing
No matter which of Beijing’s incredible spectacles you have chosen to fill the second half of you day with there is little doubt you will have thoroughly earned a sundowner drink or two as you ponder your evening dining choices.
Beijing is known for clustering together its bars which means you can head to an area and have an explore before settling on the perfect pre-dinner drink spot. While new clusters are springing up all the time the city’s best known bar areas include the lake-side Houhai, the atmospheric hutongs of Nanluoguxiang, trendy art gallery-rich Dashanzi and lively Sanlitun – the favored stomping ground of the city’s ex-pats which has a concentration of not just bars but also shops, restaurants and clubs.
While quite possibly any glass of wine, chilled beer or cocktail will be a welcome arrival after your energetic day you can make things even more rewarding by heading to one of the city’s rooftop bars for drinks with a view. Considered by many to be the cream of the crop in the rooftop category is the Sanlitun-located Migas cocktail bar. Seven floors up, the view from the spacious terrace here is nothing short of magical and the oversize cushions, cozy sofas, palm trees and enchanting lighting make the transition into fully relaxed easy.
Nali Patio 6th Floor No. 81 Sanlitun 100027
Another rooftop choice is Toast set inside the lovely Orchid Hotel. At only two storeys up the terrace here doesn’t give you any great elevation but as it is located in the Dongcheng hutong area the vistas which accompany your al fresco drinks are decidedly charming.
If the quality of the cocktails rates as your highest priority a great choice for the serious connoisseur is the Sanlitun area’s Infusion Room. This high-end speak-easy loft with its sleek and grandly-lit pyramid bar is known for its exquisite and highly inventive signature cocktails which ‘Time Out’ describes as ‘extraordinary’. This bar is such an established name in certain circles that it often features famous guest bartenders from around the world who come to put their own highly-rated slant on things for a day or two.
Above D Lounge, Courtyard 4, Gongti Beilu, Chaoyang District (6415 9837)
While days of Beijing exploration would be unthinkable without inclusions such as the Forbidden City and the Great Wall, the city’s dining experience also includes an absolute must-do – Peking duck. Originally served as a treat for emperors, this lovingly lacquered dish comes accompanied with delicately thin pancakes, plum sauce and long slices of cucumber and spring onion. As a food beloved by Beijing, Peking duck can be found just about anywhere you care to roam and served both from tiny hole-in-the-wall type set-ups to elegant dining establishments.
However, the most raved about by the Peking duck cognoscenti is Duck de Chine whose dishes of this delicacy are considered as good as it gets in town as well as offering a fine-dining environment in which to enjoy it. Elegant and atmospherically lit by red lanterns, Duck de Chine was voted one of ‘The World’s Best Restaurants’ by Conde Nast travel magazine in 2016.
1949 The Hidden City, Courtyard 4, Gongti Bei Lu
Other high-end choices if you have your heart set on trying this imperial treat for yourself are Jing Yaa Tang located in the Opposite House Hotel and the Qianmen branch of the Quanjude chain.
While Peking duck is Beijing’s most famous culinary specialty the mutton hotpot probably claims second place. Hotpots are a fun dining experience as they involve a steaming pot being brought to your table along with the raw ingredients of your choosing and you do the cooking. While mutton is the most common base other meats or seafood are also often found with things such as chilies, garlic and coriander added according to your taste and to customize your dish.
King of the hotpot restaurants crown tends to go to Haidilao which is located eight floors up in the Tianyingtai Department Store.
2A Baijiazhuang Lu, Chaoyang district, or Eighth Floor, Tianyingtai Department Store, 88 Wangfujing Dajie, Dongcheng district
If your energy levels are low after your exciting Beijing day you can make life easy for your evening dining and smoothly transition from drinks to dinner if you headed to boutique hotel-located Toast earlier. The menu here is East Mediterranean inspired with some interesting Chinese elements and features ranges of small plates served in a romantic atmosphere.
Continuing on the theme of romantic it would be hard to beat the CCTV’s Tower Revolving Restaurant if an intimate meal for two is your aim. Eighteen floors up and holding the title of the city’s highest restaurant, this venue is not just a glamorously elegant option but also has incredible night city views from its giant windows which encircle the dining spaces. With the restaurant making one full turn every 90 minutes your views are constantly changing too. The food choices here include buffet-style in either Chinese or Western forms along with Japanese, French and Italian a la carte options.
An Evening in Beijing
With dinner over you may just choose to locate yourself at some spot which appeals in one of the lively bar areas or on a rooftop terrace to watch the Beijing life unfold around you. However, if you would prefer to be more formally entertained you have several options.
Night Show Performances
Night shows are a real thing in Beijing and there are many who would tell you that no visit here is quite complete without having experienced the cultural treasure known as the Peking Opera. Typically lasting around 90 minutes, these famous spectaculars are a true feast for the senses and while the opera elements of music and singing are both there so too are stylized inclusions of mime, acrobatics and dance. Gazing upon the fantastical costumes is worth the entrance fee alone. In every way quintessentially Chinese, this style of opera has instant charm for foreign visitors but is also incredibly popular with locals; in days gone by it was a favorite of the imperial family and households, particularly during the Qing Dynasty.
There is no shortage of places to enjoy a night of Peking Opera but those such as Huguang Huiguan Ancient Opera Theatre, Liyuan Theatre and Lao She Teahouse in the Xuanwu District or Dongcheng’s Chang’an Grand Theatre are considered some of the leading lights.
Impressive feats of ultimate balance, agility, physical power and flexibility have been a much valued art form for thousands of years in China. Today there are many theatres which stage breathtaking acrobatic performances which can be a mix of gymnastics, aerial acrobatics, exquisitely choreographed dance and circus skills, high-wire stunts and fire shows with such included spectacles as the globally familiar Lion Dance. Expect to be dazzled by color and wowed by the level of skill and presentation unfolding before your eyes. Chaoyang Theatre is the city’s most famous in the acrobatic genre and often sold out in advance but there are many other choices where buying tickets on the night is possible.
While it took the on-screen feats of kungfu master Bruce Lee to bring martial art popularity to the attention of the Western world these fighting forms had actually existed in China for thousands of years. Kungfu is not one single martial art but a general umbrella term for many traditional fighting styles which require time, energy and persistence to master. Martial art forms are not only used for combat but also have enormous spiritual significance and as such are an integral part of the rich tapestry which makes up Chinese culture.
Beijing’s Red Theatre is by quite some margin the most renowned venue for kungfu shows but there are others. Kungfu shows are not typically just some dry demonstration of skills either but rather woven theatrical spectacles of dance and acrobatics with martial arts as the principal theme and usually where some drama is played out.
World famous designer brands, electronics, souvenirs, clothing both incredibly cheap and fabulously expensive and all kinds of other wares – it is all here and makes Beijing something of a shopper’s paradise. And while daytime shopping is of course possible there are so many other things to do in this incredible city during daylight hours that shopping tends to take a back-seat. However, Beijing has a firm tradition of night shopping with many of the stores open until late for all those so inclined to get a satisfying retail fix.
Quite where you should head will depend on whether you have something specific in mind or are really just happy to browse in general. Wangfujing is an ancient commercial street in the Dongcheng District which many would consider to be Beijing’s top shopping hot-spot. Here among the flashing neon signs you can find huge modern stores, one-of-a-kind outlets, sometimes a night market and some traditional Chinese shops which give a nod to days gone by.
Other options include the narrow 300 meter long Qianmen Commercial Street which is packed with stores and good for herbal medicines, silks and tea and Xiushui Street more commonly known as Silk Street. This areas is good for (not surprisingly) silk, high quality shoes, Chinese rugs and paintings, souvenirs and all kinds of textiles including clothes, tableware and bedding.
Simply wandering the Beijing streets after-dark can be a wonderful experience. You can encounter everything from atmospherically lit traditional streets where swaying Chinese lanterns cast red glows to seas of flashing neon. Or you can find some of the city’s most iconic sights fantastically lit to create lovely night spectacles such as the buildings surrounding Tiananmen Square which together become a multi-colored light show. Perhaps you’d prefer to take a stroll down Ghost Street – known for its 24 hour food scene – where almost everything is bathed in a sea of red from painted store fronts to red lighting.
However, if you want to up the stakes a little there are a few spots which offer some city night views to die for. One of these is the CCTV Tower in the west of the city. Soaring to a height of 405 meters this communications tower is Beijing’s tallest structure and thanks to its 22nd floor observation deck you can take full advantage of this. From the open-air deck – which some claim is the world’s largest – you will be able to see the after-dark wonderland of Beijing complete with its millions of lights.
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