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The political and cultural centre of China for the best part of eight centuries,
few cities in the world have as rich a history as Beijing.
Here are the city's top 10 most iconic sites...

01 - The Forbidden City

“Every one of the Chinese emperors who ruled China from Beijing would have made a mark on the 10,0000 rooms”

The sense of imperial power resonates from within the, in parts, 20-metre-thick walls of the Forbidden City, such is the feeling of awe when you step through the red arches of this UNESCO Heritage site.

Every one of the Chinese emperors who ruled China from Beijing across five centuries would have made a mark, in some way, on the 10,000 rooms that cover the sprawling maze of buildings of the Imperial Palace. From 1421 through to 1911, this was the very heart of China, from the Ming dynasty right through to Puyi, of the Qing dynasty, who was the 24th and final emperor to live in the Forbidden City. Even after he abdicated in 1912, he was still allowed to stay within its walls until he was expelled in 1924, from which time the palace became a museum. It has remained so to this day.

There is history at every turn within its 180 acres of landscaped gardens and ancient buildings, in displays covering everything from jade and gems to artefacts of daily life in the palace. However, it’s perhaps the stories that can’t be seen that make it the most intriguing place to visit. As you stroll through its courtyards and vast halls, you can only wonder about the tales those thick walls could tell – from the construction itself, often said to have involved a million labourers over 15 years, to the countless stories of political intrigue, opium wars, conquering forces, wicked machinations, decadence, scandal and, of course, revolution.

Throughout all of this those walls have remained, and with a 16-year restoration program now in its final few years, they’re going to be around for some time yet.

Address: 4 Jingshan Front St, Dongcheng


TOP TIP There’s a daily limit of 80,000 tickets. Entry costs AUD $13 (approx.)

02 - The Great Wall

“Views from the towers allow you to truly capture the essence of the wall”

Only the pyramids of Egypt can justifiably be mentioned in the same breath as the Great Wall of China when it comes to discussing the merits of the world’s greatest wonders. Stretching more than 20,000 kilometres from east to west China, the Great Wall is the largest man-made defence ever built. Its tower-studded stonework spine weaves its way up and down mountains, traverses rivers, and cuts through desert.

It was the brainchild of Emperor Qin Shi Huang (259-210 BC) as a means to keep barbarian hordes at bay. Of course, the vision of Qin Shi Huang was actually completed long after his death, with the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) finishing some of the more renowned parts we can see today.

A visit to the Great Wall often begins in Beijing. There are around eight sites around the city, all a comparatively easy drive away. The most popular and wellrestored section is at Badaling, about 50 kilometres from Beijing city, with origins in the 16th century.

Entry is AUD $9 (approx.). You’ll still have to fork out for transport to the Great Wall.

03 - Hutongs

There are few more authentic experiences in Beijing than a visit to the hutongs, the higgledy-piggledy network of narrow alleys scattered through the city and once home to the majority of locals. The lanes date back to the Ming dynasty. At the centre of the maze of lanes is the Forbidden City, which was surrounded by the richer residents, who were in turn surrounded by the hutongs.

These confined and more populated streets were the thriving hub of everyday life in early 20th century Beijing. Today there are fewer, but those remaining still give an insight into how some Beijingers live their lives. Some of the more characterful lanes can be found in the shadow of the 15th-century Drum Tower in the Dongcheng district. Once upon a time – together with its sibling and neighbour, the Bell Tower – the Drum Tower would help keep check on time. The 63-ton brass bell would sound out from its 47-metre perch to signal the end of the day. 

Explore the hutongs in the back of a rickshaw.

04 - Temple of Heaven

To take in the marvel that is the Temple of Heaven, you must first make your way past the wonders on display within the considerable 267-hectare expanse of its park. This is where you turn one corner and find 70-year-old opera singers giving it everything they’ve got to appease a crowd consisting of those mildly curious to those mildly entertained. Turn another corner and it’s a Chinese tea dance, with 60-something males and females waiting patiently for the right time to ask each other to dance around the park.

Whatever miracle you’d expect from visiting a place called the “Temple of Heaven” is surely delivered before you even get to the main attraction, because the park itself is brimming with people living life to the fullest. Dancing, singing, exercising, gymnastics – you name it and the locals are doing it. The fact they’re all at least 60 years old only adds to the experience; indeed, their lust for life is infectious.

Head to the heart of the park and you’ll find the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. First built in 1420, destroyed by lightning in 1889 and then rebuilt again the year after, it remains the must-see structure of this Ming dynasty Yongle Emperor (who was also the man behind the Forbidden City) temple complex. Whether it be the buildings meant for the prayer of the emperors or the parklands filled with locals, you couldn’t wish for somewhere more relaxing to spend an afternoon away from the chaos of city life.

Address: 1 Tiantan E Rd, Dongcheng

A combination pass to all parts of the temple is AUD $9 (approx.) in peak season.

05 - CCTV Headquarters

Not so much a building as a shiny corner piece of an intergalactic Rubik’s Cube, it’s hard to believe the CCTV Headquarters is actually a working, functional building rather than a giant chunk of Star Wars space debris. Words can’t do the building justice; its horizontal and vertical loop gives the impression it was the architectural lovechild of M.C. Escher and a seriously ahead-of-their-time Lego master builder.

Dutch firm OMA and, specifically, Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren were the architects responsible, and in 2013 – just a year young – it won the accolade for the world’s best tall building. The Beijing skyline certainly found a new star when it opened its doors. There’s no question that the CCTV Headquarters – along with its contemporary neighbours the National Stadium, National Center of Performing Arts and even the Beijing International Airport – has helped position China at the very forefront of contemporary building design.

Unfortunately, because the building functions as the headquarters for China Central Television, only employees are able to take advantage of the (what we can only imagine to be) stunning views of Beijing. However, it’s worth visiting even to get a snap of the unique exterior. You won’t be disappointed by the marvelous architectural feat that is the CCTV headquarters.

Address: 32 E 3rd Ring Rd Middle, Chaoyang

06 - National Stadium

Beijing has one architectural gem that won’t be outshone: the National Stadium. Or, as the rest of the world knows it, the “Bird’s Nest”. Built for the princely sum of AUD $608 million (approx.), it took five years to build – from the breaking of the ground in 2003 through to the official opening in 2008. Around 17,000 workers were said to have a hand in its creation and, even now, the sight of its criss-crossed metallic outer shell brings back memories of the event it was created for, the 2008 Olympic Games.

With a capacity of 91,000, after the main event the building has been far from dormant. It has hosted motorsport’s Race of Champions, the Italian Super Cup final (soccer), a match with English Premier League sides Arsenal and Manchester City, and the Athletics World Championships. Even without such events, thousands still make a pilgrimage to the site just to marvel at the building. In a relatively short space of time it has become a true design classic.

Address: 1 National Stadium S Rd, Chaoyang

Standard admission is AUD $11 (approx.) and free for children (under 1.2 metres tall).

07 - Capital Museum

Given that it only opened as a museum in the Confucius Temple in 1981 and has only been in its current building since 2006, compared to Beijing’s other ancient attractions the Capital Museum is fairly new. But this art museum isn’t about its shiny new ancient-Chinese-inspired exterior; it’s what lies inside that counts, and that’s where it gets interesting.

The museum houses more than 200,000 relics and artefacts within its astonishing 63,390 square metres. From ancient Buddhist statues to priceless porcelain with bronze and jade aplenty, items date as far back as the New Stone Age. Rare works of calligraphy and paintings fill the halls, but the pièce de résistance is without doubt the stele of Emperor Qian Long. Standing at almost seven metres tall, this 300-year-old relic weighs an incredible 40 tons. Another bonus is that entry is free of charge, but you’ll have to register for a ticket at the official site.

Address: 16 Fuxingmen Outer St, Xicheng

There are 262 Buddhist and Tibetan statues on display in the museum.

08 - Ming Tombs

While it didn’t quite match the nigh-on 800- year rule of the Zhou, the Ming dynasty had a pretty good run of close to 300 years, and today the final resting place of many of its emperors is a short drive from the centre of Beijing. The 13 Tombs of the Ming dynasty are in the suburb of Changping, in a valley at the foot of a mountain chosen for its feng shui by the third Ming emperor, Yongle.

Not all the tombs are open to the public, but those that are provide testament to the grandiose nature of these final places of rest. Changling Tomb stretches across 12 hectares and consists of an Alhambresque gate, three courtyards, and its centrepiece, the Ling’en Hall, a 500-year-old wooden structure built on three storeys of white marble and supported by 32 giant columns. At its centre is a bronze statue of Emperor Zhu Di himself. Changling is the most impressive, but Dingling and Zhaoling are equally as significant. Entry to each requires a ticket starting from AUD $7 (approx.) per tomb.

Address: Changchi Rd, Changping

The Ming Tombs are the resting place of 13 Chinese emperors and 23 empresses.

09 - Summer Palace

More than 14,000 paintings, each one more intricately painted and brightly coloured than the last, adorn the famed 728-metre “Long Corridor”, the covered walkway that is one of the many attractions that brings visitors to the Summer Palace every year. Not that its popularity should put you off; indeed, visit in off-peak times and you’ll find one of Beijing’s most tranquil spots, and you’ll certainly discover why this was the place so many emperors visited when they sought some peace and quiet.

Across more than 300 hectares, the most preserved royal park in China has the Kunming Lake at its heart and is smattered with stone bridges, pavilions, gardens and temples. The Buddhist Temple of the Sea of Wisdom is among its most intriguing. Dating back to 1750, when emperor Qianlong ordered its creation, it began to be rebuilt at the turn of the 20th century and reopened in 1924.

Address: 19 Xinjiangongmen Rd, Haidian

A ticket to the Summer Palace, including sites within, will cost you AUD $13 (approx.).

10 - Lama (Yonghe) Temple

The colourful history of the Lama Temple, aka the Yonghe Temple (meaning “palace of peace and harmony”), makes its vibrant exterior all the more fitting. Initially built as the official residence of court eunuchs back in the late 1600s, it became the home of Yinzhen, son of the Kangxi Emperor, before he took the throne in 1722. It was only in 1744 that it took on its role as a lamasery and found the fame it still enjoys today as the most renowned Tibetan Buddhist temple beyond Tibet’s borders.

Far from just a relic trading on former glories, it still acts a place of worship, with many travelling thousands of miles to reflect and pay homage within its halls. But even those not of the Buddhist faith will enjoy the tranquility of what is effectively a living, working museum. The statue of Maitreya Buddha, resplendent in yellow satin, towers over you at 18 metres, while the revolving giant lotus flower that rotates to uncover an effigy of another Buddha is similarly impressive. Murals, statues and other Buddhist treasures are displayed throughout, but the sight of the building itself – guarded by two magnificent lions – is enough of a reward for tourists.

Address: 12 Yonghegong St, Dongcheng

Entrance fee for this attraction is a bargain at AUD $7 (approx.) per ticket.