From ancient walled capital to showpiece megacity in barely a century, Beijing (Běijīng, 北京), spins a breathless yarn of triumph, tragedy, endurance and innovation.
Layers of History
Capital of China since Kublai Khan came a-knocking (with a hundred thousand Mongol horsemen behind him), Beijing has hosted the last three imperial dynasties: the Yuan (Mongols), the Ming (Han Chinese) and the Qing (Manchu). Hutong, the city's residential alleyways, are a Mongolian legacy. The Forbidden City? Hat-tip to the Ming. Summer Palace? The Qing. Nor does it stop there. Chairman Mao slumbers in Tian'anmen Square, hallowed turf for the Communist Party of China. And over it all loom giants like the 528m CITIC Tower, which topped out in 2018. What next for this restive superpower? You're about to find out...
Have You Eaten?
In Beijing, chī le ma? (have you eaten?) is literally how locals greet their neighbours. Food is the glue that binds all Beijingren, no matter their beliefs or bank balance. Whether you're slurping noodles, queuing for jiānbing, or guiltily rolling just one more Peking duck pancake, you're in good company. A mouth-watering melting pot, Beijing hosts exotic regional cuisines from across China, which equates to unbridled adventure for foodies.
State of the Arts
From Peking opera troupes to world-class contemporary art, Beijing draws on a profound well of creativity, and that's despite the vagaries of censorship. To give the government its due, museums are more numerous than ever, curation is less prescriptive and innovation is at an all-time high. China's finest universities feed Zhongguancun, the 'Silicon Valley' of Beijing, which is making seismic waves with its breakthroughs in AI and Big Data. At the humbler end, post-punk bands drone away in divey livehouses, local DJs get the hands in the air, while old folks still warble the revolutionary songs in the city parks.
Undisputed party capital – the Communist Party, that is – Beijing is a uniquely micromanaged megacity, a showpiece where the State's latest schemes are piloted to the populace. 'Xi Jinping Thought' is the guiding mantra (Xi being China's prez for the foreseeable future). When Beijing needs to get things done, it gets things done. Air pollution? Improving year on year. Winter Olympics in a snowless city? No problemo. Country-wide surveillance? Easy-peasy. The world's biggest airport, Daxing, was ready to open at time of research, as ever more bullet trains race outwards to the provinces. All in a day's work for Beijing.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Beijing.
Enclosed by 3.5km of citadel walls at the very heart of Beijing, the Unesco-listed Forbidden City is China’s largest and best-preserved collection of ancient buildings – large enough to comfortably absorb the 16 million visitors it receives each year. Steeped in stultifying ritual, this otherworldly palace was the reclusive home to two dynasties of imperial rule, sharing 900-plus buildings with a retinue of eunuchs, servants and concubines, until the Republic overthrew the last Qing emperor in 1911.
An oasis of methodical Confucian design, the 267-hectare Temple of Heaven Park is unique. It originally served as a vast stage for solemn rites performed by the emperor (the literal 'Son of Heaven'), who prayed here for good harvests at winter solstice and sought divine clearance and atonement. Since 1918 this private imperial domain has opened its gates to common folk, who still congregate daily to perform taichi, twirl on gymnastics bars and sing revolutionary songs en masse.
A marvel of Chinese garden design and one of Beijing's must-see attractions, the Summer Palace was the royal retreat for emperors fleeing the suffocating summer torpor of the old imperial city and, most recently, it was the retirement playground of Empress Dowager Cixi. It merits an entire day’s exploration, although a (high-paced) morning or afternoon exploring its waterways, pavilions, bridges and temples may suffice.
Flanked by triumphalist Soviet-style buildings, Tian'anmen Sq is an immense void of paved stone (440,000 sq metres, to be precise) at the symbolic centre of the Chinese universe. Watched over by Mao's portrait (and the eyes of hundreds of security personnel), it's an iconic if disquieting place for a stroll. Highlights on the square itself include the daily flag-raising (and lowering) ceremony, Mao's mausoleum and the Zhengyang Gate. Access is via the underpasses beside Tian'anmen East and Tian'anmen West subway stations (Line 1).
Beihai Park, inside the old Imperial City, looks much as it would have done in the 18th century when it served as Emperor Qianlong's private gardens. The Tibetan-style White Dagoba soars majestically over the lake (Beihai means ‘northern sea'), around which are found temples, pavilions, imperial stelae and other grand designs. A public park since 1925, Beihai now offers a window onto pastimes like dìshū (地书), where locals demonstrate their calligraphy skills using giant brushes and water.
This immense fortress, part of the Ming City Wall Ruins Park, guarded the southeast corner of Beijing's city walls. Originally built in 1439 but repaired numerous times over the centuries, the tower is skewered with a formidable grid of 144 archery embrasures, able to rain fire on would-be attackers. Visitors can mount the battlements and explore the tower itself, a magnificent maze of carpentry over multiple floors, including an exhibition of historical photographs.
Astronomers have been studying the mysteries of the cosmos here since 1442. Crowning the 18m-high brick tower – an earlier version of which would have been attached to Beijing's city wall during the Ming dynasty – is a mind-boggling array of arcane astronomical instruments, made in brass, mounted on carved stone plinths and embellished with bronze dragons.
Instantly recognisable by its giant framed portrait of Mao, and guarded by two pairs of Ming dynasty stone lions, the double-eaved Gate of Heavenly Peace (literally 'Tian'anmen') is a potent national symbol. Formerly the largest of the four gates of the Imperial City Wall, it was from here that Mao proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Climb the gate for excellent views of Tian'anmen Sq. The ticket office is on the northwest side of the gate.
Contemporary art meets communist history at this thrilling enclave of international galleries installed within China's model factory complex of the 1950s. Most of Beijing's best galleries are here, staging shows from the likes of Ai Weiwei and David Hockney in gorgeous Bauhaus workshops that once produced munitions and electronics. Toss into the mix oodles of street art, stylish cafes and restaurants, art shops, and an elevated walkway offering views of astonishing industrial architecture, and you can easily spend a full day here.