Must see attractions in Beijing

  • Top ChoiceSights in Forbidden City & Dongcheng Central

    Forbidden City

    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.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Temple of Heaven Park & Dongcheng South

    Temple of Heaven Park

    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.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Summer Palace & Haidian

    Summer Palace

    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.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Forbidden City & Dongcheng Central

    Tian'anmen Square

    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).

  • Top ChoiceSights in Beihai Park & Xicheng North

    Beihai Park

    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.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Temple of Heaven Park & Dongcheng South

    Southeast Corner Watchtower

    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.

  • Sights in Forbidden City & Dongcheng Central

    Ancient Observatory

    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.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Forbidden City & Dongcheng Central

    Gate of Heavenly Peace

    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.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Sanlitun & Chaoyang

    798 Art District

    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.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Drum Tower & Dongcheng North

    Lama Temple

    Converted from a princely residence to a lamasery in the 18th century, the Lama Temple extends through a crescendo of ever more divine halls in a whirl of incense and prayer wheels to its astonishing finale, an 18m-high statue of Buddha carved from a single trunk of Tibetan sandalwood. Expect to spend at least an hour wandering the halls and courtyards, admiring the architecture, statues, wall-mounted mandalas and temple relics on show throughout.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Forbidden City & Dongcheng Central

    Chairman Mao Memorial Hall

    One of Beijing's more surreal spectacles is the sight of Mao Zedong's embalmed corpse on public display within his mausoleum. The Soviet-inspired memorial hall was constructed just 10 months after Mao died in September 1976, and is a prominent landmark in the middle of Tian'anmen Sq. The Chairman is still revered across much of China, as evidenced by the snaking queues here; the occasional local tourist may be solemn-faced but many are in high spirits, treating it like any other stop on their Beijing tour.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Drum Tower & Dongcheng North

    Drum Tower

    Venerable bastions of time-keeping, the Drum Tower and its counterpart the Bell Tower were for centuries the tallest buildings in Beijing, lording it over the surrounding hutong. Up in the 46m-high tower, the great drums would beat to sound the curfew after nightfall in the Qing dynasty, and thereafter every two hours to coordinate the patrols of the city's nightwatch. Climb the steep stairs to hear a touristy drumming performance every hour from 9.30am.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Forbidden City & Dongcheng Central

    Zhihua Temple

    Lost in a tumbledown hutong neighbourhood, this Buddhist temple is one of Beijing's best-preserved Ming dynasty structures. It was built in 1444 to honour a corrupt and powerful eunuch, Wang Zhen, who held tremendous sway over the guileless Emperor Zhengtong. Remarkable treasures within include the Ten Thousand Buddhas Hall with floor-to-ceiling wall niches filled with miniature Buddhist effigies.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Forbidden City & Dongcheng Central

    Jingshan Park

    Beijing's finest park is also one of the only hills in the inner city, a mound that was created from the loess (sediment) excavated to make the Forbidden City moat. Called Coal Hill by Westerners during Legation days, Jingshan also serves as a feng shui shield, protecting the palace from evil spirits – or dust storms – from the north. Clamber to the top for a magnificent panorama of the capital and princely views over of the Forbidden City.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Summer Palace & Haidian

    Azure Clouds Temple

    Though it dates back to the Yuan dynasty, this enchanting Buddhist temple complex was enlarged to its current splendor by Emperor Qianlong in 1748, adding the all-marble Diamond Throne Pagoda at the rear, inspired by the Mahabodhi Temple in India, and the astonishing Hall of Arhats, housing a merry retinue of 500 lifelike Buddhist disciples. The hillside forest setting, on a quiet weekday, is a tranquil delight.

  • Sights in Summer Palace & Haidian

    Fragrant Hills Park

    A great swath of Beijing's Western Hills (Xīshān) was once an imperial pleasure resort, acres of undulating pine-cypress forest peppered with temples, pavilions and lookouts dating to the Qing dynasty. Opened to the masses as a public park in 1956, Fragrant Hills is busiest in autumn when the maples are ablaze. On reasonably clear days you can see Beijing's skyscrapers, 20km distant, from Incense-Burner Peak. The superb Azure Clouds Temple is reason alone to visit.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Summer Palace & Haidian

    Wuta Temple

    If any Beijing sight can vanquish the dreaded 'temple fatigue', it's Wuta Si. This little-known gem is eminently worthy of a pilgrimage, not just for its remarkable design, which owes more to India than imperial China, but also for the magnificent scatter of ancient stonemasonry – statues, stelae, altars and thrones – salvaged from sights around Beijing and plonked here for posterity.

  • Sights in Forbidden City & Dongcheng Central

    Poly Art Museum

    A thrilling discovery, this exquisite collection of treasures is hidden halfway up an office building! China's state-owned Poly Group has funnelled a fraction of its mega-wealth into buying up Chinese antiquities from auctions overseas, displayed here on artfully lit plinths. There are ancient bronzes from the Shang and Zhou dynasties, vividly detailed Buddha statuary, and several of the 12 bronze zodiac animals plundered at the sacking of the Old Summer Palace in 1860 – Poly Group is still rounding up the rest.

  • Sights in Drum Tower & Dongcheng North

    Confucius Temple & Imperial College

    An incense stick’s toss away from the Lama Temple, China’s second-largest Confucian temple is a haven of scholarly calm and contemplation. Come to wander between the towering stone stelae mounted on the backs of mythical bìxì (mythical, tortoise-like dragons) and inscribed with the achievements of scholars past. For centuries, China's sharpest minds would sit for imperial examinations on the Confucian classics at the connecting Guozijian, which was replaced by the Imperial University of Peking (what would become Peking University) in 1898.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Forbidden City & Dongcheng Central

    Workers' Cultural Palace

    One of Beijing's best-kept secrets – despite being next to the Gate of Heavenly Peace – the Workers' Cultural Palace was gifted to the masses by Mao in 1950 as a place of wholesome recreation. For several centuries prior, it was the most sacred temple in Beijing, where emperors would come to worship their ancestors. The cathedral-like Sacrificial Hall is as magnificent as any imperial building in Beijing.