The distinctive Wǔtǎ Temple (Five Pagoda Temple) is a hugely rewarding place to visit. That's not just because of its unusual architectural style – the temple is topped by its five attractive namesake pagodas and appears at first to owe more to Indian temple design than Chinese – but also because of the magnificent collection of stone carvings contained within its grounds.
Previously known as Zhēnjué Temple (真觉寺; Zhēnjué Sì), the exterior of the main hall is decorated with dorje, hundreds of images of Buddha and legions of beasts, amid traces of red pigment. During Ming times the temple ranged to at least six halls, all later tiled in yellow during Qing times; the terrace where the Big Treasure Hall once stood can still be seen. The temple, dating from 1473, is highly unusual for Beijing, and well worth a visit in itself, but the highlight here is the extraordinary collection of stone carvings, some housed carefully in buildings at the back of the complex but many just scattered around the temple grounds. Pieces you might stumble across include gravestones, animal statues, carved human figures, stone stele and some enormous bìxì (mythical tortoise-like dragons often seen in Confucian temples). The pieces were all recovered from various places in Beijing and put here for their protection during the latter end of the last century. Most are Qing and Ming dynasty, but there are a number of Yuan, Tang, Jin and even Eastern Han dynasty pieces, some of which are almost 2000 years old. Many, although not all, have explanatory captions in English; those captioned in Chinese only do at least have the date of origin written in numerals.
On Wednesdays the first 200 visitors get in for free. Take exit C at the National Library subway stop and then take the first left to get here.