Beijing's ancient Drum Tower, built during the Ming Dynasty (1380AD).

Drum Tower

Top choice in Beijing

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.

Originally built in 1272, the Drum Tower (and the Bell Tower to the north) are aligned on Beijing's central axis, at the heart of the former Mongol-led Yuan capital of Dàdū, as Beijing was then known. It was rebuilt by Emperor Yongle as part of his grand plan for Ming dynasty Beijing. Since then it has been destroyed and rebuilt several times (the current edition dates to around 1894).

In 1924, after Puyi (the 'Last Emperor') had been evicted from the Forbidden City, the timekeeping functions of the towers ceased. The Drum Tower became a library for a time, and the Bell Tower a cinema.

Accessed by a very steep stairway, the tower itself preserves the Night Watchman’s Drum (更鼓, Gēnggǔ), the sole survivor of the original watch drums. A drumming troupe bashes out rhythms on a set of replica drums every hour from 9.30am, with the last performance at 4.45pm (and no lunchtime performance at 12.30pm).

The original drummers would have known exactly when to bash their instruments thanks to a water clock (clepsydra), a copy of which is on display in the tower.

Lonely Planet's must-see attractions

Nearby Beijing attractions

1. Bell Tower

0.11 MILES

The restrained, grey-stone edifice of the Bell Tower (Zhonglou) is arguably even more charming than its resplendent other half, the Drum Tower (Gulou),…

2. Silver Ingot Bridge

0.18 MILES

Tourist bottleneck and historic view, this stumpy bridge (rebuilt several times), divides Houhai and Qianhai lakes. On a perfectly clear day looking west…

3. Qi Baishi's Former Residence

0.43 MILES

Known for the whimsical, often playful style of his watercolours, Qi Baishi (1864–1957) was an influential Chinese painter who lived in Beijing from 1917…

4. Houhai Lake Scenic Area

0.45 MILES

A grand sweep of willow-lined waterways enclosed by invitingly maze-like hutong lanes, this trio of lakes is one of Beijing's best-loved outdoor spots,…

5. Mao Dun's Former Residence

0.51 MILES

This largely renovated residence was the home of Mao Dun, the pen name of Shen Yanbing (1896–1981), a well-known author. He lived at the back courtyard…

6. Nanluogu Xiang

0.59 MILES

Beijing's most touristy hutong, Nanluogu Xiang is a north–south strip of snack stalls, small food courts, souvenir shops and more people than you can…

7. Prince Gong’s Mansion

0.59 MILES

The sprawling residence of Prince Gong (1833–1898), half-brother of the Xianfeng emperor, is most notable for its marvellous gardens, which feature…

8. Jingxin Studio

0.67 MILES

Built in 1757, 'Studio of the Quiet Heart' was a favourite retreat of Emperor Qianlong, who would sip tea, listen to the melodic plucking of the guqin …