As Beijing leaps skywards into the 21st century, its history can sometimes get left in the shadows. But despite the new highways and high-rises, China’s capital has plenty of past pockets hidden away to reward the intrepid explorer. Here are ten little visited, history-rich Beijing sights to get you started.
Kublai Khan’s city walls
In 1274, Kublai Khan commissioned a mighty set of earthwork walls to protect the new city of Dadu, capital of the triumphant Yuan dynasty. Unknowingly, the Mongol conqueror was laying the foundations for Beijing. Incredibly, more of the Dadu battlements remain today than those of Beijing’s Ming dynasty stone walls, torn down in the 1960s to make way for the Second Ring Rd. Take the subway to Beitucheng (the station's name is a clue: 'north earth wall'), and you can walk for more than two kilometres over the lofty earthwork mound, now landscaped into the Yuan-Dynasty Walls Relics Park. After dark, the wall becomes a popular gay hangout.
White Cloud Pagoda
Far from the lattes and lamb skewers of Gulou’s well-trodden hutong alleyways, the courtyards surrounding the gracefully bulbous Miaoying Temple White Dagoba exude a sleepy vibe, and wherever you turn, vistas of this pagoda towering over tiled rooftops will have you reaching for your camera. Designed by Nepali architects in the 13th century, the pagoda is the crowning glory of the Miaoying Buddhist Temple, which finally reopened for visitors in December 2015 after years of renovations.
In the shadow of the haunted Fox Tower (Dongbianmen) on the edge of Beijing’s former foreign legations, this grungy neighbourhood still carries echoes of its past life as a den of vice in the 1920s and '30s. The site of a grisly murder brought to life in Paul French’s bestselling true crime novel Midnight in Peking, you can roam the badlands at night on the official ‘Midnight in Peking Walking Tour’ with Bespoke Travel Company (bespoketravelcompany.com). If you're not up for a spine-tingling, you can also visit during the day – the Red Gate Gallery inside the Fox Tower has a collection of photos about the area's intriguing past.
When the last Emperor of China was booted out of the Forbidden City 100 years ago, a warlord called Duan Qirui became the de facto ruler of a country in chaos. This gorgeous, grey-brick slab of classical Republican architecture (Duan Qirui Government Building, 3 Zhangzi Zhonglu), complete with clock tower, was built to serve as his HQ and residence, and later housed Chiang Kai Shek’s Nationalist troops. Despite a heavily-policed gate, you can stroll in at your leisure; don’t miss the lovely old wood-panelled university buildings at the back, an annex of Renmin University. Then seek out Peanut Cafe, a chill spot on the east side of the site, to sit and contemplate the ebb and flow of power over a caramel macchiato.
Mao’s underground city
In the grip of '70s Cold War paranoia, Chairman Mao ordered a second city built beneath Beijing to safeguard the population should bombs begin to fall. For a few years until 2007, you could pay to access several dank shelters, a school and even a theatre 25ft under the Qianmen neighbourhood, but construction is fast eradicating all traces of the relatively shallow (and probably ineffective) tunnels. That said, everyone seems to know a rumour of some restaurant or other with a cellar that leads to the underground city. Ask around and you might still find a way down.
Beijing’s best museum
The Poly Art Museum is a trove of ancient Chinese artefacts located halfway up a glass skyscraper (you even buy your ticket from the office reception). Bronze ware and Buddhist sculptures are exquisitely displayed, not behind smudged glass but on artfully lit plinths. Much of the collection was purchased and repatriated from overseas auction houses; look out for six of the dozen ‘zodiac sculptures’ that once adorned a fountain in the Old Summer Palace. They’re still rounding up the rest.
Mini-Forbidden City (without the crowds)
Before Mao rebranded it the Workers Cultural Palace, this Forbidden City-in-miniature was once the Imperial Ancestral Temple, the most sacred slab of land in Beijing, where the Son of Heaven would make sacrifices to those before him. Waves of grand halls are accessed through a glorious yellow-glazed gate via parallel stone bridges, while the tranquil surroundings are strewn with pines and cypresses, including one venerable old tree said to be planted by Zhu Di, the third emperor of the Ming dynasty. Best of all, the Workers Cultural Palace has a great deal more genuine Ming features than its bigger brother, the largely rebuilt Qing-era Forbidden City next door.
798 ‘steampunk’ skywalk
The fact that 798 Art District, Beijing’s home of contemporary art, was once China’s most technologically advanced factory complex is no secret – the East German-designed Bauhaus workshops proved the perfect studio space for the artists like Huang Rui and Ai Weiwei in the '90s. But scoot past the galleries and cafes to D-Park and you’ll find a veritable playground of retro-futurist Communist industrial architecture. Cutting through this is an elevated walkway offering gorgeous views of towers, chimneys, boilers, hissing pipes and gargantuan metal structures that together look like the ultimate steampunk movie set.
Tribute to Peking opera
One of the oldest opera theatres in China and a genuine relic, Zhengyici Theatre (220 Xiheyan Dajie, Xuanwu district; +86 010 8315 1649) was originally built in 1688 on the site of a Buddhist temple. With less than 100 seats, this two-storey, wood-panelled theatre is the most atmospheric spot in town to see Peking opera, a populist style championed by the foreign Qing elite after opera troupes from the south travelled to Beijing in 1790 to perform for Emperor Qianlong’s 80th birthday bash. For true connoisseurs, the older, more scholarly kunqu style is also performed here. Or catch the ‘Mei Lanfang Classics’, a tribute to Peking opera’s maestro, Mei Lanfang, who trod these very boards in the early 20th century.
Water dragons of Houhai Lake
Encircled by willow trees and beer bars, Beijing’s pleasure lakes of Shichahai were long ago part of a port that connected directly with the Grand Canal, via a branch line to Beijing’s southeastern suburb of Tongzhou. Under the worn cobbles of Houhai Lake's Wanning Bridge on Di’anmen Waijie, a pair of stone-carved ‘water quelling beasts’ are universally ignored by busy Beijingers, but they’ve guarded this strategic waterway since the 1200s. To learn more about Beijing’s innovative Yuan dynasty waterways, check out the neat little museum inside Huitong Temple north of Xihai Lake, documenting the work of Guo Shoujing, a 13th-century astronomer and canal engineer.