Beijing, the capital of China, is undoubtedly one of the most visited places in the world. It’s the city of contrasts, sheltering more than 19 million people within its 16 districts. The city’s crowded streets, tight alleys, and hidden restaurants reveal a city difficult to classify, with numerous, and often paradoxical, facets. It’s the place where the old meets new, and East meets West.
After narrowing it down, I have chosen what I think are the ten essential things to do and see while visiting Beijing for the first time. So, without further ado, I bring you ten things to do for first-timers in Beijing! Enjoy!
The Great Wall of China
Let’s face it, if visiting Beijing for the first time, it is mandatory to see the Great Wall of China. After all, it’s the longest wall in the world, built more than 2,000 years ago! Just try to imagine all the hard work and suffering that was endured to create this majestic wall. The size and the height of the Wall are not truly realised until seen and experienced in person! Climbing the Great Wall and then looking over the vast area of land that it protects is truly breathtaking and fascinating!
Quick Tip: When visiting the Great Wall, wear very comfortable shoes and bring water with you, as the climbing of steep sections can be very challenging (and torturous) sometimes. Some of the steps you have to take are knee-high, but believe me; your efforts will be rewarded!
Temple of Heaven
Another must-see thing if you are visiting Beijing as a first-timer is the Temple of Heaven. It is the place where the Emperor used to come to every winter solstice (the shortest day and the longest night of the year) to worship heaven and to pray for a good harvest.
It’s one of my favourite places in Beijing, as the Temple of Heaven is located in the beautiful, lush park with well-maintained historic (and beautifully decorated) buildings, bright and wide footpaths and a peaceful environment. Here, you can also spot some elderly Chinese people practicing tai chi or even kung fu!
Quick Tip: When visiting the Temple of Heaven don’t miss the Cypress Grove! It is a huge and green park (or rather a garden) where trees are more than 600 years old and planted symmetrically!
The Forbidden City
Wondering why you should visit the Forbidden City? Well, the famous Forbidden City was the Chinese imperial palace from the Ming Dynasty to the end of the Qing Dynasty. It is located in the middle of Beijing and now houses the Palace Museum. For almost five centuries, it served as the home of the Emperor and his household, as well as the ceremonial and political centre of Chinese government!
The Forbidden City is an enormous complex with insanely huge buildings and courtyards! In the end, there is a garden to relax (of course, if you are lucky to find a seat given the tourist crowds).
Quick Tip: As this place is massive, make sure your camera is fully charged and be prepared for a long walk.
What is the Hutong? Hutong means an alley (or a lane) formed by rows of siheyuan (a compound with buildings around a courtyard) where old Beijing residents lived.
The alleys give an excellent glimpse into yesterday’s world, the old way of life and traditional Beijing culture, and highlight the dramatic changes the rest of Beijing has undergone over the years.
Overall, it’s a lovely place to take a stroll and it’s filled with small little shops selling ice cream, snacks, cute souvenirs, clothes, antiques and the traditional Beijing yogurt!
In Hutong, even the Starbucks looks so amazingly Chinese, decorated with the cultural architecture! Take a look at the photo I snapped:
The Lama Temple
The Lama Temple is a beautiful historic complex. It features intricate and colourful traditional Chinese architecture at every turn. It is also an active Tibetan Buddhist shrine (which has over 300 years of rich imperial and Buddhist history), so you will see many people praying and burning incense while there.
The statue of the Buddha inside the temple is unbelievable. However, you can’t see the top of the statue as it’s the largest wooden Buddha statue in the world!
Quick Tip: When visiting the Lama Temple, please take your time and don’t rush! It’s full of exciting colours and smells! You can also take some free incense and burn them inside while enjoying the beautiful Buddhist statues!
I think all of us have heard about Tiananmen Square in some point of our lives. (It’s quite popular in Chinese movies as well!) If not, what you need to know is that Tiananmen Square is large (if not the largest!) square in the centre of Beijing where you can visit Chairman Mao Zedong Memorial Hall and see the national flag raising ceremony.
In the Western world, it is also known for student-led protests of 1989 which were aimed at exposing the failures and oppression of the Chinese government and demand of democracy.
Quick Tip: When entering the square you are required to go through security check, so be prepared to wait in long queues. Also, be careful and don’t discuss the protests loudly as you can get into an enormous trouble!
The Summer Palace
The Summer Palace is now the largest and the most preserved imperial garden in China (it was first built in 1750)! It was listed as World Heritage by UNESCO in 1998. The story goes that the Summer Palace was mostly used by Chinese emperors to escape the hot summer days, as the palace is surrounded by a huge lake.
For me, the Summer Palace seemed like a museum of traditional Chinese architecture and garden arts that blends different rocks, trees, hills, parks, pavilions, small and large ponds, paths and other features to create a poetic effect between the various scenes.
Quick Tip: The area of the Summer Palace is huge, so you will need more than one day to enjoy it thoroughly! However, once again, it is worth your visit! Just grab a coffee with your friend and prepare for a pleasant and tranquil stroll around the astonishing hidden gardens and paths!
The Wangfujing Snack Street
If you are a self-declared foodie (hello, it’s me!) then it’s a place you want to visit! The Wangfujing Snack Street is full of the smelliest, the craziest and the most delicious snacks! Here, you will find everything (I mean it!) everything from scorpions to snakes to traditional Chinese desserts such as Tanghulu (strawberry dipped in sugar coating). Yum!
Quick Tip: Here’s a full story of how I ate a scorpion in the Wangfujing Snack Street!
Beijing Acrobatic Show
It will exceed all of your expectations! Believe me! While at first, I was a bit sceptical about going to this acrobatic show, it turned out to be fantastic! Each acrobatic act was over the top. The training and discipline of the performers were impressive! And I’m not even talking about decorations! The best acrobatic show I’ve ever been to!
Quick Tip: Honestly, just don’t miss the acrobatic show!
The Silk Market
It’s a big shopping mall (or a market, if you will) with many different levels and loads of stuff to buy. Here, you can find everything from fake Chanel bags (and pearls!) to boring socks. Yes, sales people are very pushy here (they will grab you, hug you, and even hold your hand so that you could not escape and feel pressured to buy something from them) and yes, the starting prices are ridiculous, but that’s the main point of visiting such place, so that you could bargain, and bargain, and bargain, and yup bargain even more…
Quick Tip: Whenever you go, whatever you buy, keep cutting the price! Watch your wallet and put a smile on your face. It will be the most enjoyable experience! You will see and experience things you have never seen or experienced before! Trust me!