Confining any of Beijing’s attractions to a top five must-see list does the city disservice. But, sometimes it’s easier to narrow some of Beijing down, because if anyone were to mention all of the historical and cultural places, as well as the lovely wild spots, it would be a book. I’m sure you know that there are already so many travel books about the sights in Beijing based on individual tastes and interests.
So if your trip is an exercise in ticking off the right boxes and making sure you’ve seen the most iconic attractions people heard of, then not all the Beijing sites in this article would make most people’s top 5 lists. However, the ones mentioned here hopefully include variety without being damn right obscure and quirky for the sake of it.
The Great Wall of China
The Great Wall of China, iconic and commercialized through films, documentaries and countless interpretations by historians, is one of those places that might leave people wondering if you did indeed go to Beijing if you don’t see any of it.
It was primarily built during the Qin (221 – 206 BC), Han (206 – 220 AD ) and Ming (1368 AD – 1644 AD) Dynasty
The Great Wall is not a continuous line of the wall, but a series of fortifications, constructed out of tamped earth, stone, brick and various other materials. It runs for miles, breaking off sporadically at different places, but overall, it snakes across northern China, stretching from the Shanhaiguan Pass in the east to the Jiayounguan Pass in the West, totaling 21196 km long.
The sections built by the Ming Dynasty alone is 8851 km long, and Beijing is an excellent place to begin your exploration of the wall, especially to see the sections built by the Ming Dynasty. Most of it is opened to tourists and have been, in varying degrees, reconstructed or at least made and safe and passable for visitors.
However, there are areas, which remain wild, overgrown, and in ruins. These dramatic and hauntingly beautiful sections of the wall are mostly barred to walkers, but they do act as a magnet for adventure hikers.
Other Beijing Sites
The sections closest to Beijing and worth visiting, if you have limited time are:
Juyongguan is one of the most impressive Great Wall forts. Genghis Khan once led his troops through Juyong Pass during his campaign to conquer China. Lying 60 KM away from Beijing, it’s a 1.5 hours drive away. It’s one of the few sections accessible to wheelchair users.
Badaling — with the Great Wall Museum and a circular screen cinema, it is the most popular of the Beijing sites section among Chinese tourists. It is 72 km away from Beijing and has some wheelchair access also.
Foreign tourists, on the other hand, tend to be more interested in the Mutianyu part of the wall. It is the most child-friendly section of the Beijing sites.
Mutianyu’s design is unique with crenellations on both sides, fortresses and watchtowers, all closely packed together along its length. For sightseers not keen on hiking, there are cable cars available and a cart railway. The site is 1.5 hrs. (73 km) away from Beijing.
Two km further than Mutianyu from Beijing, Huanghuacheng combines nature and brick beautifully. It skirts around a lake that is surrounded by endless mountains, hills, and valleys, carpeted in dense, lush vegetation. Parts of the wall has since immersed into the lake below it. A highlight of Huanghuacheng is the 500-year-old Chestnut Garden at the foot of the wall, built during the Ming Dynasty.
Jiankou is a 100 km away from Beijing and the furthest of the four Beijing sites, at three hours away. This section of the wall attracts serious hikers and is characterized by untouched wilderness broken up by the wall, zigzagging above forested canapés below it in a ‘w’ shape. Parts of it is very steep if not damn right treacherous and one needs to explore it with real caution.
Tiananmen Square is not only steeped in history; it is the largest public square in the world and worth a visit. Squat down and look across the square and you will see a vast forest of people, going about their daily business or sightseeing. You will see and hear countless shoes clashing with the seemingly neverending hard paving stones, kept immaculate throughout the year. And above them, on a breezy day, there might be a few colorful kites breaking up the skyline like large dainty birds of prey, hovering around for their next meal.
The square can hold up to a million people. Security to reach it is tight, but that does not deter the throngs of Chinese and foreign visitors jostling each other to take pictures in front of the portrait of Chairman Mao, on their way to the Forbidden City.
The Forbidden City
Surrounded by a 52m-wide moat and situated at the very heart of Beijing, The Forbidden City is an imperial palace and the most ancient building complex in China, and of its kind, in the world. The construction began in 1406 and took 14 years to complete. In its heyday, it housed twenty-four of China’s emperors from the Ming and Qing Dynasties.
In ancient times, the emperor was regarded as the son of Heaven, and therefore Heaven’s supreme power represented on earth. A place where such a divine being resided was forbidden to ordinary people, which is how it got its name. It is probably the most visited of the Beijing sites.
Beihai Park, also known as the Northern Sea Park, is one of the oldest, and the largest, and best-preserved, imperial gardens in the country. With the Forbidden City and Jingshan Park situated to its east and Zhongnanhai to its south, it is more or less at the center of Beijing. It’s home to some splendid imperial palaces and religious buildings, which merge seamlessly with a multitude of charming gardens. Regarding design, the grandiose and meticulous, synonymous with ancient Chinese art and culture combines beautifully to make it one of the Beijing sites you must explore.
The Beijing Cow Street Mosque ( Niujie Mosque) is thought to be one of the oldest and most important mosques in China. The earliest constructions began in 996 AD, during the Liao Empire era (916-1125). Now, the mosque covers an area of about 6,000 square meters or 1.5 acres. It was constructed under the reign of the Qing Emperor Kangxi (1661-1722). The building style is an eclectic and an interesting mix of Arabic and Chinese architecture, as might expect, and the shopping on Cow Street is a unique experience among Beijing sites.
The Old Summer Palace
Also known as the Ruins of the Yuanmingyuan, which means the Garden of Perfection and Light, the Old Summer Palace is in the northwest of Beijing and to the east of the more recent Summer Place.
The Garden, like Niujie Mosque, was built during the reign of the Emperor Kangxi in 1709 (1644-1911 Qing Dynasty). Over the next 150 years, it was expanded and became a large-scale Chinese emperors’ private pleasure garden. It consists of three parts – Wanchunyuan (the Garden of Blossoming Spring) and Changchunyuan (the Garden of Eternal Spring), as well as the already mentioned, Yuanmingyuan. The gardens are made up of elegantly constructed pavilions, halls, kiosks, and other fascinating structures that blend in with many streams, ponds, as well as all manner of exotic flora from the different regions of China.
There are plenty of other Beijing sites worth visiting, but if you are in the city for only a short period, seeing these five won’t be bad going!