Beijing See And Do
4 Jiuxianqiao Lu
Beijing's burgeoning modern art scene buzzes around this Bauhaus-inspired neighborhood. Once a factory district that produced electronics for the military, it began to attract artists with its affordable warehouse space in the early 2000s; it's now a hipster hangout filled with galleries, cafés, and bars. Thirty-odd exhibit spaces host the work of Chinese artists, some of them famous; minimalist art star Ai Weiwei and political pop artist Wang Guangyi have both displayed their work here. Plan to spend an afternoon wandering through the galleries; three don't-miss spots are Star Gallery (2 Jiuxianqiao Lu; 86-10-8456-0591), Beijing Tokyo Art Project (86-10-8457-3245; www.tokyo-gallery.com; closed Mon.), and Beijing Commune (86-10-8654-9428; www.beijingcommune.com; closed Mon.).
Gulou Dong Dajie
Separated by a rectangular courtyard filled with trees, small cafés, and rickshaws, these two majestic towers are often overlooked by visitors. Don't make the same mistake, as this area is a most charming remnant of old Beijing. More than 150-foot high, the Drum Tower is a wide-bodied gem painted in red with a turquoise pitched roof, upturned eaves, and ancient Chinese insignias. The slimmer, gray-brick Bell Tower is more austere in appearance, with a crenellated fortification wall. First constructed in the ninth century but later rebuilt, the Drum Tower offers great views. Climb the 69 steep stone steps for a broad panorama of Houhai Lake and old hutongs ringed by Beijing's new sky towers and the outline of mountains in the distance. Only one antique relic of the original 24 drums remains, but large cylindrical replicas are on show, and watching the short drumming performance at 9 am is highly recommended.
Built during the Ming dynasty by 200,000 laborers and completed in 1422, this grandiose palace sits at the heart of the modern-day capital city. The complex is a vast maze of courtyards and ceremonial halls surrounded by towering walls—it's designed to make you feel tiny, and it does. It's a fitting home for an emperor, and for about 500 years, only Sons of Heaven, their families, and their attendants were allowed inside the walls. The site became a museum in the early 20th century (after the abdication of the Qing dynasty's last emperor, Puyi), and today you can stroll through ornamental gardens and ornate buildings and admire the palace treasures on display. Unfortunately, many of the main buildings are undergoing centenary refurbishment and are swathed in scaffolding (the overhaul will be completed in 2020), but they're splendid nonetheless.
Stretching almost 4,000 miles across northern China, the Great Wall of China was a 1,800-year construction project designed to keep out invading Mongolian warriors. Begun during the Qin dynasty in 200 B.C., the wall has inspired many myths—and for the record, it is not visible from space, nor is it a continuous structure. Several sections are easily accessible from Beijing. The most famous, and consequently overrun, is Badaling, an hour's drive northwest of the city. The location makes it ideal for a whistle-stop tour, and you'll get a window into the Chinese tourism machine (take a gondola up one side and a roller coaster down the other to a market jam-packed with stalls, all selling identical T-shirts). To dodge the worst of the crowds, avoid weekends and arrive in the early morning or late afternoon.
About an hour northeast of the city, the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall has expansive scenery, fewer tourists, and a cable car for quick trips up and down. A bit farther afield (about three hours northeast of the city), fit types can take the four-hour hike between the "wild wall" sections of Simatai and Jinshanling, which are indeed overgrown and semi-ruined, but beautiful. Most Beijing hotels can arrange day trips to the Great Wall, but visitors who prefer to take their time exploring should consider staying nearby, at the Commune by the Great Wall Kempinski or the Red Capital Ranch. More intrepid types can book a guide for an overnight hike and either camp atop one of the crumbling watchtowers or stay with a family in a nearby farmhouse. Cycle China arranges private guides for overnight trips.
3 Hufang Lu
Tel: 86 10 6351 8284
Peking opera is performed nightly at this intimate (300-seat) 19th-century guild hall; you can enjoy the high notes and crashing gongs while sipping tea and nibbling on sunflower seeds. Before the show, take a turn around the tiny museum; it has scripts, vintage photos, and other mementos of renowned 1920s opera star Mei Lanfang, who often performed here.
16 East Chang'an Avenue
Tel: 86 10 6511 9031
Reopened to great fanfare in March 2011 after a four-year renovation, the world's largest museum flanks the east side of Tiananmen Square. Inside its cavernous halls are several permanent history galleries, plus temporary art shows. The Road of Rejuvenation exhibition, charting Chinese history from the 1840 Opium War to the present day, is the most compelling—though far from complete. Don't expect mentions of the Tiananmen Square protests, or the harsh facts of the Cultural Revolution. Do expect copious political rhetoric, a professionally curated photographic and interactive display, and some eye-catching carved murals depicting Chinese achievements through the centuries.—Gary Bowerman
Open Tuesdays through Sundays 9 am to 5 pm.
Beijing's giant Olympic Park features two of the most eye-catching sports venues in history. Herzog & de Meuron's circular 91,000-seat "Bird's Nest" National Stadium is 225-foot high and dominates the vista. Standing adjacent is PTW's equally stunning rectangular "Water Cube" National Aquatics Center, which is draped in a luminescent blue Teflon skin that reflects light and creates the appearance of crystallized bubbles. Other highlights of the park include the 18,000-seat National Indoor Stadium, Olympic Village, Media Center, National Sports Museum, China International Exhibition Center, and National Olympic Sports Center.
19 Xinjingongmen Road
Tel: 86 10 6228 1144
Once a warm-weather retreat for the Qing dynasty's imperial court, the Summer Palace (just ten miles outside the city, but about a 40-minute taxi ride in traffic) is a lovely place to escape the urban smog. The main draw is the expansive, beautifully landscaped property, dominated by the large, man-made Kunming Lake. The grounds are dotted with delicate pavilions and ornate halls; don't miss the Long Corridor, a 2,300-foot covered walkway that's hand-painted with mythological scenes. Arrive early to avoid crowds, or dodge them with a stroll around the water, as the Qing Empress Dowager Cixi might have done in the 19th century. The recently opened hotel, Aman at Summer Palace, allows residents day and night access to the palace and gardens.
Beijing has dozens of ancient temples, some chaotic complexes, others quiet jewels. There are far too many to visit in one trip—but Beijing's three most famous temples are all must-sees.
Built during the Ming dynasty, the ornate Temple of Heaven was closed to commoners until 1912. Today, the main halls retain their splendor (helped by an ongoing renovation in preparation for the 2008 Olympics), and anyone can admire the magnificent architecture and stroll in the tranquil park (Yongdingmen Dajie, Chongwen District; 86-10-6702-8866).
North of the Temple of Heaven, the grand and gorgeous Lama Temple is often thronged with Tibetan Buddhists issuing clouds of purifying incense into the sky. The collection of buildings, with their imperial-yellow tiles, ornate halls, and formal gardens, were once the home of the Qing dynasty's Prince Yin Zhen. Today, the crowds of monks, worshippers, and tourists can make it feel like an enormous spiritual party (12 Yonghegong Dajie, Dongcheng District; 86-10-6404-4499).
The Confucius Temple has been a tranquil oasis amid the bustle of Beijing for 700 years. Built to honor the great Chinese philosopher, the main courtyard of this tiny temple has stone tablets carved with the names of all the scholars who passed the imperial civil service exam in the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties. The temple halls are plain and visitors scarce, making this a peaceful spot to rest under the ancient gingko trees (13 Guozijian Jie, Dongcheng District; 86-10-8402-7224).
Named for the Gate of Heavenly Peace, an entrance to the Forbidden City that stands at the north end of the square, this vast concrete expanse (it covers more than a hundred acres) is dominated by an unsmiling portrait of Chairman Mao. It was here that the former dictator announced the formation of the People's Republic in 1949. In the center stands the towering Monument to the People's Heroes, a ten-story obelisk that honors revolutionaries from 1839 to 1949. Also in the heart of the square is the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall, where you can glimpse the embalmed Great Helmsman. No trace remains of the 1989 pro-democracy protest, in which hundreds of students died when columns of military tanks suppressed the uprising. Instead, you'll find digicam-wielding Chinese tourists strolling the perimeter or watching the daily flag ceremonies at dawn and dusk. Just off the southeast corner of the square is the Beijing Planning Exhibition Hall, featuring an impressive nearly 3,230-square-foot scale model of Beijing in 2020 and an exhibition detailing the capital's 2008 Olympic planning.