Tag Archives: Forbidden City

Six Months in Beijing: Sightseeing Highlights and Recommendations


After living in Beijing for the past six months, we’ve not only had lots of opportunities to see and experience everyday life here in China, but we’ve also hit a lot of the tourist hot-spots. With all there is to see in a city with a population of 20+ million and a wealth of historical sites, I’ve put together a list with photos of our favorite places/must see spots. Since some of these places are obvious, I’d put them in the “usual suspects” category. Others are top recommendations, but may not be included in a several day itinerary of a visit to the capital. I’m also adding a few places that I wouldn’t recommend visiting, unless you have a lot of time, or a really specific interest.

1. Tiananmen Square: with all of the modern history in this massive square in the very heart of the city, it’s a good first stop. At the famous Tiananmen Gate with Chairman Mao’s face looking out across the square, you’ll also get your first sense of where Chinese tourists go (and there are a lot of them!). Traveling to Tiananmen Square is a essential visit for Chinese coming from all over the country, where you can see the Great Hall of the People on one side of the square and the National Museum of China on the other. Mao’s mausoleum is in the center of the square, where you can visit Mao’s preserved body (I tried to check it out one day with Isabel and Sophia, but the crowds and heat were so overwhelming that we changed our plans), something that is emotionally moving for many Chinese. I also considered getting up very early for the daily sunrise flag-raising ceremony (nationalism in China and the U.S. are quite similar!), but could never quite find the motivation to go (with three young kids, sleep is at a premium!).

2.  While in the Tiananmen area, visiting the Forbidden City is another usual suspect must-see. Getting a sense of what life might have been like for the Chinese emperor and his consorts, wives, and eunuchs (no non-castrated men were allowed to sleep in the walled city) in this yellow-roofed massive complex of halls, houses, and gardens really shouldn’t be missed.

3. Visiting at least one Chinese park is at the top of my list. There are so many to choose from (Beihai, Jingshan, the Summer Palace, the Old Summer Palace [Yuanmingyuan], Ritan, Ditan, the Temple of Heaven, the Beijing Botanical Gardens, Purple Bamboo, etc.) and walking around amidst the cultivated beauty, while watching any of the many group activities that Chinese people regularly take part in, is an essential component of any visit (see my previous posts: Parks in China: Breathing Life into Sprawling Cities and What Makes Them Uniquely Chinese and The Lotus Festival in Beijing’s Purple Bamboo Park). If you’re in the Forbidden City area, visiting Jingshan Park and climbing the highest hill in Beijing, on a clear day, will give you a 360 view of the city and a chance to look directly into the Forbidden City from above.

4. The Great Wall: of course you’ve got to see it. If you can skip the highly touristy Badaling area and head to at least Mutianyu, I’d recommend it (you can take a cable car up, walk along the wall for awhile, and then toboggan down on a cement track: surprisingly fun and safe with kids!). I really wanted to visit the Jinshanling section of the wall too, as the photos I’ve seen are spectacular, but we ran out of time.

5. Sanlitun Village and Yashow Market in Sanlitun: we came to love the Sanlitun area, with its combination of very high-end retail shops and more middle class stores and restaurants. It’s a great place to see the “new China” in all its consumerist glory, as well as to walk around in a beautiful outdoor mall space (there’s a mall beneath the area as well) with changing art installations and store/brand promotions. Right next to Sanlitun Village is the six-story Yashow Market with floor after floor of knock-offs. This is the other side of China’s consumer (and production) culture and is the perfect balance to the fancy real name-brand shopping just steps away. While a lot of tourists may prefer the Silk Market (we bought the silk for my wedding dress and all of our bridesmaids’ and groomsmaids’ dresses there back in 2002), with limited time, I’d recommend just hitting Sanlitun. Similarly, a lot of tourists visit the snazzy Wangfujing shopping area, but I’d recommend Sanlitun Village over Wangfujing.

6. Take at least one taxi ride around the Central Business District (CBD) area (and other areas of the city too) to see the architecture of recent dreams. Especially cool is the CCTV building, the various SOHO buildings throughout the city, the Global Trade Center towers, etc.

7. Go to a Chinese acrobat show. We’d been to a couple of shows in the past, but the one we saw last week at the Chaoyang Theatre was absolutely amazing! It ended with a steel ball and eight motorcycle riders driving around inside (and upside down) simultaneously. As a bonus: we were a bit slow getting out of the theater and had a chance to meet the performers!

8. Capital Museum: As Manu’s recent post attests (The Capital Museum in Beijing), the Capital Museum is a gorgeous space with fantastic, focused exhibits. Skip the National Museum of China in Tiananmen Square and head over to the Capital Museum. Now that the new design of architect Jean Nouvel has been chosen for what looks to be a fantastic looking new National Art Museum of China in the Olympic Park area, in a few years it might be a different story…

9. Nanluoguxiang, or NLGX, is one of the coolest streets in Beijing. Somewhat similar to Thamel in Kathmandu, but not just catering to foreigners, this lively area near the Drum Tower (worth a visit, but we never made it since we’d already visited the Drum Tower in Xi’an) is part of the traditional remaining hutong (alley) neighborhoods. There are funky boutiques, charming bars and coffee shops, and lots of enticing snack stands on this great street.

If you’ve got specific interests, I’d also recommend:

1. 798 Art District: In this former electronics factory complex built by the East Germans, there are now streets of galleries and cafes. A couple of the galleries are impressive, but don’t expect to be impressed across the board. It’s a fun place to spend a few hours, or a day, wandering around, hanging out in cafes and doing a little shopping for unique gifts.

2. Yonghegong Tibetan Buddhist Temple Complex: If you have any connection to Tibetan Buddhism, Yonghegong is an obvious place to visit. Beginning in the 18th century, the complex maintained a connection between China’s emperors and monks from Tibet and Mongolia.

3.Peking University: Though you have to have a residency permit to enter the campus of China’s top university, if you can visit it, it’s worth walking around the beautiful grounds (there’s a stunning lake).

4. Olympic Sports Complex: Seeing the iconic 2008 Summer Olympics Bird’s Nest and Water Cube in person does give you a sense of the scale of the endeavors to build these structures, but unless you have a specific reason to visit the area, or a lot of time, I’d skip it. We walked around the fairly treeless concrete grounds in the hot sun, but the sense of national pride many Chinese undoubtedly feel did not arise in us.

5. The Beijing Zoo: While the grounds of the zoo are very beautiful, once you leave the chaos of the main animal buildings, including the overrated panda exhibit, the experience itself can be missed. While it’s not the worse zoo I’ve ever been to in terms of the space for the animals, it’s also not very impressive.

There are a few things we didn’t do that will be on our agenda for our next visit:

  1. The Fahaisi Temple in the Western Hills with Ming Dynasty murals that you have to view with a flashlight.
  2. The White Cloud Taoist Temple. Sadly, we didn’t visit even one Taoist temple while we were here.
  3. The Fragrant Hills Park in the Western Hills. This is supposed to be especially beautiful in the fall when all the leaves are red and gold.
  4. A modern dance show at the “Egg” (National Grand Theater).
  5. Visit the Olympic Forest Park. This huge space doesn’t have the cultivated landscaping of most of Beijing’s parks and some day I’d like to see it.

Things we didn’t do that we’ll probably never do:

  1. Watch a Peking Opera. The piecing voices just don’t appeal to us. We saw a bit of a Hong Kong opera and that was enough.
  2. Visit the aquarium. The aquarium is within the zoo complex and you have to buy a separate ticket. Although it’s got a good reputation, having taken the kids to the fantastic Monterey Aquarium and the Vancouver Aquarium, it doesn’t strike me as something we must do in Beijing. Also, I wouldn’t recommend the joint Chinese-New Zealand “Blue Zoo” venture, unless you want to feed goldfish with a bottle and watch mermaids (real live ladies in bikinis and tails!) swimming with the fish.
  3. Visit the Natural History Museum and/or the Planetarium. I could never gear myself up to visit what I’ve heard are very crowded museums.

Overall, our stay in Beijing has been fantastic and I’m really sorry to have to say good-bye, for now, to this lively city. I hope it’s not too long before we return again.



The Capital Museum in Beijing


Last Friday, we went to the Capital Museum in Beijing. Pam had already gone with Isabel, but she had been so impressed with its various exhibitions, as well as with the building itself, that I also wanted to check it out. I was not disappointed. The building is a beautiful combination of traditional and modern architecture that presents a city proud of its past, but also looking towards its future (you can watch a great interview with the architects here.)

In a city with so many historical sites to visit (the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace, the mandatory visit to the Great Wall, etc.), I am not surprised that the museum often goes under the radar (if it weren’t for Pam, I would have also missed it), but I would definitely recommend a visit. It offers a great overview of the history of the city, and it also introduces you to some important aspects of Chinese culture and festivals.

They also have a very decent Buddhist art collection, which made my visit all the more exciting,although, as you can see in one of the pictures below, they could have used a native English speaker to polish the explanations of  the various rooms and artifacts.

If you ever come to Beijing, make sure to include it in your itinerary.

P.S. Pam, Sophia, and Isabel just visited the National Museum of China, which is directly across Tiananmen Square from the Great Hall of the People. It’s recently been renovated, so the giant, Socialist style exterior has a modern, light-filled interior. She said that in contrast to the Capital Museum, the National Museum, not surprisingly, is a paean to China’s great and lengthy civilization, with halls focused on money through the dynasties, jade carvings, fan art, scroll painting, etc. The Buddhist statue collection is pretty good too, which includes a number of large stone and wooden statues (Isabel wanted to pose in front of each of the large “Bu-ahs,” as she calls the Buddhas). With limited time, Pam says she would definitely recommend going to the Capital Museum over the National Museum (and the National Museum is much more crowded, in part due to its central location).

– Manu

On how we intended to go to a temple fair and ended up being the last people in the Forbidden City


Today is New Year’s Eve and we decided to go to one of the multiple temple fairs that occur in the city. It is an occasion for people to visit a temple in order to start the new year with the gods on their side and, at the same time, to have a good time, since there are multiple vendors, a wide variety of performances (acrobats, puppet shows, Chinese opera, even blind dating!, depending on the fair you go to), carnival games, and street food. You can read an overview of the various temple fairs in Beijing here. After Pam did some research, we decided to go to Changdian Temple fair (Ch. 陶然亭公园), since it’s supposed to be “Beijing’s biggest, most famous and most influential traditional temple fair. Changdian’s attractions include handmade craft displays and Peking Opera performances.”

Well, it was not meant to be, because, after taking a hard-to-find taxi to get there, we were informed that the fair starts tomorrow (thanks, The Beijinger, for the wrong information!). We were not the only ones who fell prey to this misinformation, as we saw many people approach the entrance to the park only to find out that the festival starts tomorrow. What could we do now?! After the effort it took to get the three kids out of the house, we did not want to simply go back home. So Pam looked in our Beijing guide and found out that we were not too far from Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City and there we went!

Pam and I have been in Beijing before, so seeing Tiananmen was not new to us (we even once stayed in a hotel overlooking The Forbidden City during the early days of our relationship). It is still quite an impressive site. It’s not only the site of the Forbidden City, where the emperors of many Chinese dynasties resided (and the center of imperial intrigue). This is also the place where Mao proclaimed the new republic in 1949:

We did the touristy thing and took a few pictures of the family in front of the Forbidden City, under the stern gaze of Chairman Mao.

One of the most interesting things, though, was that while we were there taking pictures of a very famous historical site, we ended up being quite the tourist attraction ourselves. As you can see in the pictures below, various people started taking pictures OF US and WITH US. I know that sometimes this happens (and we experienced it  in India and other parts of Asia when Sophia was a baby), but it was a little overwhelming to find how people wanted to have their pictures taken with our kids. You can see a sample of this phenomena below:

Finally, we ended up going into the Forbidden City. We had no plans to visit the site today (remember, we wanted to go to a temple fair!), but it turned out that the Forbidden City (not the actual buildings, but the various courtyards) was open free and open to everyone (probably because of New Year?) and since we were already there… The kids were quite impressed with the place. Dylan and I even debated if Ninjagos would be able to go over the walls and take over the palace (I don’t think that’s possible, while Dylan believes Ninjagos could totally do that). At the end of the visit, the crowds were thinning out and before we left the place we thought it was a good idea to go to the bathroom. Well, after the bathroom ordeal we found out that we were the last people to leave the Forbidden City, with a Chinese officer escorting us out of the place. Here there are some pictures of the visit, including our leaving the place from a side door, since the main gate was already close.

On our way home we could see and hear fireworks all over the city, celebrating the arrival of the New Year. Hopefully they will stop at some point (they are very loud and it has been hours already!). We need some rest, since tomorrow we will try again to go to the Changdian Temple Fair. This time it better be open!