Having just visited Beijing, I think I can delineate the best of this up-and-coming city. This city is rich in heritage and culture and is growing logarithmically. In preparation for the Olympics in August, the city has been on a focused campaign to both "clean up its act" (it has been slammed mercilessly for its pollution) and to make the city more user-friendly for tourists. The results have been remarkable. Visit if you can. Look for my photo album to follow tomorrow.
1. Great Wall at Badaling (or other locations) – It’s ironic, I suppose, after my glowing introduction, that the first attraction is actually 50 miles or so outside the city, but the Great Wall is THE most important sight in all of China. Climbing and walking the Great Wall is, I feel, a must-do for everyone in the world, at least every traveler. It is exhilarating and downright exhausting (in some places, the wall is practically vertical), but worth every breath for its panoramic views and sense of accomplishment.
2. Forbidden City – This city-within-a-city is a treasure-trove of history and a testament to the power and wealth of the Chinese Civilization. Built during the Ming Dynasty (13-1400’s), the complex is filled with beautiful halls and gates, as well as spectacular Chinese architecture. The Imperial Gardens are also impressive.
3. Tiananmen Square – The largest public square in the world is daunting in size. At the northern end is the Forbidden City in all its glory. At the center is the Memorial to the People, an obelisk dedicated to those who gave their lives in the revolution which toppled the dynastic system. At the southern end is Mao’s Tomb (there is always a line of people waiting to enter to see the remains of the Chairman) and the South Tower (climb this for views). The buildings on the east and west sides of the square are formidable but unremarkable.
4. Temple of Heaven/Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests – This complex, about a mile or so south of Tiananmen Square, contains one of China’s most beautiful buildings, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, a major symbol of China.
5. Summer Palace – On the northwestern outskirts of the city is this splendid complex buildings which also recall the glory of the empire. Here visitors see a more feminine touch, the work of Empress Cixi who preferred this locale to the Forbidden City. The idyllic location on Kunming Lake makes for a beautiful setting. Particularly interesting sights within the complex are the Long Corridor (decorated with beautiful paintings from Chinese history), the Marble Boat, and the Buddhist Temple which towers over the complex.
6. Ming Tombs and Spirit Way – Walk the lovely Spirit Way and recall how the emperors approached the tombs of their ancestors to honor them. The stately statues along the walkway are solemn guardians while also pointing the way to the tombs. Learn about Emperor Yongle and his contributions to Chinese civilization while appreciating the reverence that is inherent in the culture for its past rulers.
7. Beihai Park – This most extensive and interesting park in the city lies just to the west of the Forbidden City and is a pleasure to stroll through. Visit the white Dagoba on an artificial island in the park and be sure to note the Seven Dragon Screen at the northwestern edge of the park.
8. Drum Tower – Besides providing great views of the city to the south, if you are willing to climb the steep stairway, this impressive tower has some interesting history. It was the timekeeper of the city and, on display inside is a water clock similar to the one which actually kept time for the city. The drums are also on display which proclaimed the time to workers and residents.
9. Lama Temple – The most important Buddhist temple in the city is located near the Drum Tower to the northeast of Tiananmen Square. This was one of only a few temples of its kind which were spared during the purges of Mao’s tenancy.
10. Take a Pedi-cab or walk through a Hutong – The hutongs of Beijing are the narrow alleyways of the old city which were crowded with residences. The sections of the hutong had and still have community bathrooms (the houses have none) and here Beijing pulses the way it has for centuries. These enclaves are fast disappearing, giving way to high-rise apartment buildings, hotels and office buildings, but a few have been slated for preservation.