I tend to recommend more unusual places or things to see, since I think it makes for a more memorable trip. However, I would be remiss if I neglected to mention some of the main things that attract travelers. Of all the things in Beijing, here’s what I found the most worthwhile:
***NOTE: For Great Wall info, check out my other post.
1) Boppin’ around Tiananmen Square
This is a no-brainer, and should be your first stop if it’s your first time in Beijing. This is because this is a great area to explore, because several historical spots are linked together: The Forbidden City, the National Museum of China, The Great Hall of the People, and even Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum. Obviously the most chilling part was the mausoleum, because visitors are not allowed to stop and take pictures, and must remove hats as a sign of respect. The end result is a brisk walk through a tomb, where most of the body is covered in a blanket (not that I’d want to see the whole body).
2) Seeing the Summer Palace
Another place on most “Top 5” lists, the Summer Palace is worth a stroll. As the name suggests, this is a place to visit in the summer. Many of the buildings are propped up on a hill, and there’s a nice collection of lotus flowers in the summer. If you’re lucky, you’ll also meet the erhu/violin/calligraphy street performer I met, who taught me a couple bars of Chinese opera.
3) Wandering in the Hutongs
Hutongs are the traditional neighborhoods of old Beijing, and though most of the areas have been renovated for tourism, they’re still fun to explore. Nanluoguxiang is a nice compromise between tourism and hutong life. The ACTUAL hutongs of Beijing are much less open to public, and are such twisted labyrinths, that if you find them, you shouldn’t be surprised to see a minotaur sipping tea with some of the locals.
4) The Temple of Heaven
The temple as a whole features pretty impressive architecture, much of which is restored due to previous wear and tear. My favorite parts were the “Circular Echo Wall,” “Three Echo Stones,” and “Celestial Heart Stone,” because when you stand on/near them, you can experience very unique acoustics. I won’t say any more. Just check it out!
5) Admiring graffiti in the 798 Art Space
This area is known for its explosion of art, which can be found everywhere, especially the walls! Though there are several museums in the area and boutique shops to enjoy art, I liked the spontaneous work spray-painted on buildings the best, which are very detailed and something I don’t often see in China.
6) The Bookworm Beijing
Okay, so if you’re only visiting Beijing, or even China, for a short while, this probably wouldn’t be high on your list, but for someone living in China, this well-stocked and active English bookstore is like a gorgeous oasis. Not only does it have many of the latest releases, but it also hosts events and activities for the literary world. I always make time for it on my Beijing itineraries. Check out their website here.