Arts and Culture

Beijing's Historical Wonders: Discover the History of China's Capital

Filed Under: Beijing, China, Sightseeing

If you're heading to Beijing, you'll be steeped in history -- some of China's states date back more than 6,000 years, and plenty of famous sites go back further than your family tree. While you may not have time to check out every single temple and monastery in the bustling city -- there are far too many to count -- try your best to visit Travel's Top 5.

The Great Wall
China's most cherished jewel and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Great Wall was built and rebuilt for the better part of 2 millennia as a means of keeping nomadic tribes and other unwelcome visitors out of the Chinese Empire. At one point, it was guarded by more than a million soldiers. Spanning more than 4,000 miles, the Great Wall is longer than the United States and 30 feet wide at its thickest part. While not technically within Beijing's borders, parts of the Great Wall can be reached by car in 30 minutes.

The Forbidden City
It hardly lives up to its name -- after all, tourists are allowed within its confines -- but this central landmark was the imperial headquarters during the Qing and Ming dynasties. The Gu Gong, as it is called in Chinese, is the world's largest palace complex, covering more than 7.75 million square feet, and is home to the Palace Museum. Completed in 1420, the Forbidden City took nearly 15 years to build, and with more than 8,700 rooms and a moat that's 170 feet wide, it will take the better part of an afternoon to explore. The Forbidden City ended its reign as imperial palace when the Qing Dynasty, China's last, was overthrown in 1911; in 1987, it joined the Great Wall as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Summer Palace
Situated on Longevity Hill in Northwestern Beijing on the edge of Kunming Lake, the Summer Palace was built to be a getaway for the royals. Originally named Qingyi Yuan -- or the Garden of Clear Ripples -- the palace was constructed in 1750. One of its most visited components, the Marble Boat -- a wooden pavilion painted to imitate crystallized limestone -- sits on the Northwestern shore of the lake near the Western end of the Long Corridor. Over many centuries, the palace has been damaged and repaired numerous times. Visitors won't be disappointed though; the palace's major attractions, the Four Great Regions -- Suzhou Street, the Pavilion of Bright Scenery, the Hall of Serenity and the Wenchang Galleries -- have all been fully restored.

Temple of Heaven
A place of worship for emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties, the remarkable circular structure was used to pray for favorable harvests. Although the temple was built between 1406 and 1420 -- the same time period as the Forbidden City -- don't expect to find it in a dilapidated state: It recently underwent a $6-million face-lift in preparation for the 2008 Olympics. Its 3 primary entities are the Circular Mound Altar, Imperial Vault of Heaven and Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest. The temple is surrounded by a popular public park where you can witness tai chi, dancing and music from local buskers.

Tiananmen Square
Constructed in 1417 as Cheng Tian Men, the Gate of Heavenly Peace -- or Tiananmen -- marks the entrance to the Imperial City. A portrait of Mao Zedong, former Communist party leader, hangs high above the main gate, while the eastern and western walls bear signs that read "Long Live the Great Unity of the World's People" and "Long Live the People's Republic of China." The Great Hall of People on the western edge of the square is where National People's Congress convenes. Two stone lions guard the main gate, one with a hole through its abdomen that was allegedly the result of troops invading the square during the Boxer Rebellion. The lions aren't the only ones watching over Tiananmen: Heavily controlled by the government, the area is monitored by closed-circuit TV cameras and officers in civilian clothing. Early morning and past dusk are the best times to take in the site: PLA soldiers orchestrate a flag-raising ceremony at sunrise; illuminated at night, the square looks afire in a spectacular display of glowing architecture.

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