China has spent more than $40 billion on infrastructure development in Beijing in recent years. While some of these new marvels are well worth a gander, like the impressive National Stadium, be sure to also check out the attractions that have been drawing visitors to Beijing for years.
The Bird's Nest
An innovative edifice, the Bird's Nest, Beijing's brand-new national stadium, got its name from the twig-like appearance of its design. Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron won the honor of designing the structure in a global competition. Completed in the first quarter of 2008 in preparation for the Olympic Games, the stadium was home to the opening and closing ceremonies, as well as the majority of the track and field competition, and has a seating capacity of 80,000.
From trinkets to antique furniture, you can find all manner of goods at this sprawling "dirt market" -- and all for a reasonable price. You'll stumble upon Chinese specialties, such as jade, Buddha statues, Mao caps and silk, as well as typical bazaar fare, like jewelry, handicrafts and linens. Although it's open daily, the best loot is unearthed on weekends. Hey, one man's trash is another man's treasure.
Formerly a part of the Forbidden City, this 173-acre lush oasis is now a public garden -- and, at 1,000 years old, one of China's most antiquated and best preserved imperial gardens. Some of the park's must-see highlights include the multicolored Nine-Dragon Wall, the garden-within-a-garden Jingxin Room, and the White Dagoba on Jade Flowery Islet, the park's highest point.
Set among elaborate grounds of verdant courtyards and magnificent halls some 30 miles north of the city, the imperial monuments of the Ming Dynasty make for a nice afternoon spent outside the hustle and bustle of the capital. The 5-mile-long Spirit Way, lined by willows and stone animals, leads up to the tombs, beginning at the arch and passing through the Great Palace Gate. Three of the 13 tombs are open to the public, and only 1 has been fully excavated.
Hutongs are narrow, ancient alleyways shaded by traditional Chinese residences, and are becoming endangered as they're continuously destroyed to make way for bigger roads. An excellent way to get a taste of local life is to rent a bike and navigate the remaining intricate paths, or hop a rickshaw and have the driver serve as your tour guide.
You won't see any pandas aimlessly roaming the streets of the bustling capital. Instead, head to the Beijing Zoo to find all your cuddly bear pals (who are, not surprisingly, the park's most popular residents). The zoo also houses both cultivated flower gardens and more than 600 species of animals, including many rare and wild creatures unique to China. If you want to actually hug one of China's unofficial furry mascots, you'll have to head southwest to Wolong Natural Reserve to fulfill your dream.
Lama Temple (Yonghe Gong)
Built in 1694 as the mansion for Emperor Yongzheng, the massive sanctuary was later converted into a lama temple and remains one of China's biggest and most important monasteries. The yellow-tiled buildings, lifelike lions, intricate archways, revolving prayer wheels, and 5 opulent halls make for an educational and architecturally rich afternoon, while Tibetan Buddhists sending puffs of incense into the sky make for the perfect photo op.
Donghuamen Night Market
Perhaps not Beijing's most appetizing exhibit -- its stalls' menus include deep-fried scorpions, seahorses on a stick, skewered grasshoppers -- you'll find a smattering of creepy crawlies in consumable form at this oasis for the hungry (and those who want their food quick and cheap, too). If you're looking for fun for the whole family, play your own version of Fear Factor, and see who comes out the winner and who emerges with nothing more than a bellyache. The market does sell "normal" cuisine, as well, but if you don't speak a word of Chinese, now might be a good time to employ a translator.
National Aquatics Center
Also known as the Water Cube, this futuristic headquarters for the Olympic aquatic sports boasts a membrane-like exterior built to resemble a water molecule. The Water Cube, which is illuminated each night in a dazzling display of blue, played host to the swimming, diving, water polo and synchronized swimming events.
Thespians donning face paint and elaborate garb take the stage in the Beijing (or Peking) Opera, traditional Chinese theater born in the 18th century at the royal court. Originally a male-only pursuit, performances combine many elements, including mime, music, vocals, dance and acrobatics; its performers must undergo years of arduous training and apprenticeship before being allowed onstage.