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Beijing on film: top sights of the city

Updated on February 3, 2016

1. The Forbidden City

At the centre of Beijing lies the most complete histor­ical site in China. This remarkable complex, spreading out over a full square kilometre, is a must-see for any visitor. To avoid the crowds get here early in the day, and avoid weekends and public holidays.

The Forbidden City was the heart of the Chinese empire for nearly five hundred years. Within its thick red walls a succession of emperors ruled, served by thousands of officials, eunuchs, and concubines. The emperor was known as the Son of Heav­en, a divinely appointed in­ter­me­di­ary between the earth and heaven, responsible for the peace and prosperity of his empire.

Rare aerial footage of the Forbidden City

Tip!

Though currently the only entrance point is the south gate, to really appreciate the wonder of the Forbidden City, take in the view from the artificial hill to the north in Jingshang Park. After exiting the palace from the north gate, cross the road and enter the park directly opposite.

View of the Forbidden City from Jingshan Park

2. The Great Wall of China, Jian Kou section

The Jiankou section of the Great Wall

The legacy of the Wall

The Great Wall is the single greatest tourist attraction in China, and one of the greatest in all the world. It has excited fascination and wonder among Westerners ever since tales of its immensity and scale began trickling back to Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. Its popularity as a tourist attraction among Chinese is a more recent phenomenon, one given a considerable boost by Mao’s comment to the effect, “If you haven’t been to the Great Wall, you’re not a real Chinese.” An unattributed, but similar, aphorism directed at Westerners says, “If you haven’t been to the Great Wall, you haven’t been to China”.

"This is a great wall and it had to be built by a great people" - US President Richard Nixon, 1972

The Jiankou section

The most accessible section of the Wall - and consequently the most crowded - is at Badaling, 60km northwest of Beijing.

However, the Jiankou section of the Great Wall, about 90km northwest of Beijing, is one of the most picturesque places to take in the marvel. Built in 1368 during the Ming Dynasty, much is unrenovated.

The video below shows the fun but risky possibility of camping out on the wall.

3. The 798 Art District

Taking its name, or rather number, from the German-built arms-­factory-turned-gallery that serves as its symbolic heart, the 798 Art District is a thriving community of contemporary artists, shops, studios and galleries great and small.

Musician Su Yang performs at the 798 Art District

Some contemporary Chinese artists

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4. Nanluoguxiang

Beijing has its fair share of plazas and soul-less shopping malls. For a better option, why not head to some smaller boutique shops at the hutong area of Nanluoguxiang. It's one of the best shopping streets in town for quirky Chinese contemporary and retro gifts and clothes. Many of its shops are barely bigger than a large cupboard.

Beijing's trendiest shopping spot: Nanluoguxiang

How to find Nanluoguxiang

Retro designs at Plastered Tshirts

5. The Lama Temple

The Lama Temple is one of the Beijing's most beautiful and interesting temples.

At first glance, you might think it odd that a Tibetan Buddhist ­temple enjoys such prominence in the ­capital, given Beijing’s high-profile squabbles with the Tibetan government-in-exile. But China’s relationship with Tibet and its religion goes back further than the contemporary clashes. The presence of a Lamaist temple has been part of a centuries-long policy of pacifying the fractious “Land of the Snows”, as well as other Lamaist states, such as Mongolia, and several emperors – notably Qianlong – were followers of Tibetan Buddhism.

The halls to the left and right of the central courtyard contain, among other items, statues of Yab-Yum, a male and female divinity whose intimate sexual connection symbolises the cosmic unity of all opposites. This courtyard is bounded by the Hall of the Wheel of Dharma, in the middle of which is a 6-metre (20ft) high statue of Tsongkhapa. Behind this statue is the monastery’s treasure: a miniature mountain of sandal­wood, with 500 Luohan figures of gold, silver, ­copper, iron and tin.

The temple buildings

Buddhism in China

Merchants and monks came to China in the first century AD via the Silk Road bringing with them Buddhism. Though the prospect of life after death and the theory of karma were attractive to Chinese, there were still stark contradictions between this new religion and the teachings of Confucius.

The Chinese have long had a flexible approach to religion, however, reflected in the long-running practice of blending aspects of Daoism, Buddhism, Confucianism and even Christianity.

Today, Buddhism is China's most popular religion with an estimated 100 million practitioners. Some social observers say this is a reaction to China's growing material wealth and that the aestheticism of the teachings of Buddha is considered fashionable among some middle-class circles.

Exploring Buddhist culture in Beijing

Beijing roast duck

Of course, the culinary highlight of a trip to Beijing is sampling the legendary roast duck. The two most famous restaurants for this dish are Quan Ju De and Bian Yi Fang.

Bianyifang has been serving up its own slow-oven-roasted style duck since 1855, although the Bianyifang name goes all the way back to 1416, and is considered the originator of Peking duck. It was also the first restaurant in Beijing to offer take away – early telephone owners could phone for a home delivery service by bicycle.

Beijing roast duck at Bian Yi Fang

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