Beijing is an eclectic fusion of sights, smells and sounds, right from the word GO. So in a city that spans over 500 square miles and a vast, almost unimaginable population, and plenty of tourist destinations, just where do you even begin? This series of blog posts will guide you through some of what Beijing has to offer!
1. The Forbidden City
A World Heritage Site since 1986, the Forbidden City is a must-see in China’s capital. Since its construction in the 1400’s, twenty four emperors lived within its walls. And boy is there a lot to see here! It is no secret that the Chinese like to make a big entrance, and when you enter through the Meridian Gate, the giant red outer wall of which is embossed by a giant portrait of Chairman Mao, that sense of awe is definitely present. Once we got through the gate and out of Chairman Mao’s imposing line of sight, we copied the Chinese tourists and ran our hands over the wooden balls patterning the huge, solid, faded red doors, and found ourselves in a vast courtyard. Down the edges of the courtyard were small temples and buildings, all carrying the design of the entrance way. Directly ahead of us, in perfect symmetry with the entrance way, was another temple.
Such grandeur! What I didn’t realise about the Forbidden City was just big it actually is. In fact, when we were inside that huge outer part, I was convinced this was it, we were seeing the Forbidden City. That was until we realised there were people paying at kiosks, and after following them we entered the actual city. I was amazed!
We walked through courtyard after courtyard, all lined by knobbly, ancient trees and living quarters that are inaccessible, and all crowded with tourists. The typical pictures you see of the yellow and red buildings don’t capture the enormous size of them, nor the age. Each courtyard is headed at either end by the entrance gates. In the centre of these are sometimes elaborately carved old marble bridges or walkways, or smaller temples. In many of these are throne rooms, each one sumptuously in its gold majesty and each different from the last one. Definitely fit for a king (or an emperor)! There are two main palaces to see, with wonderful names (Palace of Heavenly Purity, and Palace of Earthly Peace), plenty of grand halls, as well as the Imperial Gardens.
The stunning decor on the temples and halls of the Forbidden City. My favourite part of all the Chinese temples is the roofs. Each one tells a story, and no two are the same. All the temples I have seen so far have the same structural outline – long, with just one or maybe two storeys, with pillars down each length and width of the building. The roof is pointed, like houses are in Britain, and they extend outwards, past the edge of the temple, kind of like those big straw sunhats you can get! On the edges of these, at the four corners of the temple, there are sometimes depictions of some kind of animal – sometimes a dragon. In the Forbidden City, the décor was more modest than other temples I have seen. Navy blues, burgundy, dark green, laced with golden dragons. It looked grand, elegant, and beautiful to look at.
Cost: It is around 40 yuan, dependant on the time of year. As we had student cards at the time, we got in for 20 yuan.
Opening times: Again, dependent on time of year, but from April to October it is open from 8.30am to 5.00pm (very important to note!)
Time: Give yourself a few hours at least. We had only 1 hour and it wasn’t nearly long enough.
Get there: Take subway line 1, the red one, to Tian’anmen East or West, and you will exit around Tian’anmen Square and the Forbidden City.
2. The Hutong
I loved the hutong of Beijing. I could spend hours wandering around the narrow, winding lanes, watching its inhabitants go about their day.
So what are they? During the Ming dynasty (around the 15th century) the Forbidden City was the centre of Beijing, and the residents were arranged by social class, circling out from the palace. Close to the palace lived the aristocrats and people of a high social class, in rather grand houses. Further out were the commoners, who lived in the hutong. They run east-west because of the feng-shui (wind and water) and they face south to guarantee sunshine and because, according to the Chinese the north brings negative feelings. Facing south protects you from these bad emotions. The word ‘hutong’ derives from a Mongolian word meaning ‘well’. The oldest hutong were built even earlier than this however, some dating back to the Yang dynasty in the 1200’s – so old! Many have been lost thanks to Beijing’s race to development.
They are made up of super narrow alleyways barely big enough for a bicycle to squeeze through, and tiny one-storey home that once (some still do) housed entire families. We went to a very touristy part, in the Shichahai area, not far from the Drum Tower and Bell Tower (we had no time to visit these unfortunately, but I hear they are well worth a trip), to a little lake surrounded by hutong turned into shops, restaurants and bars. It was pretty, and crowded, but the area was quaint and relaxing. The hutong are just so charming!
On a pitstop return trip to Beijing in last July, we actually stayed in the hutong near Beijing Railway Station. Though I wouldn’t recommend the hotel (Shindom Inn – seriously, it was dirty and unsavoury, and we replaced the ‘n’ with a ‘t’, but that’s another story), getting to stay deep within the higgledy-piggledy streets of the hutong was pretty cool. It is a completely different, slower way of life compared to the hustle and bustle of the main city. There are multiple hutong to chose from, but the one I visited was Nanluogu Xiang, one of the most popular places and where you can find the drum tower. However, hutong aren’t difficult to find in Beijing!
Cost: completely free to wander around.
Opening Times: I’m not sure it ever closes!
Time: Depends what you want to do. We only had an hour, not enough time! You can spend ages wandering around the lake and the hutong, and you can try out a restaurant or the famous Beijing street food!
Get there: There are many to chose from but to get to Nanluogu Xiang, take Subway line 5 (the lime green line) to either Zhangzizhonglu or Beixinqiao. You then have to walk a short distance to the entrance of the hutong. Enjoy! 😃
3. Wang Fu Jing Street
I have been here almost every trip to Beijing I have taken. I love it. This long pedestrianised street is modern with pockets of tradition scattered around, full of modern malls with clothes stores like H&M and Zara, and then a Chinatown half way down the street. Around the corner is a street that leads to the Forbidden City, and at night comes alive with street food galore (apparently one of the best in China) and it is an area very much full of life. Here on Snack Street, pick up a stick of candied fruits for a couple of kuai or a stick of fried scorpions for the more adventurous! A trip to Beijing just wouldn’t be complete without a stroll and a shop down Wang Fu Jing.
Besides… for an expat like me, this street is absolute gold for another reason. It is home to an Actual English Language Book Store and I LOVE it.
Cost: Spending money.
Opening times: The street itself doesn’t close. Obviously the shops close late in the evening but at night there are other things to do here.
Time: From a couple of hours to an entire day. Depends on your shopping desires 😍
Get there: Subway line 1, the red one, and get off at Wangfujing station. There are two exits and I always manage to come out from the wrong one. I take the stairs up to the street and can see Wangfujing across the huge intersection. So I haven’t to go back down and under the underroad pass to the correct side 😂