A Whirlwind Tour of the Best Sights in Beijing, China

My main goal in visiting Beijing was to sleep overnight on the Great Wall of China, but as long as I was in Beijing, I couldn’t leave without seeing a few of the other famous sights the city has to offer. The company who provided my Great Wall experience, The China Guide, incorporated a visit to the Olympic Village, site of the 2008 Olympics, to see the now-famous Bird’s Nest and Swim Cube architectural wonders, as well as a stop at the Ming Tombs, the final resting place of 13 Chinese Emperors, where we walked the Spirit Way and descended into the underground crypt of the Ding emperors.

Can’t view the above slide show of the Ming Tombs in Beijing, China? Click here.

With only one full day left after my time at the Great Wall, we rushed around to see as much as possible of Beijing, the capital and main cultural center of China. Half a day (not nearly long enough) was devoted to the Forbidden City, which stood in the center of the ancient city of Beijing and was home to 24 emperors during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Today these astounding structures are a UNESCO World Heritage Site that contains the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world. Millions of people visit this site each year and I think they were all there on the day we toured.

Unfortunately, the enormous crowds made it difficult to truly appreciate the Forbidden City. I could not get close enough to see inside any of the palaces, so I contented myself with appreciating them from afar. Eventually, we emerged at the front entrance, where Chairman Mao’s iconic giant portrait keeps a watchful eye over the Imperial Palace and Tiananmen Square, directly across the street.

Can’t view the above slide show of the sites I saw while visiting Beijing, China? Click here.

But my two most favorite sights probably don’t even make most guide books. Lovely, serene BeiHai Park, located in the city center adjacent to the Forbidden City, features scores of old temples and miles of walking paths surrounding a placid lake where visitors paddle around in rental boats or read books on benches beneath lacy Weeping Willow trees.

Can’t view the above side show of BeiHai Park in Beijing, China? Click here.

At day’s end, the route back to our hostel took us down a series of narrow hutongs – old lanes – lit by Chinese red lanterns and neon signs, where old men tote goods for sale on three-wheeled bikes and women congregate on stoops to gossip.

Narrow street of typical Hutongs in Beijing. These structures are disappearing fast, as they are being torn down for high rises
Narrow street of typical Hutongs in Beijing. These structures are disappearing fast, as they are being torn down for high rises

To me, Beijing is quintessentially Chinese and I would gladly return. Sorry to say, I don’t feel that way about Shanghai, but more about that later….

12 thoughts on “A Whirlwind Tour of the Best Sights in Beijing, China”

  1. The further you get away from the big cities – the more I think you’d like it. Sorry you only had a short time in Beijing – there’s so much to see there! How did you find the train ride there?

    • The train ride between Beijing and Shanghai was awesome! I’d do it again in
      a heartbeat, especiallay now that I know you have tosecure tickets wel ahad
      of time due to the demand for those seats/berths.

  2. Barbara — I’m thoroughly enjoying your travels through China. You haven’t named the hostel that you used in Shanghai or Beijing — would you be willing to give their names or make other accommodation suggestions, or give some advice on how to find good hostels in China?


    • MJohn628: Happy to. In Shanghai I used Mingtown Hiker Youth Hostel. I was in
      a 4-bed air conditioned mixed dorm with shared bath and shower down the hall
      for about $11 USD per night. Facilities were nothing to rave about, but OK.
      Although keep in mind that I don’t mind roughing it a bit. Their cafe was
      decent but expensive, and the quality of the food, other than breakfast, was
      marginal. Biggest problem here was lack of normal services; they could not
      (or would not) help me order train tickets, instead sending me down two
      blocks to the train office, where no one spoke English, resulting in a
      day-long fiasco of running back and forth between the hostel and the ticket
      office with scraps of paper written in Chinese, trying to decipher what was
      being said and how to buy tickets to the correct destination. I never
      succeeded; I ended up going to two other train offices, three travel
      agencies, and concierge/travel desks in three large International hotels
      (Radisson, Sofitel, and Howard Johnson’s), none of which could help me
      either. Frankly, I think it was just Shanghai; the people there are rude and
      haughty, and if you don’t speak Chinese, they will simply turn their back on
      you and walk away.

      In Beijing I met up with my two cousins, so we book a four person dorm room
      with an ensuite bathroom at CityCourt Hotel. It was on one of the
      traditional “Hutongs” (lanes), within walking distance of Bei Hai Park,
      Forbidden City, and Tiananmen Square (perhaps a mile to BeiHai, another mile
      through the park to Forbidden City) in one direction; a mile to the shopping
      road in the other direction. This was a nicer place; I think about $20 per
      person per night (remember we had to pay for all 4 beds, not three, so not a
      bad price). Aside from the fact that the floor drain in the bathroom was a
      bit clogged up and running the shower tended to flood the bathroom floor,
      the place was very comfortable. And when we arrived we told the front desk
      clerk we needed tran tix back to Shanghai in three days and he picked up the
      phone and ordered them on the spot for us; they were delivered to us an hour

      I generally use HostelBookers.com, as they are a bit cheaper that the other
      hostel booking services and I have a business relationship with them as
      well. I feel comfortable that if something goes wrong they will stand behind
      their service, and that was confirmed for me in Hong Kong. I had booked and
      received a written confirmation for a Deluxe Private (4 beds) Ensuite
      (bathroom inside the room) at City Guesthouse at Chungking Mansions, Nathan
      Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong. When we arrived, we were ushered to a room
      with two “double” beds that were definitely not wide enough for two people.
      We said we’d booked a 4-bed room and were told they did not have any such
      configuration; that all the 4-bed rooms in Hong Kong were this way. We
      walked, as did some of the other guests, who had the same complaint. I
      complained in writing to HostelBookers, who immediately reviewed the
      situation and refunded my deposit, promising they would investigate the
      property. Generally, after I find an appropriate property on HostelBookers,
      I do a web search for the property and read the reviews on other sites as
      well, ust to be sure. Most hostels are really great – I stayed at some
      amazing ones in Mexico – but you can find some dicey ones as well, so always
      check out the reviews. Hope that helps.

  3. The park is truly beautiful and has a very Chinese feel to it as does that great little side street (hutong) with red lanterns. Looks like you managed a packed day of sightseeing…

  4. Recently watched a video about how the Terracotta Army came about, so even more interested in your travels in China! Not surprised, from what I’ve read and been told, about your reaction to Shanghai. It’s development (like Hong Kong) has been so different from the rest of China, and, indeed, bearing in mind the video I just watched. I wonder how we can talk about “China” any more than we can talk about the “USA”, both countries vast areas, comprising different states, made up of different peoples all of which come together to form one power in the modern world. Maybe more things in common than things which divide in the 21st century?

  5. I spent a year living and working abroad in China. While I was there I made a few visits to Beijing, and I highly recommend it as a must see! The architecture is amazing, the people are friendly, and the food is delicious. Be sure to taste the Beijing Duck, YUMMY! I greatly enjoyed wandering aimlessly through the historical Hutongs, and if you LOVE architecture as much as myself I recommend staying at Commune By The Great Wall when visiting the most amazing Wonder of the World. http://www.globalbasecamps.com/china/beijing-hotel/commune-great-wall

    • Carmen, I have to say that I never had a desire to go to China but my wife’s lifelong desire dragged me along. China has ended up being one of my favorite all time trips of my life and I can hardly wait to return. That mainly applies to Beijing and smaller places that I have never been to Shanghai isn’t high on my list primarily because I prefer the natural culture of a country rather than the ‘westernized’ megalopolies that can be found in any industrialized city.

      • I’m totally with you on that. In fact it was the “smaller environment” feel
        of your pictures that drew my interest. So often we see pictures of the
        crowded markets, skylines, or thousands in a town square. This was a
        welcome change. Thanks!



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