Beijing

Beijing is a captivating city steeped in history. It is the nation's capital and has been for most of the previous 600 years, so it is no surprise that Beijing is home to a treasure-trove of ancient sites. For any first-time traveller to China, a visit to Beijing is essential to really understand the history and culture of this fascinating land

Great Wall of China

The most iconic attraction in the country is surely the Great Wall of China, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Construction started around 2,700 years ago with the different sections joined under the control of Qin Shihuang, the First Emperor, in the 3rd century BC. Much of the wall that you will see today dates from the Ming Dynasty in the 14th century when stone and brick construction began to be used.

The sections of the Great Wall we like to visit are at Mutianyu and Juyongguan, just north of Beijing, which are well restored and with good facilities but usually do not attract as many people as at some other locations. For a more remote experience and for some extended walking we recommend a visit to Jinshanling. Be prepared for a stiff climb as your walk can sometime resemble ascending a staircase, although the commonly visited sections of the Great Wall are well maintained with good steps. The Mutianyu and Jinshanling sections both feature a cable car for those that prefer a more relaxing journey up or down.

Forbidden City

The Forbidden City was originally constructed in the 15th century and consists of almost 1,000 buildings surrounded by strong defensive walls and a moat. It represented the seat of Chinese Government for about 500 years during the Ming and Qing Dynasties. Located in the heart of Beijing at the northern end of Tiananmen Square, this historical masterpiece defines the centre of the city.

Said to be the largest collection of traditional Chinese architecture anywhere in the world, the Forbidden City is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Of particular interest are a number of large halls which were reserved for specific purposes such as discussing affairs of state, rehearsing ceremonies or as the official residences of the emperor and his family. There is also a traditionally designed Imperial Garden. Many tourists simply follow the straight route through the Forbidden City but to get a better feel for the scale and layout of the site, explore some of the areas away from the central axis.

Summer Palace

The Summer Palace is a large recreational area which is noted for its gardens, lake and traditional buildings. Originally built in 1750 and reconstructed in 1886, the Summer Palace is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site recognised for its importance as a work of Chinese landscaped garden design.

One of the most memorable features of the grounds is the Long Corridor. This intricately decorated covered walkway is over 700 metres in length and is the longest in any traditional Chinese garden. A delightful circuit is to cross Seventeen-Arch Bridge to South Lake Island and board a boat to ride across Kunming Lake. This will take you to the decorative Marble Boat from where you may return via the Long Corridor.

Temple of Heaven

Built in the 15th century, around the same time as the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven was used by the emperors of the Ming and Qing Dynasties for ceremonies and prayers. The most important building is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, which as the name implies is where the emperor came to pray for a good harvest. Standing on a three-tiered marble base, this wooden building is circular in construction and was built without the use of a single nail. Other buildings include the smaller, also circular, Imperial Vault of Heaven and several pavilions.

The temple complex is located in extensive grounds containing gardens, trees and walkways and is a popular place for the local residents. Watch out for people practicing tai chi, dancing and playing badminton.

Hutongs

The Hutong districts of Beijing are the original residential areas of the city with old buildings lining narrow streets. Many of these areas have been demolished to make way for modern developments but several have been reprieved to preserve the traditional way of life. The best way to see one of the Hutongs is using a cyclo-rickshaw with a driver who will pedal you around the area at a relaxed pace. Ride around the alleyways soaking up the atmosphere of a time long past.

Lama Temple

The Lama Temple, officially known as the Yonghe Temple, is one of the most important Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in the world. The monastery is a centre for the Gulug School (or Yellow Hat Sect) of Buddhism, which has as its head the abbot of the Ganden Monastery in Lhasa. Look out for the Maitreya Buddha statue in the Pavilion of Ten Thousand Happiness, which holds the Guinness World Record for the largest carving created from a single sandalwood tree.

Chengde Mountain Resort

Chengde is the site of a Qing Dynasty resort built for the emperors to escape the summer heat of Beijing. Set against a landscape of mountains, forests and lakes the complex features palaces, temples and gardens. They are designed in a wide range of architectural styles representing many of the regions around China.

The Chengde Mountain Resort was built over a period spanning most of the 18th century and was used by the emperors of the time for meeting high officials and foreign dignitaries. The resort is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is easily reached from Beijing by a scenic train journey.

Harbin

Located in the far north on the banks of the Songhua River, Harbin is a crossroads between Russia and China. These combined influences can be seen in the culture and architecture of the city, making it one of the most fascinating places in the country.

Harbin is most famous for its annual Snow and Ice Festival which takes place during January and early February. Enormous sculptures are created from huge ice blocks taken from the river and they are beautifully illuminated by colourful lights. But be prepared for cold weather as temperatures in Harbin can sometimes drop as low as -30 degrees celsius.

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