The Forbidden City is a clear highlight. read more about Beijing  at

Three Days in Beijing China: Must-see places to visit

Beijing is the capital of the People's Republic of China and its third most populous city. It is densely populated with about 22 million residents. The megacity sprawls over numerous districts filled with historical monuments and well preserved culture.

Forbidden City

In the early 1400s, the Ming Emperor moved the capital of China to Beijing. The Forbidden City is the former seat of the emperors throughout the Ming and Qing dynasties. It is a true architectural masterpiece and looks more like traditional Chinese architecture than any other site we toured in Beijing.

No longer a royal residence, it has become the National Palace Museum and is an absolute must for its dramatic history, awesome buildings and the sheer spectacle of the place with its court life. The burnt-crimson twenty-foot walls, towering gates, and ceremonial halls are considered both a public museum and an UNESCO world heritage site.

Entering through the south gate from Tiananmen Square, we started at the largest square in the palace complex. Thereafter, we went through gates guarded by bronze lions that symbolized aspects of imperial life. Various halls were sites of important imperial ceremonies such as a new emperor's accession to the throne. An artificial stream runs through a portion of the Forbidden City. It is called the Golden Water River. Our guide pointed out several other interesting features, such as water cisterns, gilded lions, the sculptured animals on the yellow glazed tile roofs and the doors with 81 knobs (9 across and 9 down, based on the lucky number 9). The Forbidden City contains the largest collection of ancient preserved wooden structures in the world. Fortunately our tour guide spent time explaining the uses of the various buildings, as they began to look very much the same to us.

The walled complex is huge and said to have contained 9999 rooms within the many palaces and courtyards. The belief then was that 9 is the most powerful number.

The Forbidden City allows a glimpse into how China's royalty -- 24 different emperors -- passed the time with their guards, servants, mandarins, families, eunuch and concubines.

The Great Wall of China

A clear highlight is an excursion to the majestic Great Wall, one of the seven man-made wonders of the world. The wall is recognized by UNSESCO as a world heritage site. The wall can be visited year round and is the most recognizable landmark of China.

The Great Wall can be visited at several access points. We climbed a portion of the 3700 mile marvel near Beijing. We climbed on the Juyongguan section which is one of the three most famous passes along the Great Wall and only 37 miles from downtown Beijing. It's been nicely restored,other portions of the wall are said to be in disrepair. This pass was a solid stronghold encircling a valley and was the northern access to Beijing in ancient times. The wall was built as a defensive fortification system to protect Chinese territories from nomadic groups. Clearly the building of the wall is one of the most notable architectural feats of humankind. The wall is even visible from space.

The wall consists of many sections built by different dynasties during the course of 2000 years. The sections around Beijing were built during the Ming dynasty.

Here the wall snakes up mountains and plunges down into valleys. The stairs in this section are quite steep and the steps are uneven, so our climb was challenging but exhilarating, as well. Even with the railings to hold onto, going up and down the winding stairway required concentration. The views at the top at the watch towers are well worth the effort.

Tiananmen Square and Gate

China's most prestigious buildings surround the square, set in the center of Beijing. Tiananmen (which means Heavenly Peace)is the political, cultural and spiritual center of the country. We walked by locals lined up to view Chairman Mao's tomb in a building at the center of the square. The square, however, has a mixed history.

On October 1, 1949, Chairman Mao proclaimed the People's Republic of China here. On the Tiananmen gate, a huge portrait of Mao is on top of the passageway to the Forbidden City. The square also contains the Monument to People's Heroes, a ten story obelisk erected as a memorial for Chinese revolutionary struggles and speeches of the 19th and 20th centuries.

The world's largest public square has also been the site of student protests. In 1898, calling for democracy, free speech and a free press, more than one million protesters had gathered there. But on June 4 and 5, 1989 the Chinese government responded with violence. Estimates of the death toll range from several hundred to thousands.

Today many police and soldiers roam the square, including several ceremonial guards in uniforms.


We took the famous rickshaw ride into the Hutong, allowing us to appreciate the maze-like street scene. We gained a more intimate flavor of life in old Beijing.

The small residential alleys give Beijing much character. Weeping willow trees on the streets provide for a very residential feel. Single story grey courtyard homes line the alleys and are home to multiple families in each courtyard.

We spoke with one local resident, Mrs. Fong, who explained the close community networks that are the result of sharing communal courtyards, bathrooms and washing facilities. Mrs. Fong and her daughter gave our tour group an opportunity for a local family visit and lunch with fried sauce noodles among other traditional Chinese foods.

The hutong is a fast disappearing way of life, as some of the area has been demolished for modern buildings. The residents in the demolished homes were given compensation money by the government to buy apartments.

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Summer Palace

On the slope of Longevity Hill and next to a lake, the Summer Palace is a wonderfully large complex with extensive grounds. Ornate pagodas are located along the water's edge, along with temples, pavilions, landscaped gardens, and bridges. Nine miles northwest of Beijing, the Palace is located on the outskirts of one of the city's busy highways and is one of Beijing's top attractions. It's on UNESCO's world heritage list and is considered the most well-preserved royal parks in China.

First created in 1750 by the Qing dynasty, this is the where the imperial family used to spend the warmer months away from the city. Now it is where ordinary people come for relaxation, long walks and to enjoy fresh air. Locals jog around man-made Kunming Lake on foot paths; families and couples were boating on the picturesque lake during the summer weather. The Palace was twice sacked by foreign troops but then rebuilt to its former glory.

Temple of Heaven

Also recognized as an UNESCO world heritage site, this architectural masterpiece was built between 1406 and 1460 to be used by the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties for ceremonies honoring the gods of harvests. This was considered to be the holiest of the imperial temples.

Its fine buildings are set in relatively quiet gardens perfect for wandering among the cypress trees and paths. Ming and Qing emperors traveled here four times per year to offer sacrifices to the gods and to pray. Along with them came tens of thousands of soldiers and courtiers who proceeded to this complex.

The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is the most prominent major building at the temple. The triple gabled circular building is made entirely of wood and without a single nail. The building rises imperiously and is truly fit for an emperor. It is built on a marble stone base.

Beijing Olympic Center and Park

Site of the 2008 Olympics and Paralympics, the iconic Olympic Center in north central Beijing is now a comprehensive multi-function activity center and hosts many spectacular opening ceremonies and events, including music concerts. Although there is no tour inside these buildings, it was worthwhile to view these magnificent architectural structures from the outside.

The Ling Long Tower is the highest building in the park and it functioned during the Olympics as an international broadcast center. The tower now advertises that Beijing has been selected as the site of the 2022 winter Olympic Games. At that time, this park will again be used for the Olympics.

The famous Bird's Nest stadium has a fascinating design and is able to hold 91000 people. In the shape of a bird's nest, the stadium symbolizes mankind's hope for the future and represents a cradle for breeding lives. The stadium was the site of the opening ceremonies, the closing ceremonies and many events.

The Australian-designed Water Cube sports center was the scene of many Olympic swimming and diving highlights. Its design originated from the pattern of cells and natural structure of soap bubbles. The National Aquatics Center is now open to the public as a swimming center. We also enjoyed viewing the various sculptures placed within the park. We were told that there are over 60 sculptures from over 60 countries.

If You Go

  • Touring: A local guide is essential, as English is not spoken widely, even in major hotels, restaurants or at sites.
    Also take a business card from the hotel desk when you leave. Make certain it has the address in Chinese
  • Currency: Credit cards are often not accepted by restaurants or merchants. It is good to have some Chinese currency available instead.
  • Bathrooms: Major hotels and restaurants have western toilets. Otherwise, the toilets are squat style. Toilet paper and hand sanitizer are not necessarily provided, so we carried those with us. Some rest rooms are identified with the number of stars indicating its rating by the Beijing Tourist Administration.
  • Hotels: Since the sites are spread out, there are many options for lodging locations.
  • Invitation Letters: An invitation letter from a tour company or other entity in China is normally required to enter the country. The invitation letter lists the trip itinerary including flights, hotels and cities to be visited.
  • Chinese Visa: A special visa is also required to enter China. The tourist visa is available from the Chinese Embassy. The cost was $140 per person. Our Chinese Visa was inserted as a page within our passports. We had to make two trips to the Embassy's passport office, showing our passport and invitation letter.
  • Tour Handbooks: One handbook is helpful for trip planning purposes. We used Moon's Handbook for Beijing & Shanghai by Helena Iveson.
  • Passports: Passports are required to buy certain tickets, to check-in at hotels and at several check points.
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Saul Schwartz lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with his wife Fern. He loves to travel throughout the world and share his experiences through stories and pictures. Saul has published many articles, but most focus upon his passion to travel.

Photos courtesy of Saul Schwartz

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