Things to Do in Northern China
The Forbidden City, or Palace Museum, is the world’s largest palace complex, with more than 800 buildings and some 8,000 rooms set in the heart of Beijing. Deemed off-limits to visitors for some five centuries, today this UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the city’s most popular attractions.
Located on Wangfujing Street in the Dongcheng District of Beijing, St. Joseph's Church (sometimes referred to as the East Church), is one of four significant Catholic cathedrals in Beijing. The construction of the church was finished in 1655, making it the second oldest in the city after the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.
Throughout the years, St. Joseph’s Church has seen a number of restorations. It’s a huge and imposing grey stone building, predominantly Romanesque in style but with some Chinese architectural features. Over the years it has become not only an important venue for Catholics, but also a significant cultural site and a popular attraction for visitors to Beijing.
No trip to Beijing would be complete without a visit to the Great Wall, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Winding along the mountain ridges north of the capital city, the Great Wall of China stands as one of the world's most iconic wonders, largest historical sites, and greatest feats of engineering which showcases the genius of the Ming Dynasty.
The Legend of Kung Fu Show, which premiered at Beijing’s Red Theatre in 2004, tells the story of a young monk who dreams of one day becoming a kung fu master. The best kung fu practitioners from all across China tell the story through Chinese martial arts, traditional and modern dance, and Chinese acrobatics.
The Mutianyu Great Wall was fully restored in the 1980s as an alternative to the increasingly popular Badaling section of the Great Wall of China. The Mutianyu section is farther away from Beijing (about an hour and a half by car) than more popular sections, but it's also significantly less busy and features some fun, modern amusements, such as a cable car, chairlift, and toboggan. The long, flat segment—the longest fully restored section open to travelers—winds along heavily forested hilltops with 23 ancient watchtowers dotting the landscape.
In 1750, the grand Summer Palace was commissioned by Emperor Qianlong as a lavish lakeside retreat from the heat of Beijing. With pavilions, walkways, gardens, and bridges, the UNESCO World Heritage site on Kunming Lake served as the seat of government for Empress Dowager Cixi during the last years of her life.
Built by the Yongle Emperor, the Ming Dynasty builder of the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven (Tiantan or Tian Tan) was a stage for important rituals performed by the emperor, or Son of Heaven. Chief among these were supplication to the heavens for a good harvest and the winter solstice ceremony, meant to ensure a favorable new year.
The Beijing National Stadium, more commonly referred to as the Bird’s Nest, was built for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games at a cost of $423 million. Since the Olympics and all its fanfare, the stadium has become a major landmark and tourist attraction, as well as a venue for both international and domestic sporting competitions.
Tiananmen Square, the world’s largest public plaza, has always been a symbol of Mao’s epic Communist project—and resistance to it. Despite its bleak history, the site of the 1989 massacre is today a bustling place, often teeming with tourists and local kids flying kites.
Sometimes known as the Hanging Monastery, the Hanging Temple (Xuankong Si) is built into the cliff-side of the mighty Hengshan (Mt. Heng) near Datong city in Shanxi Province. Held up by oak stilts slotted into holes chiselled out from the rock, the rest of the structure that supports the temple is hidden inside the bedrock. Built in 491, the Hanging Temple has survived more than 1,500 years. The face of the building hangs from the middle of the cliff under the summit, which has protected it from the elements over all the years.
The Hengshan Hanging Temple is the only temple that incorporates all of China’s traditional religions: Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. Visitors to the temple come in their droves to marvel at this architectural feat for themselves, and to peer over the railings onto the rocks 50 meters below.
More Things to Do in Northern China
A series of temple-like structures and burial mounds, the Ming Tombs contain the remains of 13 of the 16 emperors who ruled China during the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644). Visitors come from all over to see the imperial grandeur of this UNESCO World Heritage site and learn about the cultural importance of ancestor worship.
The best-known and busiest stretch of China’s iconic Great Wall, Badaling was restored and opened to tourists during the 1950s. The scenery is striking, with views of the wall winding its way over the rugged hills. A cable car leads up to the top, and the site offers everything from souvenir stalls to restaurants.
Located in the Dongcheng District, Beijing’s Pearl Market (Hongqiao Market) is the place to go for anything pearl-related. The largest pearl market in the country, it sells the gems in nearly every size, shape, color, quality, and price imaginable, as well as a range of other goods, including clothing, electronics, and even seafood.
The Lama Temple (Yonghegong), one of the most important Tibetan Buddhist temples outside Tibet, began as a palace for Emperor Yongzheng before he became the third emperor of the Qing Dynasty. Today, the resplendent temple, with its halls, courtyards, ponds, and bronze mandala, is a lamasery for some two dozen Tibetan monks.
The China Central Television (or CCTV) Headquarters is situated within an unusually-shaped skyscraper in Beijing’s central business district. This seemingly gravity-defying structure was designed by the Dutch architect, Rem Koolhaas, and is made up of two leaning towers joined at the top and bottom, creating an irregular grid with an open center. The building’s distinct shaped has earned it the nickname, ‘Big Underpants’ among Beijing locals.
While visitors are not allowed access to the CCTV Headquarters, the outside of the building is an attraction in itself. Security remains tight, particularly after fireworks during the Chinese New Year festivities of 2009 caused a fire in the Television Cultural Center, which sits adjacent to the main building.
The Yungang Grottoes (Yungang Shiku) are ancient Chinese Buddhist grottoes that reside in the north cliff of Wuzhou Mountain near the city of Datong in Shanxi Province. Listed as a World Heritage Site in 2001, the Yungang Grottoes are a brilliant display of Buddhist rock-cut architecture dating back to the fifth and sixth centuries.
The Yungang caves are divided into east, middle, and western sections. Pagodas dominate the eastern parts, while the west comprises small to medium sized caves. The caves in the middle section feature front and back chambers with Buddha statues at their center. In total, the complex comprises 252 grottoes with more than 51,000 stone Buddha statues.
Sitting to the west of Tiananmen Square in Beijing, the Great Hall of the People is where the National People’s Congress is held, along with other administrative, social, and ceremonial events. Built in just 10 months and completed in September 1959, the Great Hall is a grand and modern structure with a flat green and yellow roof. It’s divided into three wings, with the central one raised higher than the outer two.
The East Gate is the only visitors' entrance to the hall. Through this bronze door with the emblem of the PRC above it, an expansive lobby reveals itself and leads into the Central Hall. The Great Auditorium is also in this section, which seats almost 10,000 people with audio equipment for simultaneous interpretations of various languages. Elsewhere, the Banquet Hall is situated in the northern section, and the offices of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress are to the south.
The Tiananmen (literally, Gate of Heavenly Peace) is featured on the official emblem of the People's Republic of China. Situated on the northern edge of Tiananmen Square, it served as the principal entry to the Imperial Palace during the Ming and Qing dynasties.
The Gate of Heavenly Peace is also the name of a documentary film about the protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989. The protests sparked the largest nonviolent political protest in the country’s history.
The Tiananmen itself is made up of a tower situated on top of a platform. It’s one of the most imposing monumental gates in the world, notable for its sheer size and ornate features, including its columns. Stone lions and white marble bridges guard the entrance to the tower and viewing stands flank both sides, which are opened up for visitors on the first day of each month.
When the Tianjin Eye was completed in 2008, it officially became the first and only observation wheel in the world to be built over a bridge. The 394-foot (120-meter) tall wheel straddles the Hai River above the Yongle Bridge, offering stellar views (on clear days or nights) of this city of some 7.5 million people.
The wheel features 48 passenger pods, each with an eight person capacity. One rotation around the wheel takes about 30 minutes. The best time to ride is at night, when the wheel is illuminated in colorful neon lights, visible from around Tianjin.
There are two reasons to visit Wangfujing Street (Wangfujing Dajie) in Beijing: shopping and eating. The commercial street is home to nearly 300 Chinese and international brand-name stores selling everything from clothes to tea and herbs, while neighboring Wangfujing Snack Street appeals to intrepid tourists and adventurous local eaters.
To experience both original and restored portions of the Great Wall of China without straying far from Beijing, many visitors choose the stretch between Jinshanling and Simatai, a trek seemingly made for hikers and adventurers. The 4-hour hike ranks among the wall’s most popular and rewards intrepid travelers with some of the most photogenic views.
Part of the Forbidden City during the Qing Dynasty, this 10th-century park is one of China’s oldest, largest, and most important ancient imperial gardens. Situated in the center of Beijing, the 171-acre (69-hectare) garden features a temple, bell and drum towers, a white pagoda, pavilions, lakes, and the intricate Nine-Dragon Wall.
The Dingling Tomb (Mausoleum of Emperor Wanli) was the first of the 13 Ming royal tombs to be officially opened to the public. Located on the southern slopes of Tianshou Mountain in Changping County, Beijing, Dingling is the tomb of Emperor Wanli (Zhu Yijun) and his two empresses, Xiaoduan and Xiaojing. The ancient palace is accessed via a 40-meter underground tunnel.
Zhu Yijun was the thirteenth emperor and occupier of the throne for 48 years, the longest of all the Ming Dynasty emperors. Built over six years between 1584 and 1590, the tomb is gigantic and extravagant, with five halls connected by giant marble archways, and floors paved with gilded bricks. The central hall is home to three imperial thrones, while the rear hall is the most important and where the three coffins of the emperor and his empresses can be found. These are surrounded by red-lacquer chests filled with precious items.
There is also a museum at the Dingling Tomb, where 3000 objects excavated from the site are displayed. These artifacts include royal robes, the emperor's crown and the empresses' tiaras, plus a number of other jewels and ceramic items.
Giant pandas are the main draw at Beijing Zoo, a wildlife attraction with a heritage dating back over 100 years. Besides distinctively Chinese animals, such as white tigers, golden monkeys, and milu deer, it hosts everything from giraffes to polar bears. The Beijing Aquarium is within the zoo, but a separate ticket is required.
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