15 Top Rated Tourist Attractions in Beijing

Jul 22, 2021

Beijing is the capital and cultural center of China. Despite its gargantuan size, it's often said that the city has a special, almost otherworldly quality; a quality that has made it a perennial favorite with globetrotters. Beijing has gone from a town of tent-and-crowded-street and horse-drawn-cart rickshaw to the host of one of the world's fastest-growing aviation, mass transit, and metros; bustling, Internet, and cell-phone centers; and a city of world-class hotels, clubs, restaurants, and museums.

In recent years, the new east-to-west expressway network, soaring architectural sights, shopping malls, and breathtaking, world-class modern-art museums have made Beijing a city of sprawling, super-sized edifices. At the same time, the people here have gone about their daily lives with a unique characteristic: a demeanor that's often exuding a joyous enthusiasm.

Beijing is the center of business and finance in China, but it's also the country's best place for shopping and socializing. From the world-class boutiques of Sanlitun's designer shopping districts and posh malls to the cheap markets and back-alley stores, you can find something for everyone, including world-class performances at the Temple of Heaven and the Forbidden City. Any time of year is a good time to visit Beijing, but if you happen to be in China, late July or August should be peak time.

Plan your trip with our list of the top attractions in Beijing.

Temple of Heaven

Photo of Temple of Heaven
Temple of Heaven: en.wikipedia.org

Temple of Heaven (Tì án), designed in 1420, is an impressive Daoist temple built on the site of the most important Temple of Heaven built by the Ming emperor in 1368. The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, a large and imposing rectangular building, with huge columns and an imposing bell tower at one end, dominates the temple. It is located in the northern part of Beijing and is a short walk from Tian'anmen Square. For temple tours, refer to the Beijing Tourist Information Center for details on the times and schedule for touring the temple.

The Forbidden City

Photo of Forbidden City
Forbidden City: en.wikipedia.org

Beijing's ancient, tattered Forbidden City (Yuanmingyuan) still holds the record for the world's largest and most ornate palace, and was once the imperial palace of the world's mightiest dynasty. It was built during the Ming Dynasty, and is still the residence of the current emperor, after an imperial house system was instituted by the communists in 1911. The palace can be divided into six different sections: the Gate of Heavenly Peace; the first part of the palace, where the emperor holds audience; the Central Hall; the Hall of Mental Cultivation; the Hall of History; and the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest. The palace is awash with artifacts, paintings, and elaborate relics from China's past. The incredible size of this massive complex means it is truly in a class of its own. Visits to the palace are timed tickets-only, and you should plan ahead. What makes the Forbidden City so memorable is its age, the huge size, and its ornate detailing.

The Summer Palace

Photo of Summer Palace
Summer Palace: en.wikipedia.org

The Summer Palace, a must-see in the heart of Beijing, is a historic compound built from stone, which was restored and redecorated in a style distinct to the Ching. The grounds consist of two great gardens, forming the widest section and considered the best preserved of the summer palace compound. It features magnificent pavilions and buildings, including two beautiful stone gates, a central main palace building, a southern wing, a barracks, and an inner palace garden. The compound is open to the public during the day, but most of it is usually only open to the public on Sundays. Access is normally closed one day a week. There are a number of routes to the Summer Palace, each different in complexity and difficulty. The most direct route is a two-hour walk from Tian'anmen Square. This walk will take you along a lively section of the newly renovated Xijin Stream, where you can buy ice cream along the way. The more challenging route involves walking up Beichizi Path through a field and then following the stream for 2 kilometers until you reach the palace. A 45-minute walk from Tian'anmen Square lies the Temple of Heaven Park, one of the three imperial gardens within the palace compound. This beautiful park is home to many memorials and temples dedicated to famous Chinese scholars and rulers, including the Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum.

Confucius Temple

Photo of Beijing Temple of Confucius
Beijing Temple of Confucius: en.wikipedia.org

The sight of Confucius Temple (孔庙) in Beijing was one of the main reasons why I chose to visit China. Having lived in the city for a number of years, I never had the chance to see this magnificent building. The Confucius Temple was built in 1036, at a time when Confucius (551-479 BC) was the premier thinker of the Zhou dynasty. The Emperor (Kangxi) visited the temple, where he enshrined the emperor's bronze tablets. The temple is at the junction of Tian'anmen Square and Bei'erjie (West of the Heavenly Pool, where the Han Canal flows into the Grand Canal). The Forbidden City, the imperial palace and seat of Chinese government for three millennia, lies directly west.

Great Hall of the People

Photo of Great Hall of the People
Great Hall of the People: en.wikipedia.org

Beijing's Great Hall of the People (Jianguomen Xi Dajie), designed by the late-19th-century Russian architect Vladimir Tatlin, is the nation's premier convention center. The structure's striking entrance is an enormous stainless-steel arch flanked by two columns rising 60 meters into the sky. As you walk through the impressive structure's one-hundred-metre-long atrium and down into its subterranean galleries you'll find a spectacular array of modern art, public and private meetings, banquets, concerts, and sporting events.

Tiananmen Square

Photo of 1989 Tiananmen Square protests
1989 Tiananmen Square protests: en.wikipedia.org

Tiananmen Square, located in the center of Beijing, was the hub of the Chinese Communist revolution in October 1949. It is surrounded by many of Beijing's more famous modern buildings, including the Bell and Drum Towers. Since the 1920s, Tiananmen Square has also been the site of public demonstrations and political processions. Today, the square is a center of government, with the National People's Congress and other national and provincial gatherings regularly held there. To experience the Square at its best, visit it during the peak of the week, when many national holidays are celebrated. It is always a crowded and fun place to be, with people often jostling for a good view of the famous Monument to the People's Heroes. The square is surrounded by a number of restaurants serving traditional Chinese fare, and to the north, visitors can find the impressive Tian'anmen Gate, one of Beijing's most historic and grandiose gates, dating back to 1420.

Tian'anmen Square

Photo of Tiananmen Square
Tiananmen Square: en.wikipedia.org

Standing at the center of Beijing's Tian'anmen Square is one of the largest public plazas in the world. It is also a sacred place, home to the towering marble Tian'anmen Gate and the Monument to the People's Heroes. The square has been the stage of numerous protests against the Communist regime. During the 1989 protests, Chinese authorities tried to clear the square by demolishing hundreds of buildings. Almost every night, the square is festooned with colorful paper banners and chalk slogans scrawled on the ground. Dozens of musicians perform during breaks in the demonstrations, leading marchers in songs of unity. For a truly meaningful experience, arrive at dawn or dusk when the square is bathed in an eerie glow. Try to visit early on a weekday when the square is much quieter.

National Museum of China

Photo of National Museum of China
National Museum of China: en.wikipedia.org

The history of the People's Republic of China is one of the country's greatest legacies. The National Museum of China (NMCH), located in the former Imperial Palace, is housed in one of Beijing's seven Imperial Palaces, a collection of precious historical artifacts from China's various dynasties. The Chinese Culture Museum, located to the north of the NMCH, and the Propaganda Poster Art Centre are additional exhibition venues, the latter of which features art created in the image of socialist ideology.

The Drum and Bell Towers

Photo of Drum Tower and Bell Tower of Beijing
Drum Tower and Bell Tower of Beijing: en.wikipedia.org

Somewhat controversial in their design, the ancient Drum and Bell Towers were built in AD 618 as part of the city wall that encircled Beijing. The 14 meter-high drums are two braziers, the circular top of which is covered with sheets of iron. The 4 meter-high bell tower next to the drum is a wooden affair, although two towers of brick were added after the drums. The sites are on the western side of Beijing.

The Great Wall

Photo of Great Wall of China
Great Wall of China: en.wikipedia.org

Over 500 miles of fortified boundary are strung between the shores of the eastern and western sea in the Peoples' Republic of China. It was built in a series of stages between 1620 and 1676 to separate the dynasties of Ming and Qing, who controlled China from 1368 to 1911. The wall is strung along the top of these dramatic cliffs which plunges down to the waters of the Yellow Sea (East China Sea) and can be approached from its southern side through a section of the Sunken City of Chengjie. Originally built in the south as a defence against the constant incursions of the Manchurian hordes, it is now one of the most iconic sights in the world. Permits and tours are available through a number of operators.

Nanjing Museum

Photo of Nanjing Museum
Nanjing Museum: en.wikipedia.org

Nanjing Museum is one of the finest art museums in China and houses an incredible collection of paintings, calligraphy, porcelain, pottery, sculpture, and bronzes. Admission is free and included in the ticket price for all Beijing museums. However, you may wish to purchase the museum's guided tours for added insight into the works. A popular tour for Chinese visitors, it lasts for one hour and takes in the first and second floors, with special focus on the ancient arts. For details about its many exhibitions and shows, check the Nanjing Museum website.

Museum of Chinese History

Photo of Beijing Museum of Natural History
Beijing Museum of Natural History: en.wikipedia.org

The Museum of Chinese History, located in the north of Beijing, is one of the world's finest museums of its kind, covering the period from the end of the Neolithic Age to the modern day. At first, no new exhibitions are mounted here and there are no chronological order but it is nevertheless an impressive museum of Chinese history. Take the Metro Line No. 1 (Xidan), get off at Museum of Chinese History. There is another entrance next to the museum and a first floor of the museum. Be aware that the museum is open until 9 PM. Closed Mondays. Open on Tuesdays to Saturdays from 9 AM to 5 PM. Closed Sundays. Closed Chinese public holidays.

Beijing Opera

Photo of Beijing
Beijing: en.wikipedia.org

Beijing Opera is probably one of the most popular and traditional folk arts in China. The dance is based on a character often drawn in traditional Chinese paintings, the actor appearing to go from grandiosely dressed and usually with a curled mustache to usually bell-shaped tails. The plot is often a mythological one, with a hero fighting against a tyrant. The battle takes place on stage and the actor battles with the opponent by wielding a broadsword or two. The story is also one of the most memorable in Chinese culture, and Beijing Opera has a reputation for being a slapstick comedy. Beijing Opera was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1984.

Baiyun Temple

Photo of White Cloud Temple
White Cloud Temple: en.wikipedia.org

Baiyun Temple (Chinese:霸园) is one of China's most important Buddhist temples. Originally constructed in AD 417 as a garden, the first buildings within the complex were built in the Tang dynasty in the 7th and 8th centuries. The temple continues to attract visitors today and is renowned for its long, graceful halls and myriad of lovely statuary, of which a selection can be seen on this website.

Lama Temple

Photo of Yonghe Temple
Yonghe Temple: en.wikipedia.org

Constructed in the year 1054, Beijing's Lama Temple is the oldest, most ornate and best-preserved temple in the city, home to the world's most famous sand paintings. Almost nine miles of intricate carved wood doorframes and columns are covered with hand-painted scenes of the Tang and Song dynasties. Lama Temple covers some 2.3 square miles and is divided into three areas, from east to west: the Tiandi Hall; the Chaoyang Tower; and the Taihe Tower. It was, for some 500 years, one of the most sacred and elaborate buildings in China. The best way to get around is on foot, particularly via the Dazhiqiao () and Wanbaoqiao () squares. Don't miss the vast, grassy square of Qianhai Houhe (; Seasonal Pond; ), which has fish in the middle and is surrounded by gardens and pavilions with colorful tiles. The best way to enjoy Lama Temple is to view it at sunset. Take your pick from the annual Lama Temple Sunset Ceremony (), where thousands of people gather for the spectacular vistas.