Beijing

Travel guide - Beijing

Ni hao Beijing! The capital of the People’s Republic of China since the 13th century, Beijing is a city of contrasts: ostentatious and over-the-top at first glance, it also has a more secretive, spiritual side. Between its thousand-year history and its futuristic architecture, this city is China’s beating heart, where tradition and globalisation keep company.

From Tiananmen Square to hutongs: immerse yourself in historic, traditional Beijing

A sprawling city with 22 million inhabitants, Beijing can make your head spin, but it is accessible to those who take the time to discover it. At dawn or dusk, head to Tiananmen Square to watch the flag raising or lowering ceremony in front of the most emblematic Soviet buildings in the world. Covering more than 40 hectares, this site reflects the capital city’s immense size. A testimony to the large scale of Beijing, the majestic Forbidden City, a UNESCO-listed heritage site, stands to the north of the square. This symbol of the Ming and Qing dynasties was built between 1406 and 1420. Today a unique museum where you can learn about the city’s artistic heritage, the Forbidden City, the seat of imperial power, has stood tall through the reigns of 24 emperors over 500 years, and
was inhabited until 1911. For a final trip into the city’s past, walk through the hutong, labyrinths of narrow, 800-year-old streets where time seems to stand still. The ancestral charm of the traditional single-storey houses, called siheyuan, reveal Beijing’s warm, authentic side, despite the urban bustle surrounding the old neighbourhood.
If most of the sites we’ve mentioned so far are steeped in history, Beijing also demonstrates a remarkable ability to bounce between different time periods.

The futuristic face of Beijing

Make way for Beijing’s dynamism and energy! Designated as the host city for the 2008 Summer Olympics and the 2022 Winter Games, Beijing has seized the chance to enact a remarkable renaissance in the city. Transformed into a colossal construction site, the capital and its architecture have taken a futuristic turn. These modern installations that have been so widely discussed, often denigrated and nonetheless envied by many, are a fascinating addition to your tour of the city. Two important symbols of renewal are found in the national stadium, more commonly known as the “Bird’s Nest”, and the national aquatics centre, nicknamed the “Water Cube”. These two sites designed by western architects reflect the powerful, globalised China of today. If you aren’t convinced yet, a visit of the National Centre for the Performing Arts should persuade you of the city’s expertise when it comes to mixing genres. Eclecticism is a signature of Beijing these days.

A break amidst the greenery of Beihai Park

Need to relax after your busy day of visiting tourist sites? Beijing has just what you need. Adjust to the local pace of life, adopting the morning rituals of Beijing’s inhabitants. Many here are fans of tai chi and choose to practice this art at Beihai Park, a 1000-year-old imperial garden near the Forbidden City. If you prefer intellectual stimulation, you can learn to play Mahjong or watch calligraphers painting with water on the sun-warmed stones, writing Chinese characters that evaporate within minutes. Another poetic image you may come across is that of elderly people walking around with pet birds in cages, hanging them from a tree branch while they stop to chat with friends.
It is impossible to speak about Beijing without mentioning the Great Wall; the closest parts of this massive construction are less than two hours’ drive from the city. This 6,700-kilometre wall of brick and stone, built to protect China from the barbarians starting in the 3rd century B.C., is undoubtedly the most poignant testimony of a country that is, like its capital city, torn between the protection its prestigious past and the challenges of its future.

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