As the heart of China, Beijing is always the first option for travelers who wish to explore China. Located in the country's northeast, Beijing has been the political, cultural and economic hub for over 800 years.
The city skyline reveals a striking blend of elegant imperial palaces, symbolic landmarks and vertiginous multistory buildings, among which a swarm of nearly 15 million people try to attend their business.
One of Beijing's top draws is the magnificent Forbidden City, also known as the Palace Museum. With 9,999 rooms, this is the world's largest and best-preserved imperial palace complex, enclosed by a ten meter high wall and six meter deep moat, and is best seen in the early morning before the arrival of the tourist hordes.
Parts of the Great Wall, China's biggest tourist attraction, can be found in the north of Beijing. Constructed between the 3rd century BC and the 17th century, this icon remains the longest manmade structure on the planet spanning five provinces across 5,000kms of mountains, grasslands and deserts.
Another unmissable site in Beijing is the immense Tiananmen Square, Chairman Mao's response to the Forbidden City. Placed in the city center, this is the world's largest square covering an area of 440,000 square meters where up to a million people can be accommodated. Various significant buildings surround the square such as the Great Hall of the People, Gate of Heavenly Peace, Tiananmen Tower and Mao Zedong Memorial Hall, while the flag raising ceremony at dawn is also interesting to watch.
Since Beijing used to serve as the center of religious life, you will find a number of temples in the city, including the Temple of Heaven. This was created during the Ming Dynasty in 1420 and features an impressive altar and a lively park. The Temple of Confucius is the second largest temple built for the greatest thinker in ancient China, while the Lama temple complex was constructed by emperors who were fascinated with Tibetan Buddhism.
Another ancient temple is the Yonghe Lamasery to Beijing's northeast, which is the largest and best-preserved lamasery in China and should also rank high on your itinerary. The city's most historical and majestic mosque is the Niujie, a truly unique building that was erected back in 996 and provides visitors with the opportunity to learn something about Islam and its position in Chinese cultural history.
Beautifully situated on the shoreline of Kunming Lake, 15kms west of central Beijing, the Summer Palace is noted as one of the most classical gardens in the world and features outstanding structures, elaborate pavilions and charming landscapes. Fifty kilometers northwest of the city lie the Ming Tombs, well preserved mausoleums and necropolises of 13 emperors on a site of palatial and integrated architecture that makes a rewarding daytrip from Beijing.
Aside from its profusion of ancient historic elements, Beijing also presents its visitors a number of modern highlights, particularly the National Stadium, also known as 'Bird's Nest' and the National Aquatics Center, world-wide renowned thanks to the 29th Summer Olympic Games in 2008. A special pull for the entire family, the Beijing Aquarium is the world's largest inland aquarium and comprises a shark aquarium where brave visitors can dive alongside these creatures, as well as a mammal pavilion and an Amazon rainforest.
The best option for getting to Beijing is by plane because flights come in from all across the world as well as from larger cities within China. Trains are the second choice for getting here from neighboring countries and there are services from Mongolia, Russia, North Korea and Vietnam plus a direct connection from Hong Kong. If you intend on driving here on your own, you should know that foreigners are only allowed to do so in China with stringent prior arrangements.