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China Travel Guide

Beijing Historic Buildings, Sites & Neighborhoods

  • Ancient Observatory
  • Chuandixia
  • Dazhalan & Liulichang
  • Drum & Bell Towers
  • Eastern Qing Tombs
  • Forbidden City
  • Great Wall of China
  • Mansion of Prince Gong
  • Marco Polo Bridge
  • Ming Tombs
  • National Olympic Stadium
  • Peking Man Site
  • Underground City
  • Summer Palace
  • Tian'an Men Square
  • Underground City
  • Qian Men
  • ZhengYang Men
  • Beijing’s City Walls
  • Yuanming Yuan
  • Ecliptic armillary sphere, Ancient Observatory
    Ecliptic armillary sphere,
    Ancient Observatory

    Ancient Observatory

    • 4 F1
    • Jianguo Men
    • 010 6512 8923
    • 9–11:30am, 1–4pm daily

    Beijing’s ancient observatory (Gu Guanxiangtai) stands on a platform alongside a flyover off Jianguo Men Nei Dajie. Dating to 1442, it is one of the oldest in the world. A Yuan dynasty (1279–1368) observatory was also located here, but the structure that survives today was built after the Ming emperors relocated their capital from Nanjing to Beijing. In the early 17th century, the Jesuits, led by Matteo Ricci (1552–1610) and followed by Adam Schall von Bell, impressed the emperor and the imperial astronomers with their scientific knowledge, particularly the accuracy of their predictions of eclipses.

    The Belgian Jesuit Father Verbiest (1623–88) was appointed to the Imperial Astronomical Bureau, where he designed a set of astronomical instruments in 1674. Several of these were appropriated by German soldiers during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, and were only returned after World War I. A collection of reproduction astronomical devices lies in the courtyard on the ground floor, some decorated with fantastic Chinese designs including dragons. Steps lead to the roof, where there are impressive bronze instruments, including an azimuth theodolite, used to measure the altitude of celestial bodies, and an armillary sphere, for measuring the coordinates of planets and stars.

    Traditional Ming and Qing dynasty houses, Chuandixia village
    Traditional Ming and Qing dynasty
    houses, Chuandixia village


  • Near Zhaitang town. 56 miles (90 km) NW of Beijing  
  • to Pingguo Yuan (1 hr), then bus 929 to Zhaitang (3 hrs) or taxi  
  • daily

    Despite the rather laborious expedition required to get here, a trip to the tiny village of Chuandixia (Under the River) is well worth the effort as the crumbling hamlet survives as a living museum of Ming and Qing dynasty village architecture. Situated on a steep mountainside, it is a picturesque outpost of courtyard houses (siheyuan) and rural Chinese buildings. Because of the close-knit nature of the original village all the courtyards were inter-connected by small lanes. The entry ticket allows access to the entire village, all of which can be explored within a few hours. Look out for the Maoist graffiti and slogans that survive on the boundary walls; similar graffiti from the Cultural Revolution has been white-washed in most other towns.

    Chuandixia’s population consists of about 70 people spread over a handful of families. Accommodations can be arranged for those wanting to explore the surrounding hills or simply experience the rural hospitality. Alive to the opportunities brought by tourism, quite a few of the old homesteads provide basic facilities at a reasonable price.

    Dazhalan & Liulichang

    • 3 C2
    • Qian Men

    South of Qian Men are the narrow and lively hutongs of the old Chinese quarter. The inner city wall and its gates separated the "Inner City" containing the imperial quarters of the Manchu emperors from the "Chinese City," where the Chinese lived apart from their Qing overlords. The district has been renovated to create a Qing dynasty appearance, complete with a tourist tram. Running west off the northern end of Qian Men Dajie is Dazhalan Jie, whose name "Big Barrier Street" refers to the now-demolished gates that were closed every night to fence off the residents from Qian Men and the Inner City. There are hutong tours by rickshaw – drivers just wait in the street in Dazhalan.

    Shop selling Communist memorabilia, Dazhalan Jie
    Shop selling Communist memorabilia,
    Dazhalan Jie
    Cyclists on restored Liulichang Jie
    Cyclists on restored Liulichang Jie

    The area is a great place for browsing, and has several quaint Qing-era specialty shops. Located down the first alley on the left from Dazhalan Jie is the century-old pickle shop Liubiju, while Ruifuxiang, on the right-hand side of Dazhalan, is renowned for its silks and traditional Chinese garments. On the south side of Dazhalan Jie is the Chinese medicine shop Tongrentang Pharmacy, which has been in business since 1669 and enjoyed imperial patronage. On the same side of the road, the Zhangyiyuan Chazhuang or Zhangyiyuan Teashop has been supplying fine teas since the early 20th century. West of Dazhalan Jie is Liulichang Jie, a fascinating place to wander – it has everything from ceramics to antique Chinese books. Beware of so-called "antiques" which should be judiciously examined before buying.

    Drum & Bell Towers

    A view of the Bell Tower from Beijing’s Drum Tower
    A view of the Bell Tower from
    Beijing’s Drum Tower
    • Northern end of Di’an Men Wai Dajie, Dongcheng
    • 1 C2
    • Gulou
    • 010 8402 7869
    • 9am–5pm daily

    Located on the north-south meridian that bisects the Forbidden City and Tian’an Men Square, the Drum Tower (Gu Lou) rises up from a historic Beijing hutong district . The squat structure seen today was originally built in 1420 during the reign of the Ming Yongle emperor. Visitors can climb the steep stairs to look out over the city and inspect the 25 drums there. The one large and 24 smaller drums were beaten to mark the hours of the day. According to the official Chinese accounts, the original drums were destroyed by the foreign soldiers of the international army that relieved Beijing during the Boxer Rebellion.

    A short walk north of the Drum Tower, the Bell Tower (Zhong Lou) is an edifice from 1745, which replaced an earlier tower that had burnt down. Suspended within the tower is a 15-ft (4.5-m) high and 42-ton (42,674-kg) bell, that was cast in 1420. Visitors can pay to ring the bell for good luck.

    Eastern Qing Tombs

    Spirit Way to Emperor Shunzhi’s tomb at the Eastern Qing Tombs
    Spirit Way to Emperor Shunzhi’s
    tomb at the Eastern Qing Tombs

  • 77 miles (125 km) east of Beijing, Zunhua County, Hebei Province  
  • May–Oct: 8am–5pm daily; Nov–Apr: 9am–4:30pm daily

    The remoteness of the Eastern Qing Tombs east of Beijing and over the border in Hebei province makes them far less popular than the Ming ones, despite the fact that the setting is even more splendid. In fact, the Eastern Qing tombs make up the largest and most complete imperial cemetery in China, built on as grand a scale as the Forbidden City itself. Of the many tombs scattered throughout the area, only five are the burial places of Qing emperors: the tombs of the Shunzhi emperor (r. 1644–61), Kangxi (r. 1661–1722), Qianlong (r. 1736–95), and Xianfeng (r. 1851–61) are open, while that of the Tongzhi emperor (r. 1862–74), at a distance from the main tomb grouping, is not. A 3-mile (5-km) Spirit Way, an approach lined with guardian figures, leads to Shunzhi’s tomb, Xiao Ling, at the heart of the main tomb cluster, while several of the other tombs have their own smaller Spirit Ways. Southwest of here lies Yuling, Qianlong’s tomb, with its incredible chamber adorned with Buddhist carvings and Tibetan and Sanskrit scriptures (rare features at imperial and principally Confucian tombs). The devious Empress Cixi is buried at Ding Dong Ling to the west, in the right-hand tomb of a complex of twin tombs, the other being the resting place of Ci’an, eldest wife of the Xianfeng emperor. Although both tombs were built in 1879, Cixi had her magnificent tomb lavishly restored in 1895. The marble carriageway up to the Hall of Eminent Favor notably locates the carving of the phoenix (feng), symbol of the empress, above the carving of the dragon (long), symbol of the emperor. West of Ding Dong Ling, Ding Ling is partially open and approached via a set of stone animal statues. Look for the smaller tombs of imperial concubines, their roofs tiled in green (not the yellow of emperors and empresses).

    Emperor Yongzheng

    The son of the Kangxi emperor and a maidservant, Yongzheng (r.1723–35) chose not to be buried at the Eastern Qing Tombs, but perversely started a necropolis as far away as possible in the Western Qing Tombs (Yixian County, Hebei Province). Perhaps, racked with guilt, he could not face burial alongside his father, whose will he had thwarted. For after Kangxi’s death, Yongzheng seized the throne from his brother (his father’s chosen successor), and declared himself the legitimate heir, ruthlessly eliminating any other brothers and uncles who may have been a threat to his rule. Despite this shaky start, Yongzheng was an able ruler and a devout Buddhist, punishing dishonesty among his officials and seeking to improve the morals and education of his people. Another possible reason for the switch was that he just wasn’t satisfied with the Eastern Tombs and chose an area with a better natural setting. Whatever the reason, those keen on Chinese tomb architecture will enjoy the peace of the Western Qing Tombs. Nearby, moved in 1995 to a commercial cemetery, are the remains of Pu Yi, the last emperor of China.

    Elaborate arched gateway, Mansion of Prince Gong
    Elaborate arched gateway,
    Mansion of Prince Gong

    Mansion of Prince Gong

    • 17 Qianhai Xi Jie, Xicheng
    • 1 B3
    • Gulou
    • 010 8328 8149
    • 8am–4pm daily

    Beijing’s most complete example of a historic mansion is situated in a charming hutong district west of Qian Hai. It was supposedly the inspiration behind the residence portrayed by Cao Xueqin in his classic 18th-century novel Dream of the Red Chamber (see Chinese Literature). Built during the reign of the Qianlong emperor, the house is extensive and its charming garden is a pattern of open corridors and pavilions, dotted with pools and gateways. Originally built for Heshun, a Manchu official and the emperor’s favorite, the residence was appropriated by the imperial household after he was found guilty of using regal motifs in his mansion design. It was later bequeathed to Prince Gong in the Xianfeng emperor’s reign (r.1851–61). The house is popular with tour groups, so early morning is the best time to visit and afterwards, the local hutongs can be explored. In summer, Beijing Opera is performed in its Grand Opera House.

    Stone lion, Marco Polo Bridge
    Stone lion,
    Marco Polo Bridge

    Marco Polo Bridge


  • Wanping town, Fengtai District. 10 miles (16 km) SW of city center   
  • 339 from Beijing’s Lianhuachi bus station; 309 from WAZI (near Beijing West Railway Station)   
  • 7am–7pm daily

    Memorial Hall


  • 101 Wanpingcheng Nei Jie.   
  • 8am–5pm Tue–Sun

    The 11-arched Marco Polo Bridge known locally as Lugou Qiao
    The 11-arched Marco Polo
    Bridge known locally as Lugou Qiao

    Straddling the Yongding River in Wanping town, the 876-ft (267-m) long marble bridge was first built during the Jin dynasty in 1189 but destroyed by a flood. The current structure dates to 1698. Known as Lugou Qiao in Chinese, the bridge acquired its English name after Marco Polo described it in his famous treatise The Travels. At the bridge’s eastern and western ends are stelae inscribed by the Qing emperors, Kangxi and Qianlong. The poetic observation by Qianlong on a stele at the eastern end reads "lugou xiaoyue," meaning "Moon at daybreak at Lugou." The balustrades along the length of the bridge are decorated by more than 400 carved stone lions, each one slightly different in appearance. Local legend has it that these fierce-looking statues come alive during the night. Despite the widening and extensive restoration work done over the centuries, a surprising amount of the bridge is original. In addition to its antiquity, it is significant as the site of the disastrous Marco Polo Bridge Incident. This is where, on July 7, 1937, the Japanese Imperial Army and Nationalist Chinese soldiers exchanged fire – an event that led to the Japanese occupation of Beijing and a full-scale war. For those with a keen interest in this period of history, the incident is marked by some rather gruesome displays in Wanping’s Memorial Hall.

    National Olympic Stadium

    • Olympic Green
    • Olympic Park
    • 10am–5pm daily

    Beijing’s National Olympic Stadium was designed to be the stunning centerpiece of China’s massive building program for the 2008 Olympics. It is part of the city’s "Olympic Green" development, which includes a large landscaped park, an Olympic Village, and many other stadia including the National Indoor Stadium and Swimming Center.

    Bird Nest - The futuristic structure of the National Olympic Stadium
    Bird Nest - The futuristic structure of
    the National Olympic Stadium

    Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron won the competition for the stadium with a bird’s nest-like structure of apparently random, intertwined ribbons of steel and concrete that simultaneously form both façade and structure. The gaps in the concrete lattice of the roof are filled with translucent inflated bags, making the building waterproof while allowing light to filter down to the spectators.

    The National Stadium remains one of the most striking buildings to be found anywhere in the world, and visitors are able to take tours around it. Plans are in place to turn the area around the stadium into a shopping and entertainment complex.

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    Peking Man Site

    • Zhoukoudian Village. 30 miles (48 km) SW of Beijing
    • 917 from Beijing’s Tianqiao bus station to Fangshan, then bus 2 or taxi to site
    • 8:30am–4:30pm daily

    Unearthed from a cave at Zhoukoudian in the 1920s, the 40-odd fossilized human bones and primitive implements were identified as the prehistoric remains of Peking Man (Homo erectus Pekinensis), who lived here over 500,000 years ago. It was thought that this exciting discovery provided the much sought-after missing link between Neanderthals and modern humans. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the area is geared toward specialists, although the small museum has an interesting display of tools, ornaments, and bone fragments. Sadly, Peking Man himself is not actually here and the site has suffered neglect recently.

    Underground City

    • 62 Xi Damo Hutong
    • 4 D2
    • Qian Men
    • 010 6702 2657
    • until 2010/11, call to check
    War Hospital sign, Underground City
    War Hospital sign, Underground City

    At the height of the Sino-Soviet rift in the 1960s, Mao Zedong gave orders to carve out a vast network of bombproof tunnels beneath Beijing. The resulting maze of tunnels was equipped with weapons, hospitals, and large stocks of water and food. Most of the labyrinth’s entry points are hard to find, but the one most easily accessible is on Xi Damo Hutong, an alley southeast of Qian Men. Guides show visitors around a circuit of dank tunnels, where signs illustrate the earlier functions of rooms, and point the way to surface landmarks. Unlit passageways branch off from the main circuit, but it is dangerous to wander off alone.

    Qian Men

    • Qian Men Dajie
    • 3 C2
    • Qian Men
    • 8:30am–3:30pm daily

    Qian Men or the Front Gate consists of two towers, the Zhengyang Men, on the southern edge of Tian’an Men Square, and the Jian Lou (Arrow Tower) just to the south. Zhengyang Men (Facing the Sun Gate) was the most imposing of the nine gates of the inner city wall that divided Beijing’s imperial quarters in the Forbidden City from the "Chinese City," where, during the Manchu Qing dynasty, the Chinese inhabitants lived.

    Rising 131 ft (40 m), the gate stands on the north-south axis that runs through the Tian’an Men and the Forbidden City. Its museum has dioramas of the old city walls, and photographs of Beijing’s old streets.

    The 125-ft (38-m) high Jian Lou (Arrow Tower), originally built in 1439, has 94 windows that were used for shooting arrows. Both towers were badly dam-aged by fire during the Boxer Rebellion. In 1916, the enceinte, a semi-circular wall that connected the two towers, was demolished. Jian Lou is now closed to the public. Across the road to the east, the Old Railway Station was built by the British and has been turned into the Beijing Railway Museum. The surrounding area comprises the city’s old shopping district, which was renovated after the Olympics. Numerous silk and cloth shops, food stalls, cinemas, Hutong houses, and upmarket developments make it a lively area worth exploring.

    Zhengyang Men, Qian Men – part of Beijing’s central fortifications
    Zhengyang Men, Qian Men – part of
    Beijing’s central fortifications

    Zhengyang Men


  • 010 6522 9386   
  • daily

    Beijing’s City Walls

    Arrow Tower of Qian Men
    Arrow Tower of Qian Men

    The earliest defensive walls around Beijing (then called Yanjing, later Zhongdu) were erected in the Jin dynasty (1115–1234) and modeled on the wall around Kaifeng. The Mongol Kublai Khan rebuilt Zhongdu, naming it Dadu, and encompassed it with a 19-mile (30-km) wall. It was only during the Ming era (1368–1644) that the walls took on their final shape of an Outer Wall with seven gates, and an Inner Wall with nine gates. The magnificent Inner Wall was 38 ft (11.5 m) high and 64 ft (19.5 m) wide. The walls and most of their gates were unfortunately demolished in the 1950s and 60s to make way for roads. Of the inner wall, only Qian Men and Desheng Men survive, while the outer wall retains only Dongbian Men (see Southeast Corner Watchtower). The old gates live on as place names on the second ring road, and as the names of stations on the Beijing Underground Loop line.

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