Everyone who plans to visit the “Northern Capital” wants to see two things: The Forbidden City and the Great Wall. And you are right! Should this be your one and only time to Beijing, that is absolutely what you should do. And the best: You can even visit them both in one day! I did this over a decade ago and it was a great experience if a little exhausting. But should you be interested to see a little bit more of the city itself and visit a few places that not so many tourists get to go to, let me take you on an excursion that will open a more traditional and authentic Beijing to you.
The day starts in the early morning around 7 am. This will leave you with enough time for coffee and a little breakfast before heading out to the beautiful Yonghe Temple (aka Lama Temple). Located in walking distance from Yonghegong Metro Station (Line 2), this beautiful monastery serves as school of Tibetan Buddhism and is architectural artwork in terms of combination of Chinese Han and Tibetan style.
It opens at 9 o´clock in the morning which is a great time to watch the locals absolve their morning prayers and to enjoy the premises without it being too busy.
The temple is also called the Palace of Peace and Harmony and used to be the residence of Prince Yong in the early 18th century. It consists of five main halls separated by each other by courtyards. The last hall, referred to as “Pavilion of Ten Thousand Happinesses”, contains a 18 meters high statue of the Maitreya Buddha. This piece of art was a gift by the seventh Dalai Lama and was carved from one tree trunk of white sandalwood.
You will be amazed how peaceful and quiet it is inside the site. Make sure to collect a packet of incense before you enter the first courtyard (distribution takes place to the left and the right of the red gate) and take a moment to light up three at a time to show your gratitude to whatever you are thankful for in your life. There could not be a better start into the day than with positive energy, right?
Before heading back to the metro station, why not taking a short walk through the so-called Hutong (traditional Northern Chinese neighbourhood) right across the street to get a first impression of how people authentically live in one of the oldest cities in the world.
The term Hutong describes in general a group of small side streets or alleys combining siheyuans, traditional Chinese courtyard residences, with each other. These areas are highly interesting to visit as they give great insight into the culture, history and tradition of Chinese culture. Particularly Beijing has many of these old neighbourhoods and most of them are protected for preservation. Not many cities in modern China have Hutongs these days, so this is an absolute Must see!
But don´t spend too much time there, the next stop is the Andingmen Hutong which features the famous Bell (Zhonglou) and Drum (Gulou) Tower (Gulou Street Metro Station, Line 2 or Shichahai Station, Line 8).
Both buildings had been dominant features in the ancient Beijing skyline and offer beautiful views of the city and the Hutong area that lies around. Particularly in these modern days, you will get a great impression of the architectural diversity that Beijing has to offer.
Zhonglou and Gulou were used as central timekeeping institutions during three dynasties before introducing the western-style clockwork system. Today, drum performances are still held at the Drum Tower for tourists.
The area around the two towers is particularly beautiful to explore. This Hutong is one of the oldest that Beijing has to offer and is loaded with cute little cafés, galleries, shops and restaurants. A great place to have lunch and power up is the Lost Paradise restaurant on Jigulou Street just around the corner.
Before heading down Di`Anmen Inner Street towards Jingshan Park make sure to make a stop at the beautiful Shichahai Hutong that borders on the right hand side just after the Drum Tower. You will find great shopping opportunities (mainly at fixed prices) for ceramics, leather goods and other neat souvenirs.
This hutong lies right at the shores of Huhai Lake, a major recreational park for locals. Try some of the local sweets while watching the people pedal on funny duck shaped paddle boats over the water. I really like Shichahai. Shopping is fun and free of stress! Not like inside the many markets where aggressive shop keepers try to cheat you with junk at completely over-exaggerated prices.
Next stop is Jingshan Park. This is a beautifully arranged park that used to belong to the Imperial Gardens of the Forbidden City and that was site to the suicide of the last Emperor of the Ming Dynasty in 1644.
From the top pagoda on the hill you will have an outrageous view over whole Beijing. On clear days, you may even see the mountains. It also gives a pretty impressive idea of the imposing size of the Forbidden City that extends just underneath. If you are lucky, you might even be able to listen to musicians and singers performing traditional Chinese music and songs.
One sight that no one should miss in Beijing is, of course, the Forbidden City itself. Especially if you are lucky to catch a sunny day with blue skies! I had been before around 10 years ago, but in my opinion, this architectural masterpiece is exciting every single time. In order to get to the main entrance, you will have to walk all the way around it from Jingshan Park or you bridge the distance by taxi or rickshaw.
The ticket offices are located a little ahead of the main gate where you enter and pass through security. In this area be particularly cautious of tricksters! These can be male or females or couples that speak very well English and that will try to engage you in a conversation. Try to politely pass by or simply do not react on their personal address.
Do not mix them up with local guides trying to sell their service to you in order to earn a little extra cash. I have never made use of a personal guide, so sorry for not being able to give any advice on this. Inside the Forbidden City, you may lend audio guided tours at extra cost. I always like to explore everything on my own.
Before the first time that I payed visit to the Forbidden City, I watched Bernardo Bertoluccis´s epos “The Last Emperor“. I saw that movie for the first time when I was a small child. That was the moment when I decided that I had to see it in real life one day. It took me over 15 years until the first time and then another 10 years until my second visit.
And let me tell you, it is a truly magical experience to walk over the by now over 596 year old surfaces of this gigantic complex. Over 980 buildings in total spread over 180 acres, one full day is hardly enough to explore every tiny corner. Not to mention only the few hours that are left to this one. But visiting the premise during the afternoon is, in my opinion, the best time of the day. The light is peculiarly nice and the colours shine even a little brighter. Simply wonderful.
There is so much history to breathe in and so much palatial architecture to marvel at, you will not notice how quickly time will pass by. It is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I highly recommend everyone should bucketlist.
At the end of this exciting day you truly dived into a Beijing that not so many tourist may get to see. I really enjoyed the diversity and variety myself, seeing the Chinese capital again through different eyes and realizing how much more is waiting to be explored!
Safe travels, folks, and enjoy a most terrific time in Beijing! I hope, I could be a little bit of an inspiration to your travel plans! Please share your thoughts, if you´d like :).