Beijing has some of the most significant landmarks in China’s history, which makes it one of the first go-to destinations in China. Though the city is most closely associated with the Great Wall, the following places have had a major impact in China’s history and remain as prominent tourist attractions, but do you know what makes them famous?
The Temple of Heaven
The Temple of Heaven is a religious complex that was used during the Ming and Qing dynasties. It’s most famous for the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests: a brightly colored, 3-tiered circular building on three levels of stone. It was built in 1420 by the Emperor Yongle, who was also responsible for building the Forbidden City. Ceremonies were held twice a year to pray to heaven for good harvests.
In 1988, the complex was opened as a park. The grounds are larger than the Forbidden City and there are several entrance gates within the park to see some of the other buildings. But for most of the locals, the park has become a place to socialize, as you will often witness card games and children playing.
Just outside the Forbidden City is a large, open square known as Tiananmen Square. It was the vision of Mao Zedong to make it the largest in the world but somehow he came up short, as it is only fourth. Though it’s surrounded by rather important buildings now (the Great Hall of the People, the National Museum of China and the Mao Zedong Mausoleum), it’s still the square itself that holds the most notability for being the infamous location of the 1989 massacre of protestors. The student-led protest for democracy spread across 400 cities nationwide and involved the occupation of nearly one million people in Tiananmen Square. Military troops were brought in after several weeks of occupation and opened fire on the unarmed civilians. It’s unclear how many people were killed in the process but to this day, Tiananmen Square remains a symbol of political turmoil.
The Forbidden City
The Imperial Palace from the Ming and Qing dynasties lies in the heart of Beijing and served as the home to emperors for nearly 500 years. The name stems from the fact that no one was able to enter into the grounds without a special invitation from the Emperor. Until it was open to the public, no one had any idea what it actually consisted of. There are 980 buildings across 180 acres, though once inside the grounds, the buildings seem a bit repetitive. I felt as if I were looking at the same building each time I walked to a new one and (though most guides assure you that you need several hours to explore) I may have made it through the entire premises in just under an hour. (Before you do the math, not all of the Forbidden City is open to the public and we may have gotten the closing time wrong and had only an hour left.)
However, if you get the timing just right, you can leave the Forbidden City just before sundown and head to Jingshan Park across the street. From there, you can get an excellent aerial view of the Forbidden City just as the sun sets.
The Summer Palace
The Summer Palace, on the other hand, is a little outside the city and lies next to a lake that was extended to resemble the West Lake in Hangzhou. Somehow, we entered through the back entrance first and were able to walk through to the front where we were met with a beautiful view of the lake.
The summer Palace is closely associated with the Empress Cixi who was actually a concubine for the Emperor. Her 5-year old son with the Emperor was set to take the throne when the Emperor died, but Cixi made herself the Empress instead. (Kind of a ballsy move!) Then she squandered funds for the navy on herself, as well as left the political finances in shambles and ultimately became the one to blame for the fall of the Qing Dynasty. Three years after her death, the Republic of China was formed in 1912.
The Summer Palace also includes an option to visit Suzhou Street, a replica of the city of Suzhou where the Emperor and his concubines could pretend that they were strolling through the market place along the canal. There are several shops open along the waterway where you can pick up trinkets and souvenirs. While most souvenir shops tend to be overpriced at main attractions, the shops at Suzhou Street were inexpensive and fun to browse.