7 Reasons Beijing Should Be On Your Bucket List
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China’s capital is rich in history, culture, and food and is definitely worth a visit. Here are just seven reasons why you should tackle Beijing, AKA the dragon city, at least once in your life.
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Taste the imperial life
As the centre of one of the most powerful Eastern civilisations for millennia, many of the region’s most iconic and intriguing monuments can be found around Beijing and its surrounds. Today, the city is considered a bustling modern capital (as reflected by its state-of-the-art subway), but around every corner lies the opportunity to travel back in time and to imagine life as a dynastic emperor.
In short, the sightseeing here is grand and endless. You can easily spend a whole day exploring each corner of the mysterious Forbidden City, learning about its officials, soldiers, concubines and eunuchs, before performing your religious rituals at the giant Temple of the Sun, and luxuriating like a king – well, an emperor – in the lush gardens of the Summer Palace.
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Hike the Great Wall
No introduction is needed for one of the planet’s most famous landmarks. Although it’s conveniently accessible on a group day tour from Beijing to Badaling, this is often an overcrowded affair.
To fully take in the world’s longest man-made structure and the majestic mountains around it, hike the less-visited Mutianyu or Jinshanling areas instead, or catch the (surprisingly comfy) train to Badaling, spend a night in a local guesthouse at the Wall’s foot, wake up at dawn to hit the ramparts first, turn left at the entrance, and voilà – you’ll feel like you’ve got the place almost to yourself.
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Get lost in the hutongs
Far from the new CBD, Beijing’s hutongs – maze-like neighbourhoods of narrow alleyways and low-rise houses – are the true heart and soul of the city. Spend some time roaming these chaotic districts filled with locals, while others dodge the big hotels, instead choosing to find the real charm of Chinese culture by staying in one of the local guesthouses situated in a historical courtyard residence, usually complete with lanterns, porcelain, and an interior fish pond.
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Experience communist China
It’s easy to be mesmerised by China’s distant past, but its more modern eras have been just as eventful. As one of the world’s few – and last – communist nations, China is a world of its own, and getting a real feel for the Maoist atmosphere is an unmissable part of the experience.
You won’t have to search to find reminders of Maoist China. Vendors everywhere sell translated copies of Mao’s Little Red Book, for instance. Today, the very middle of Tiananmen Square is home to the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, inside which lies the remains of Chairman Mao, open for visitors year-round. History and politics buffs should not miss the flag-raising ceremony that takes place on the square each sunrise, making for the perfect opportunity to immerse yourself in Chinese socialist life.
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Be amazed by Chinese contemporary art
China has been a powerhouse in the art world for centuries, and Beijing’s art district continues the nation’s artistic legacy. Located in decommissioned military factory buildings, 798 Art District is a creative mecca for the region’s established and emerging modern artists. You’ll need at least half a day to make your way through the galleries, rotating exhibitions and audacious installations – the district has played host to works from boldface names including Ai Wei Wei, Andy Warhol, Zhu Bingren and many more. The area is also a rich canvas for street art.
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Savour traditional Peking duck
Chinese food is more diverse than your local takeout joint, and it’s well worth tasting as many local treats and delights as you can. Amid the dim sum, chow mein, and other yummy fare, Beijing’s star dish is its world-famous Peking duck. The sophisticated meal, comprised of thin roasted duck slices (usually prepared right in front of you) dressed in plum sauce and rolled with vegetables into fine pancakes is delicious, not to mention fun, to eat. While the dish is available all over the world, there’s no better place to try it than Beijing itself. Try Biànyífāng, which bills itself as Beijing’s original Peking duck restaurant (it’s been serving up the Chinese delicacy since the Qing dynasty).
Continue your journey through Beijing’s culinary scene with a drink at one of the city’s up-and-coming craft beer breweries. NBeer Pub offers 37 ales on tap (most of which are brewed in house), while Great Leap Brewing (the city’s first craft brewery) serves up ales made from local ingredients.
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Learn an ancestral art
Chinese culture is bountiful: such a sprawling, ancient country has sprouted many unique arts and crafts, so why not use your holiday to explore and discover them for yourself?
Loved that Peking duck? Sign up for a cooking class to learn how to make your own at Hutong Chinese Cooking School. They also offer classes covering dim sum and hand-pulled noodles, as well as wok-based dishes. For those interested in Chinese regional cuisine, The Hutong Kitchen features cooking classes in Sichuan and Yunnan fare.
If you’re on the sportier side, channel your inner Bruce Lee by learning kung fu (taught by Buddhist monks in monasteries), or practise the more relaxed tai chi martial art. Meanwhile, creatives can try their hand at the very distinguished art of calligraphy. As the capital, Beijing offers introductions to all of these traditional activities, and to plenty more.
(Lead image: Roman Boed / Flickr)