With a palace like no other, sublime temples and a criss-crossing of enchanting hutong alleyways, the Chinese capital is inextricably linked to its glorious, notorious past.
Central Beijing’s largest and most atmospheric Buddhist temple, the serene Lama Temple (formally speaking, the Yonghe Temple) used to be home to legions of monks from Mongolia and Tibet. It’s still an active temple, with five beautiful central halls, the last of which houses the world’s largest sandalwood Buddha statue.
An incense stick’s toss away from the Lama Temple, China’s second-largest Confucian temple has had a refit in recent years, but the almost otherworldly sense of detachment seems impossible to shift. A mood of impassiveness reigns and the lack of worship reinforces a sensation that time has stood still. There’s a stone ‘forest’ of 190 stelae recording the 13 Confucian classics in 630,000 Chinese characters at the rear of the temple.
Perhaps the strangest temple in the capital, certainly the most morbid, this thought-provoking Taoist shrine has statue-filled halls dedicated to a variety of ghosts and the god who manages the 18 levels of hell. An active place of worship tended by top-knotted Taoist monks, it now also hosts the Beijing Folk Arts Museum. A visit here takes you into a world entirely at odds with the surrounding high-rises.
This 9,000-room city within a city is the largest palace complex in the world and the best-preserved reminder of China’s imperial past, in use for 500 years until the last Qing dynasty emperor abdicated in 1912. An audio guide helps to make sense of the imposing halls, splendid gates and age-old relics.
A marvel of landscaping on the outskirts of the city, the imperial summer playground is a beguilling collection of temples, pavilions, gardens, lakes, bridges and corridors. Clamber up Longevity Hill for splendid views over the city or promenade around Kunming Lake and imagine what it must have been like to have had it all to yourself.
Temple of Heaven
An oasis of peace and methodical Confucian design in a busy urban landscape, the Temple of Heaven Park originally served as a vast stage for solemn rites performed by the emperor. Don’t expect to see worshippers in prayer; this is not so much a temple as an altar. The complex is also home to the sublime Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests.
Huguang Guild Hall
Dating back to 1807, this is the most atmospheric place in town for a night of Peking opera. The red, green and gold interior is magnificent, with balconies surrounding the canopied stage. Opposite, there’s a small museum displaying operatic paraphernalia.
Lao She Teahouse
Named after a celebrated writer, Lao She Teahouse has daily and nightly shows, mostly in Chinese, which blend any numberof traditional performing arts. The evening performances of Peking opera, acrobatics and magic are the most popular but there are also tea ceremonies, folk-music performances and daily shadow-puppet shows.
China Puppet Theatre
Aimed at families, this theatre puts on shadow plays, puppetry, music and dance events – all in Chinese – on weekends only. There are two theatres: the larger one hosts music and dance shows at 10.30am and 2.30pm, while the puppet shows are held in the small theatre at multiple times in the morning and early afternoon.
The Airport Express, also written as ABC (Airport Beijing City), is a quick and convenient way into town, and links to the subway. A taxi should cost £8-£10 to the city centre (40 minutes to 1 hour) – join the line at the airport for an official cab. The Beijing subway system is modern, safe and easy to use.
Get a travel card to save you queueing for tickets.
WHERE TO STAY
Almost as central as can be, Qianmen Hostel has simple but decent en suite rooms inside a heritage courtyard house, as well as cheaper rooms and dorms with shared bathrooms.
Graceland Yard Hotel is an exquisitely renovated courtyard hotel, housed within the grounds of an abandoned temple. Each of the rooms is slightly different, but all are decorated with style.
With a calm, serene ambience and a lovely magnolia courtyard, the 14-room Hotel Cote Cour makes the most of its hutong location. There is also a stylish rooftop restaurant open to non-guests.
Beijing’s Old Hutongs
The basic unit of the historic Beijing streetscape was the hutong – an alleyway lined with traditional courtyard houses. Although many hutong districts have been demolished to make way for new developments, there are enough still to give a sense of what most of the city looked like until the 1960s.
The best-preserved hutongs are found close to the Forbidden City. Many of their names mark their former function: Zhonggu Hutong (Bell and Drum Alley) was responsible for the provision of bells and drums to the imperial household, while Zhiranju Hutong (Weaving and Dyeing Department Alley) supplied its satins and silks.
Many old hutong homes lack heating and proper plumbing, but some have been fully modernised and are now much prized as hotels or private houses.