There are enough things to do in Beijing to fill a guidebook, so I’ve just written about a few that I loved. I’ve left off the most important highlights — the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, the Temple of Heaven, the Summer Palace — because you probably already want to go there, and any guidebook or hostel will be able to tell you how.
- Beihai Park
- The Drum Tower
- Song Qingling’s Former Residence
- Lama Temple
- Confucius Temple and Guozijian
- Cow Street Mosque
Related blog posts:
- A Great Wall Hike: Jinshanling to Simatai
- Review: Hutong Kitchen Cooking Class
- Nightlife, the Old Beijing Way
- Visiting the Beijing Zoo
- The Summer Palace: A Slideshow
- Snapshot: The Old Summer Palace
- Beijing’s Olympic Architecture: A Slideshow
- Visiting the Marco Polo Bridge
- Snapshot: The Forbidden City, Revisited
Beihai Park (北京公园)
Beihai Park contains the southernmost of the chain of lakes north of the Forbidden City. Visit the White Pagoda at the center of the lake, rent paddle boats, and watch dancers and musicians performing all around the park. Food stalls sell drinks, ice creams and a few hot snacks, so it is a good way to break up a busy day. I easily spent two hours wandering around the lake and watching Beijingers at play.
Beihai Gongyuan (北京公园), is located northwest of the Forbidden City and immediately south of Houhai. During the peak season, a “through ticket” that gets you admission to the sites within the park (including the White Pagoda), is 20RMB. If you just want to wander, the entrace ticket is 10RMB. (If those prices seem high for a public park, it’s because they are tourist prices. Beijing residents can buy a monthly pass for 10RMB.) [July 2008]
The Drum Tower (鼓楼)
For centuries, the Drum Tower was used to keep time for city residents. Now, it offers a great view of downtown and Jingshan. The Bell Tower, seen in the picture at left, is just north of the Drum Tower. It is also open to tourists.
Every half-hour from 9-11:30 a.m. and 1:30-4:00 p.m., the drums are rung in the upper chamber of the drum tower. Replicas of the original drums now reside in the tower, along with one surviving original. You can also see some of the city’s earliest time-keeping equipment, which relied on water and gravity.
If you take the bus to the tower, keep your eye out for people carrying bags of pastries on Diananmenwai Dajie (the road running north from the bus stop to the Drum Tower). A small bakery on the right side of the street sells delicious cream puffs, egg tarts and other desserts, and they make a great pre- or post- tower treat.
The Drum Tower, or Gulou (鼓楼), is located east of Houhai Park and due north of the Forbidden City. It can be reached by buses 5, 58 or 107. The nearest subway stop is Gulou Dajie on the circle line (line 2). Admission to the tower is 20 RMB. [July 2008]
Song Qingling’s Former Residence
As the wife of Sun Yat-sen and sister-in-law to Chiang Kai-Shek and later a political figure in her own right, Song Qingling was right in the thick of 20th-century Chinese history. After Sun died, she became a political leader in her own right, witnessing the Sino-Japanese War and the years of civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists for control of China. Despite her strong association with Sun, Chiang and the Nationalists, Song Qingling allied herself with the Communists and became part of the PRC government. From 1968-72, she was named China’s ceremonial head-of-state.
Today, you can visit her former residence in Beijing. The house itself is rather bland (though they still have many of her original possessions), but the accompanying exhibits give a fascinating overview of Song’s life story, and through it, of the story of modern China. It’s a refreshing departure from most Chinese museums’ focus on the ancient past.
The museum is located on the eastern bank of Houhai Lake (后海), near its northern end.
Lama Temple (雍和宫)
The Lama Temple is the most important Tibetan Buddhist temple out of the Tibetan regions, and is much more active as a place of worship than comparably significant religious sites in Europe. “Temple” is sort of a misnomer, since the Lama complex consists of many separate temple buildings. (Look for the “Esoteric Temple.”) The temple itself is surrounded by shops hawking incense, which worshippers can burn in urns or place inside one of the temples. When we were there, we saw women collecting the unopened packages of incense from inside the temples, and I couldn’t help but wonder if they were taking it outside to be sold again.
The Lama Temple, or Yonghe Gong (雍和宫), is located right outside the Yonghe Gong subway stop on the circle line (line 2). It’s right down the street from the Confucius Temple and Guozijian. Admission is 25 RMB, and an English audio guide is available. [July 2008]
Confucius Temple (孔庙) and Guozijian (国子监)
Beijing’s Confucius Temple is the second-largest temple built to honor Confucius. The temple was the beneficiary of a major pre-Olympics renovation, and the complex now houses a couple of spiffy new exhibits on Confucius’s life and his influence. The signs are for the most part translated into relatively impeccable English, so if you don’t know much about Confucius’s life and teachings, this is a good place to start. Although the government seems to have poured many more resources into restoring the Confucius Temple, the crowds are much smaller than at the nearby Lama Temple.
Included in admission to the temple is admission to the Guozijian next door, where students came to take the highest-level imperial examination. For centuries, jobs in China’s civil service were determined entirely on the basis of this test. A museum exhibit provides more information about the examination system, and even has models of the tiny cubicles in which test-takers lived and studied. It doesn’t make it into many guidebooks, but I highly recommend a stop here.
The Confucius Temple, or Kong Miao (孔庙), is located down the street from the Lama Temple. Take the circle line (line 2) to the Yonghe Gong subway stop. Admission is 20RMB, and it covers both the temple and the Guozijian). [July 2008]
Cow Street Mosque (牛街礼拜寺)
The Cow Street Mosque, originally built in 996, was built in traditional Chinese temple style, so I certainly needed to erase any expectations of what a mosque should look like. Other than the Arabic lettering on buildings around the complex (see photo at right), the architectural style was nearly identical to Beijing’s other temples. But the smaller and more compact scale of the mosque makes it somewhat more approachable. Be sure to stroll around the main hall (which is closed to non-Muslims, though you can peek inside through the many open doors) along an attractive path lined with pomegranate trees and other greenery.
If you walk east from Niujie, the next major north-south street is lined with small shops selling traditional Chinese Muslim snacks. Look for a variety of kebabs and rolls — I especially liked dumplings stuffed with lamb.
The Cow Street Mosque, or Niujie Libai Si (牛街礼拜寺), is located on Cow Street (Niujie), south of the Changchunjie subway stop. You can take bus 717 to Niujie or buses 5 and 19 (among others) to Guang’anmen Dajie Nei. [July 2008]