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China’s capital is moving fast. For those coming to look for Peking – and not just the Duck – hurry, for while the people here once enjoyed life at a casual pace, the 15 million residents of this sprawling city are moving forward at an unprecedented rate. No longer introspective, the contemporary aspects of the city astound first-time visitors. While the major landmarks are still here, the little neighbourhoods (hutongs), with their narrow alleys, are becoming a casualty of a city that is forging forward.
While a significant centre for many centuries, at the beginning of the Ming Dynasty, the centre of the city took its shape in the 15th century. And here, in the heart of the city, is one of the largest and most famous city squares in the world, Tiananmen Square. The square has a long and significant history, with the Tiananmen Gate that leads to the Forbidden City being completed in 1415 (during the Ming Dynasty). While it’s home to the Mao Zedong Mausoleum, in modern history it’s famous for the pro-democracy protests in 1989 when a protestor – still unnamed – stood in front of a column of army tanks blocking their path. If you do want to pay respects to the former leader, you can see Mao lying in state at the Mausoleum.Read more
The adjacent sprawling Forbidden City was been a centre of power for centuries, serving as the home to more than a dozen emperors. It’s a massive sight and one that leaves many visitors wishing they’d allocated more time to exploring the myriad buildings, rooms and courtyards in the palace complex. If the Forbidden City whets the appetite for lovers of history, a visit to the Summer Palace, northwest of the city centre is in order, with its expansive park, waterways and impressive imperial architecture.
Also impressive on a more modest scale are the remaining hutongs, the historic laneways of Beijing lined with siheyuan, traditional courtyard residences. When the People’s Republic of China was declared in 1949, many of these small neighbourhoods began to disappear and continued to be demolished until recently. However today, with the city reaching a maturity that involves finally appreciating the history of its everyday life, many of the remaining hutongs are now at last protected.
Qianmen, south of Tiananmen Square, lies adjacent to some of the city’s hutongs. A commercial centre that’s hundreds of years old, it was refurbished – somewhat controversially – before the 2008 Summer Olympics. It’s now home to flashy shops, including many international brands, just another indicator of how fast Beijing is moving forward.