Popular Beijing Shore Excursions
Tiananmen Square: This massive (standing room for 300,000), iconic square bustles with activity while exuding an air of old Soviet grandeur and that still-unshakable memory of Man vs. Tank. It's home to Mao's tomb, with heroic revolutionary statues guarding the entry, and ringed by massive government buildings. Rivers of tour groups flood the area and squads of tall, handsome, stone-faced military guards always seem to be marching around.
The Forbidden City: Lying just beyond Tiananmen Square, the sprawling, walled encampment once housed the Imperial Court during the Ming and Qing dynasties. It's so huge that many erstwhile residents are said to have gone their whole lives without going outside the 30-foot-high walls. You'll keep passing through a series of "gates" -- huge buildings with processional paths and courtyards -- until you reach the inner sanctum where the women of the court lived, including a whole section just for concubines. To see every corner of the UNESCO World Heritage Site would surely take an entire day -- and to be honest, it may all start to look the same after a while -- so make sure you hit the impressive Palace Museum within the city walls before you wear yourself too thin. (4 Jingshan Qianjie: +86 10 8500 7421; open daily, April 1 to October 31, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., November 1 to March 31, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; purchasing tickets online recommended)
The Temple of Heaven: This temple complex, surrounded by a vast 675-acre garden, was built under the command of the same emperor who ordered the construction of the Forbidden City. Dating back to 1420, the towering, round temple (which was visited by emperors to pray to the heavens for a good annual harvest) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The surrounding park is one of the greenest places in Beijing -- and you might catch youngsters frolicking, oldsters enjoying a card game with lively betting or women crocheting items to sell. (1 Tiantan E Road; open daily; park open 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., buildings open November 1 to June 30, 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., July 1 to October 31, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., November 1 to February 28/29, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.)
The Summer Palace: About 7 miles from the city center, this sprawling complex covers more than 700 acres, surrounding a huge lake. It's wonderful for strolling, and a cooling breeze comes off the lake. Built in the 18th century, but twice destroyed by foreign armies, the buildings are frequently linked with the infamous Empress Dowager Cixi. She ruled from a throne (usually strictly reserved for the emperor) in the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity -- when she wasn't throwing parties on her improbable Marble Boat, which (no surprise) remained permanently docked. There are a number of interesting structures, including what lays claim to being the world's longest corridor -- the aptly named Long Corridor, an open-air structure stretching nearly 3,000 feet and painted with 10,000 scenes, including flora, fauna and Chinese tales. You could spend the day strolling along the lake, taking in the views and various buildings. The grounds are particularly lovely in springtime when flowering trees along the lake are in bloom. (19 Xin-jian-gong-men Road, Haidian; +86 10 6288 1144; open daily, April 1 to October 31, entry 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., closes 8 p.m., November 1 to March 31, entry 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., closes 7 p.m.)
The Great Wall: An old Chinese proverb says, "Not been to the Great Wall, not a great man." And indeed, no trip to China is complete without viewing the countryside's raw, rolling hills from the Great Wall. Most tours to the wall will visit the Badaling section (39 miles from Beijing). This is convenient because it's close to Beijing, and the site is outfitted to cater to the masses. But Badaling is markedly touristy, replete with shops and food vendors and numerous touts hanging out on the wall itself. It's also mobbed with Chinese tourists due to its proximity to Beijing. A more peaceful option is traveling further to the Mutianyu (56 miles from Beijing) or -- for more fit hikers -- Jinshanling (99 miles from Beijing) sections. If you're a real adventurer, head for the rugged Jiankou section (44 miles from Beijing). There will be fewer tourists (and even fewer touts), and you'll be face-to-face with scenic beauty without parking lots or handrails sullying the view. The various sections of the wall are generally open during daylight hours (longer in summer) and offer different modes of paid transport to ascend and descend the wall (gondola cable cars, open ski lift-type cable rides and a fabulously fun toboggan slide to descend at Mutianyu; each is priced differently).
To reach the wall from Beijing, you can opt for a shore excursion, or choose to book a private tour in advance or through nearly any hotel in Beijing. Be aware that most organized group tours will include lengthy stopovers at gem, ceramic or other craft wholesalers where all parties involved will try and make a commission off your tourist dollar. Some tour operators go out of their way to advertise "no stops" trips to the wall; booking one of those is advisable. By all means, avoid the touts in Tiananmen Square hawking bargain tours.
Hutongs: In the Dongcheng area, near Houhai Lake, you can get a glimpse of everyday life in the hutongs, the centuries-old courtyard dwellings of old Beijing. Many hutongs have been demolished and replaced with the skyscraping apartment buildings that dominate Beijing's skyline. But current hutong residents (and critics of overdevelopment) have fought for the remaining hutongs to be preserved. The city government has recognized the hutongs' tourist appeal and has labeled them protected areas. Get a map, find Nanluoguxiang Street, and use it as a starting point. You'll see residents shopping and gossiping, kids playing games and discover small, local restaurants tucked away in these hidden alleys. While you're in the neighborhood, Houhai Lake makes a lovely spot for a stroll in the warmer months. Visitors can paddle around in rented boats or go fishing. The lake is popular with foreign visitors and has become famous in recent years because of a surge in restaurants, cafes and nightlife in the area.
The Bird's Nest and the Water Cube: These are among the most memorable venues of any Olympic Games in recent history. Though probably the kind of thing you can appreciate just as well from a postcard, the monuments are worthy of closer inspection if you find yourself in the Olympic Park area in east Beijing -- particularly when they're illuminated at night.
Traditional Chinese Massage: After a long day on your feet, a little pampering may be in order. Reflexology and pressure-point-based massages are particular specialties in China. Massage parlors are practically ubiquitous throughout Beijing. Ignore touts offering massages; just walk into a place that seems suitable to your tastes, and check it out. Prices are reasonable and often negotiable.
Parks: If you're overnighting, taking a stroll through one of Beijing's parks in the morning hours is a great way to start a day in the city. Watch old men ponder over board games, admire groups of people practicing tai chi and get a taste of Chinese landscaping. Beihai Park, Chaoyang Park and the Purple Bamboo Park are all good choices.