Be curious: Beijing rewards the explorer. Most temples and palaces have gardens and lesser courtyards that are seldom visited. Even at the height of the summer tourist rush, the Forbidden City's peripheral courtyards offer ample breathing room, even seclusion. The Temple of Heaven's vast grounds are a pleasure year-round—and enchanting after a snowfall.
The Best of Beijing in 5 Days
On Day 1, start at Tiananmen Square, the heart of modern China and the entry point to the spectacular Forbidden City. Explore the former imperial palace to your heart's content. In the afternoon, take a guided pedicab ride through a hutong to the Drum and Bell towers. Have Peking duck for dinner, perhaps at the Li Qun Roast Duck Restaurant, located in an old courtyard house a few blocks southeast of Tiananmen Square.
On Day 2, head straight for the vast grounds of the Temple of Heaven, one of Beijing's most important historical sights. Visit the Lama Temple and the nearby Confucius Temple, too. Save two or three hours in the afternoon for shopping at Yangshow Market and the Silk Alley Market in Chaoyang District. Have dinner or enjoy a nightcap in the Sanlitun area.
Set aside Day 3 for a tour to the Thirteen Ming Tombs and the Great Wall at Mutianyu, where a cable car offers a dramatic ride to the summit.
On Day 4, visit the rambling Summer Palace, and then spend a few hours at the nearby Old Summer Palace, an intriguing ruin. In the evening, plan to see a Beijing opera performance or hit the restaurants and bars in the bustling Houhai area.
On Day 5, hire a car and visit the spectacular Eastern Qing Tombs, where a "spirit way" lined with carved stone animals and unrestored templelike grave sites rests in a beautiful rural setting. Wear walking shoes and bring a lunch. The drive takes five hours round-trip, so get an early start.
Although the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square represent the heart of Beijing, the capital lacks a definitive downtown area in terms of shopping or business, as commercial and entertainment districts have cropped up all over.
If You Have 1 Day
Begin your day in Tiananmen Square —you may want to catch the flag-raising ceremony at dawn—to admire the Communist icons of modern China. Then, heading north, walk back through time into the vast Forbidden City. Keep in mind that in 1420, when the imperial palace was built, its structures were the tallest in Asia. You can spend the morning leisurely examining the many palaces and gardens here. Next head north into Jingshan Park and climb Coal Hill to get a panoramic view of the city. Then jump into a cab and head to Lotus Lane, where you can have a drink overlooking the waters of Qianhai.
In the afternoon, take a trip outside the city. Hire a car and driver to take you on the one-hour journey to the Badaling section of the Great Wall, which is the closest to Beijing. On your way back, stop at either the Thirteen Ming Tombs or the Summer Palace. The Ming Tombs are en route; the Summer Palace will add an additional half hour to your journey.
Tickets are sold until one hour before closing time at the Ming Tombs and Summer Palace.
Itinerary on Two Wheels
A great way to explore Beijing is by bicycle. A ride between Ditan Park and the Lake District includes some of the city's most famous sights and finest hutongs.
Begin at Ditan Park, just north of the Second Ring Road on Yonghegong Jie. Park your bike in the lot outside the south gate and take a walk around the park. Next, ride south along Yonghegong Jie until you come to the main entrance of the Lama Temple. Running west across the street from the temple's main gate is Guozijian Jie (Imperial Academy Street). Shops near the intersection sell Buddhist statues, incense, texts (in Chinese), and tapes of traditional Chinese Buddhist music. Browse them before riding west to the Confucius Temple and the neighboring Imperial Academy. The arches spanning Guozijian Jie are among the few of their kind remaining in Beijing.
Follow Guozijian Jie west until it empties onto Andingmennei Dajie. Enter this busy road with care (there's no traffic signal) and ride south to Gulou Dong Dajie, another major thoroughfare. Turn right (west) and ride to the Drum Tower. From here, detour through the alleys just north of the Bell Tower. A small public square crowded with city residents flying kites, playing badminton or chess, and chatting, links the two landmarks.
If you need a rest, stop in at the Drum and Bell (010/8403-3600), a rustic-looking bar and restaurant on the west side of the square; it has a nice rooftop terrace with views of the two towers and the square below. Retrace your route south to Di'anmenwai Dajie (the road running south from the Drum Tower), turning onto Yandai Xie Jie, the first lane on the right (next to the McDonald's). Makers of long-stem pipes once lined the lane's narrow way (one small pipe shop still does). There are a number of shops and street vendors here selling handicrafts, ethnic clothing, and folk arts. You can also sample some of Beijing's famous old street snacks such as candied haw, sweet potatoes, roast corn, and much more.
Wind southwest on Yandai Xie Jie past guesthouses, bicycle-repair shops, tiny restaurants, and crumbling traditional courtyard houses toward Houhai, or the Rear Lake. Turn left onto Xiaoqiaoli Hutong and ride to the arched Silver Ingot Bridge, which separates Houhai and Qianhai lakes. Before the bridge, turn right and follow the trail along Houhai's north shore, traveling toward Soong Ching-ling's Former Residence.
Continue around the lake until you arrive at Deshengmennei Dajie. Follow it south to the second alley, turning east (left) onto Yangfang Hutong, which leads back to the arched bridge. Ride along Yangfang Hutong past the stone bridge and follow Qianhai's west bank. Sip a soda, beer, or tea at one of the lakeside venues. Continue along the lane to Qianhai Xi Jie. Nearby is Prince Gong's Palace, 300 yards north of the China Conservatory of Music—look for the brass plaque.
Love to walk? So do we! You can also do this itinerary, or parts of it, on two feet if you're so inclined.