Are you learning about Beijing? Maybe you’re planning a trip there?
This ancient capital is one of the best places in the world to experience traditional Chinese culture and customs.
But despite its long history and numerous historical monuments, you shouldn’t think that Beijing is stuck in the past.
In fact, this is a city of contrasts, with streets filled with famous historical landmarks backing onto frenetic, painfully modern streets of action and life.
It’s this exciting contrast that is one of Beijing’s biggest draws, and it’s something that I didn’t expect and couldn’t get enough of when I traveled to this huge city.
So, if you’re ready to find out what Beijing is known for, then start with this list.
1. The Great Wall of China
You can’t have any list of the things that Beijing is famous for without including the Great Wall.
As the longest wall in the world, the Great Wall was built to defend China against invaders and winds its way along some truly incredible scenery.
Beijing has been an important city since ancient times, so parts of the wall were designed specifically to protect it. This is why you’ll find several well-preserved or renovated areas of the wall within two hours drive of the city.
The most popular sections of wall to visit while you’re in Beijing include:
- Badaling, the best-preserved and most popular section with lots of tourist amenities (and tourists!)
- Mutianyu, which offers spectacular scenery without the crowds of Badaling
- Juyongguan, which boasts lots of old temples and towers as well as spectacular views.
If you happen to visit China, make sure you don’t rush your trip to the Great Wall. The more time you have to explore this wonder of the world, the better!
2. The Forbidden City
The Forbidden City is the largest and best preserved ancient architectural complex in the world. So, if you see nothing else in Beijing, you simply must see this palace.
The Forbidden City was built by Zhu Di, the fourth son of the Ming Dynasty’s founder. Zhu Di was planning a coup d’état and moved the capital and his army to Beijing, constructing the Forbidden City as the heart of his new empire.
The palace was completed in 1420 and was the home of the imperial family and servants during the Ming and Qing dynasties.
Today, the Forbidden City is the most visited museum in China and sees around 80,000 visitors every day. The expansive grounds cover around 72 hectares (180 acres) and are filled with numerous towers, halls, and gardens to explore.
3. Chinese New Year celebrations
Chinese New Year has to be on any list of what makes Beijing famous. It’s the most significant holiday in China and is celebrated by around 20% of the world’s population.
Chinese New Year is obviously the start of the new year, but the date of the celebration changes annually based on the lunar calendar. That’s why it’s also referred to as the Lunar New Year.
The traditions of Chinese New Year date back to the 14th century BC and are associated with various myths and duties. The day itself is one of celebration, fireworks, feasts, and money-giving, and it’s a great day to get out and experience the local culture for yourself.
While I was in Beijing, I found Chinese New Year to be a bewildering display of color, fireworks, firecrackers at random moments, and great food. Those memories are some of the brightest, and the loudest, of all my time in China.
4. Temple of Heaven
The Temple of Heaven, also known as Tiāntán (or 天坛 in Chinese characters), includes a group of some of the most sacred buildings in Beijing.
It was first constructed in 1420 and holds an important place in the traditional culture.
The Temple of Heaven has two sections symbolizing heaven and earth. In the past, the emperor would ascend the Heavenly Alter on the day of the winter solstice to pray and offer sacrifices for a good harvest.
You can also see the Vault of Heaven and the Echo Wall, where even a whisper is magnified by the stones.
While you’re there, you can walk around the complex and around the Temple of Heaven, though tourists can’t go inside. But just spending time in the historic forest and gazing at the brightly colored temples is well worth the price of admission.
5. Peking Duck
Peking duck is Beijing’s most famous food and has been around since the imperial era.
Most travelers who visit Beijing try Peking duck at least once. This local delicacy has crisp, crunchy skin and soft, succulent meat and is intricately seasoned. You can wrap the duck in pancakes for an exquisitely tasty meal.
There are numerous restaurants throughout the city where you can eat Peking duck, so make sure you try at least one of them.
Some of the most famous places to eat Peking duck in Beijing include:
- Quanjude, the most famous and has been serving the dish for over 100 years
- Yulin Beijing Duck Restaurant for expensive dishes in sumptuous surroundings
- Dadong to eat with the locals.
Seeing the chef slice the cooked duck right in front of you is a real treat!
Beijing is famous for its hutongs, which are small and ancient alleyways set between rows of family homes.
Many of the hutongs (胡同 in Chinese characters) are up to 700 years old and showcase ordinary life in Beijing as well as its history.
There are numerous hutongs in Beijing, many of them well worth exploring. Most of the hutongs contain interesting shops, cute little restaurants, bars, and tea houses, so make sure you bring along your wallet and your appetite!
Here are some of the best hutongs to explore in Beijing:
- Nanluoguxiang, which has a long history and great food places
- Yandaixie Street, which contained pipe shops in the late Qing Dynasty and is now known as Skewed Tobacco Pouch
- Guozijian Street, where you’ll find traditional arches, the Temple of Confucius, and lots of traditional architecture
- Liulichang Cultural Street, which is one of the best places in the city to find calligraphy, porcelain, enamels, traditional musical instruments, and paintings.
As China modernized quickly, most of the hutongs were destroyed to make way for new constructions like office towers and roads. This is why the ones that are left are very popular with tourists.
7. Ming Tombs
The Ming Tombs complex has been recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
The tombs contain 13 Ming Dynasty emperors along with their empresses, concubines, princesses, and princes. It’s also one of the best-preserved Chinese imperial tomb complexes in the world.
There are three tombs open to the public at the moment and the setting is filled with amazing architecture and sculptures. The tombs that are open are:
- Changling, which has the best architecture
- Zhaoling, which has amazing above-ground architecture
- Dingling, which is famous for its stone underground palace.
The Ming Tombs are located around 50 km (30 miles) from Beijing. They’re close to the Badaling Great Wall section, so it’s worth combining a trip to both landmarks in one day.
8. Tiananmen Square
Tiananmen Square is a slightly contentious entry into this list of what Beijing is known for.
It’s a large city square in the center of Beijing and is an extremely significant site for most Chinese people. It’s also surrounded by some of Beijing’s most imposing buildings such as government buildings and Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum.
The square was the site of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. It’s also where ceremonies and National Day anniversary parades are held, and every morning you can see the flag-raising ceremony at sunrise in the square.
However, to most people outside of China, it’s also where the Tiananmen Square Massacre occurred in 1989.
This isn’t an event that many of the locals seem to know or talk about, but it’s extremely hard to walk through the square while imagining the student protesters who were killed for their rebellion against the government.
9. Beijing Airport
Beijing Capital International Airport has become so busy that they’ve opened up another one!
In fact, prior to COVID-19, Beijing Airport was the second busiest airport in the world by passenger numbers. Only Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in the US was busier.
Located 32 km (20 miles) from the city center, Beijing Airport is the only airport in Asia with three terminals, three runways, and two towers operating simultaneously.
The airport is home to Air China, the country’s national carrier (you can see all the Chinese airlines here).
10. Peking Opera
The Peking opera is a show in the truest sense of the word. This performance art began in Beijing in the 18th century and uses acting, martial arts, singing and reciting to tell stories of daily life, history, and society.
When you attend a Peking opera show, you’ll be treated to flamboyant costumes, exaggerated makeup, and performances that are painstakingly choreographed down to the smallest detail.
Everything is important in these shows, with movements, colors, symbols, and everything else used to convey meaning, personality and identity. You may even get the chance to see and hear some traditional Chinese instruments during some of the shows.
And if you get the chance, make sure to pick up a Beijing opera mask while you’re in the city.
The masks use specific colors to show the temperament and intent of the wearer, and the craft of creating them is unique to Beijing and can be traced back to the 12th century.
Cloisonné or enamel art is a traditional Chinese art form. It creates beautiful, intricate works of art that are unlike any others in the world.
The practice was inspired by European practices in the 1300s and involves using thin wires to form raised images on vases, jewelry, and other decorative items.
There aren’t a lot of places that create these works of art anymore, but if you’re looking to bring home some unique Chinese souvenirs, then it’s worth looking for a reputable producer.
Try the Beijing Enamel Factory for beautiful pieces that really showcase these techniques, or for a cheaper option, pick some up at a tourist store.
While some cities have hosted the Olympic Games multiple times, Beijing is the only city in the world to host both the summer and winter games.
The summer games started in Beijing on August 8, 2008. The date is considered lucky because it can be written as 08/08/08, and eight is the luckiest of all Chinese numbers.
The games were hugely successful, and China topped the medal count with 48 gold medals.
On the other hand, the winter games were mired in controversy as overseas spectators were not allowed to attend due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Bird’s Nest Stadium, which hosted events at both the summer and winter games, is now a modern landmark in its own right, and sport in China is more popular and accessible than ever before.
Psst! A quick travel tip
If you’re planning a trip to Beijing, don’t forget the internet is censored there.
So, when using hotel Wi-Fi you won’t have access to your favorite sites and apps like Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp, Gmail, Google and heaps more, unless you get a VPN before you leave your country.
So, what is Beijing really known for?
The city is known for many things, depending on who you ask.
But the most famous things that Beijing is known for would have to include the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the hutongs and the delicious duck.
Everyone who travels to Beijing gets to see a different side of the city, one that’s informed by their own interests and travel style.
When you’re in Beijing, make sure your see some of the sights and landmarks in this list, and experience the customs and food, that make the city great.
But at the same time, don’t be afraid to get off the beaten track and explore according to where your feet and interests take you as well. Because sometimes, that’s the best way to have an unforgettable time in an incredible city like Beijing.
Next, read my Beijing travel tips if you’re planning on visiting the city.
Keep learning about China:
- Shekou, Shenzhen’s mini paradise
- Chengdu, home of the panda
- Fujian, China’s southeast coastal province
Main image credit: Polina Tankilevitch from Pexels.
Frequently asked questions about Beijing
Where is Beijing located?
Northeast China, about 150 km (93 mi) inland from the Bohai Sea.
Which province is Beijing in?
The city belongs to its own municipality, called Beijing. It’s not part of a province.
When did Beijing become the capital of China?
1949, when it moved from Nanjing.
Are Beijing and Peking the same?
Yes. The city was known internationally as Peking until about the 1980s when it started being known as Beijing.
What’s Beijing famous for?
A lot of things! It’s mostly known for the Great Wall, Forbidden City, and delicious Peking duck.