The capital of the People's Republic of China, Beijing (formerly Peking), is a very modern and exceedingly busy city (well over 20 million people call it home) with high-rise buildings, international hotels and sprawling suburbs. The city is abuzz with cranes on the skyline as construction projects give rise to new skyscrapers and modernisation proceeds apace. However, Beijing also encompasses numerous attractions of cultural and historical interest, some of which, including the Great Wall of China, the former Imperial Palace (known as the Forbidden City), the Temple of Heaven, the Summer Palace, and the remains of Peking Man at Zhoukoudian, are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Chinese history and culture fascinates Western visitors, and Beijing is a great place to start exploring it. The city abounds in palaces, temples, mansions, gardens and tombs that epitomise classical Chinese architecture. It also has roughly 120 museums and more than 100 public gardens.
Beijing Sunset © Scott Meltzer
The first port of call for most visitors is the Forbidden City, which lies at the heart of Beijing with the rest of the city radiating out from it in a grid pattern. For five centuries this massive palace complex, with 9,999 rooms, functioned as the administrative centre of the country and home to a succession of emperors who lived in luxurious isolation, surrounded by courtiers and retainers. The Palace overlooks the infamous Tiananmen Square, a historical site of considerable political drama and dissent, but also a vibrant social and cultural centre point.
In preparing to host what they hoped to be 'the best games in Olympic history', Beijing undertook many major renovations in 2008. Public transport was improved, environmental issues addressed and a general clean-up of the city was ordered. The games highlighted Beijing's economic rise and emergence as a world power. Some of the infrastructure, such as the iconic 'Birds Nest' stadium, is still in use for different purposes, and contributes to Beijing's unique landscape. Travellers should go prepared for less than stellar air quality in this booming city, but luckily breathlessness is just as likely to stem from excitement and awe when confronted with historic Beijing.