China's capital city is a vibrant jumble of neighbourhoods and districts that brim with an abundance of history, culture, elaborate architecture and magnificent sights. Beijing is also a superb example of the great transformation China has undergone in recent years and is an excellent place to begin your explorations of this fascinating country.
Beijing's imperial relics include the self-contained enclave of the Forbidden City, the largest and best preserved ancient palace complex in the world. Covering 178 acres with 90 palaces and courtyards, 980 buildings and 8,704 rooms, it is vast and to do it justice you should plan to spend the best part of a day here. Immediately south of the Forbidden City is Tiananmen Square, the world's largest public square, flanked by colossal Communist buildings and monuments. Further south is the Temple of Heaven, a tranquil oasis of peace considered the most holy of Beijing's imperial temples and which became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1998.
Further out in the north-western suburbs is the Summer Palace, one of the loveliest spots in Beijing, there's so much to see and enjoy in the gardens, buildings and waterways. We also recommend visiting the UNESCO World Heritage listed Ming Tombs, which are located about 30 miles from Beijing at the foot of Tianshou Mountain. This cluster of mausoleums are the final resting place of 13 Ming Dynasty emperors, although only three of the 13 tombs are open to the public.
While for many it is the ancient sites in Beijing that are the real attraction it's worth allowing time for some newer, but equally impressive architectural sights from when Beijing hosted the Olympic Games. Two particularly iconic venues were the National Stadium (Bird's Nest) and the National Aquatics Centre (Water Cube), both of which have become major landmarks in the capital.
Of course, no visit to Beijing is complete without a trip to the legendary Great Wall, which starts east of Beijing before snaking its way west for thousands of miles. Most popular sections include Badaling, Mutianyu and Juyongguan, which are among the best preserved, are not too steep and are equipped with handrails making climbing relatively easier.
Perhaps the true heartbeat of this unique city can be found in the Hutongs, a maze of tree-lined alleyways and traditional courtyard houses. Travel by rickshaw or on foot and get a real sense of the centuries old culture of everyday people in Beijing. Further insight can be gained in the traditional shopping districts, which include Wangfujing Street and Qianmen Street, or visit outdoor markets of Panjiayuan Collection Street and Xiushui Street. Fashionable shopping areas include Xidan Commercial Street and Dongdan Commercial Street where large-scale luxurious shopping plazas can be found.
Beijing nightlife is plentiful and varied, with traditional opera, acrobatics and martial arts to modern pubs and clubs. As with any major city, there are restaurants and cafes catering to every taste and pocket. The embassy and nightlife area Sanlitun showcases global cuisine at competitive prices while the city's speciality dish, Peking duck, can be found at many Beijing restaurants.