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Beijing Forbidden City Calculated Traveller

Beijing, China: A Gentle Mix of Old and New

by Jamie M. Kwan
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Beijing is one of those cities in the world that never stops to amaze anyone.

New buildings pop up at an excitingly fast rate and are of the most incredible sizes. As a student of architecture, studying in this city was a once in a lifetime experience. The capital city of China, not only is Beijing HUGE – and I’m talking enormous – but the city itself has a great mix of preserved ancient culture and super modern and contemporary architecture from some of the world’s most famous architects. When I was in Beijing last summer, I spent a week roaming the city and visiting several sites (I can’t even call them buildings that is how big they are):



1.Forbidden City/Tiananmen Square (1406-20)

When I was in Beijing, I stayed at the City Central Youth Hostel (in the actual hotel section, which is cleaner than the hostel) which I thought was the PERFECT location for the start of our long journey through China. As implied, the hotel is adjacent to the train station, central to downtown, and most importantly, a few blocks south of the famous Chang’An Street. If you walk west down this street, you’ll find some of the most important sites in China, including the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. The Forbidden City, built in 1406-20, and the complex consists of 980 buildings covering a total area of 720,000 sq.m (or 7,800,000 sq.ft for you Americans out there). If you’re like me and LOVE to wander through buildings, budget about 4 hours here. That’s how long I stayed in the compound. Be sure to go all the way through and see the Imperial Garden, my favourite spot in Beijing, and where I did some of these wonderful little sketches.

2. CCTV Headquarters (2012), OMA/Rem Koolhaus

Beijing CCTV Headquarters

If you are coming into Beijing Capital International Airport (PEK) and heading downtown via taxi (don’t be too surprised about the price of a cab downtown – 100 Yuan is about $15 CAD), you’ll likely spot this building from the highway. You may even recognise this building from 2008 when the Summer Olympics were held in Beijing. The CCTV Headquarters was the landmark structure and broadcast HQ for the games, and took about five years to complete! OMA (with renowned architect Rem Koolhaus in-charge of its design) finished this building just this past year, and the building jumped into the global architectural spotlight with its gravity-defying structure. Not much more to say about this, other than to snap a picture of it against the much smaller-scale city skyline. Don’t worry too much about going inside – it’s not accessible to the public. Fight through the jet lag! This building is worth getting a glimpse of in person.

3. National Centre for the Performing Arts (2007), Paul Andreu

Beijing National Grand Theatre

Just down Chang’An Street is the National Grand Theatre. Designed by French architect Paul Andreu, this building is quite the modern masterpiece. You enter into an underground foyer, underneath a huge pond of water (there’s glass above you, so the ripples of the water create an amazing effect on the lighting of the entry foyer) and opens up to one of the widest atrium spaces I’ve seen. The interior wood siding is quite incredible. If you get a chance to see a performance, definitely jump at getting that ticket. Shows are quite popular here, and they also frequently have free opera performances in this atrium area.

4. Qianmen Street (1419)

Beijing Qianmen Street

Although quite touristy, Qianmen Street (aka Emperor’s Avenue) is located just south of Tiananmen Square and has a lot of history behind it. The street itself runs in line with the central axis of both Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City and marks the southern entry into the Inner City of Ancient Beijing. The gate house, Qianmen (which means “Front Gate”) was the original guard tower to the wall surrounding Beijing in the early 1400s. This street is a great spot to enjoy the nightlife, grab dinner (if you can, try Quanjude, known for its trademark Peking Duck) and buy some souvenirs! You’ll find many of the western brands (including Starbucks!) if you’re feeling homesick already.

5. Temple of Heaven Park (1406-20)

Beijing Temple of Heaven

Now this place is on almost every tourist advertisement I saw before I left for China, but many don’t know what it is. The Temple of Heaven is the ONLY temple in China to have blue roof tiles. You may be thinking, “big deal…blue tiles”, but this building is unique. Roof tiles signified status in Chinese Architecture (the Forbidden City has yellow, for the emperor) and this blue colour was exclusive to this one temple, representing the sky. The ENTIRE park is part of this temple complex. Located just at the southern foot of Qianmen Street, try to enter the park from the south to get the entire effect of the architecture. The temple runs on a central axis and is supposed to be – in a sense – an ascension into heaven as you walk towards the temple structure. The starting point is the “sunken” temple at the south – you’ll probably find a huge line up here for a snapshot of the centre point. Excellent opportunity for one of those cheesy pictures with your friends!
So there you have it; some of the highlights from my time in Beijing. This tour is entirely walkable (except for the drive from the airport to downtown), but can easily be broken up into a bunch of days depending on your pace. Be sure to keep checking in as I write about some of the other cities  I have visited, or my article about Pingyao, China – which came immediately AFTER my journey through Beijing!


Beijing, China: A Gentle Mix of Old and New

Any buildings that I missed here in Beijing? Any suggestions for cities with incredible architectural landmarks? Tell me about them in the comments below!



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Bennett - The Further Adventures of Bennett September 12, 2013 - 8:53 pm

Hear hear to Beijing – I visited 3 times during my time in China and absolutely love the place! One of my favourite places to visit is the Planning Museum because of the scale model of Beijing on the top floor!
My favourite place, albeit a bit cheesy, is sitting at the top of Jingshan Park looking back at the Forbidden City – amazing and even better in winter when it’s a bit quieter!

China is an amazing place and I wholeheartedly recommend anyone to go and visit!

Jamie Kwan September 14, 2013 - 9:57 pm

I actually would have loved to go to Jingshan Park to get that photo of the Forbidden City; we were so busy in Beijing that we didn’t get to go there afterwards :( I guess I’ll have to go back one day!

Jennifer September 10, 2013 - 3:06 pm

China is on my radar for next year! Thanks for this introduction to Beijing’s architecture.

Jamie Kwan September 11, 2013 - 11:35 pm

Thanks for the comment! Stay tuned – I plan to write another about my visit to Shanghai!

Eileen September 8, 2013 - 1:55 pm

Thanks for posting this article about your experiences in China. I will use your suggestions as guides as part of my future travels to Beijing.

GardensOfChina September 8, 2013 - 10:39 am


While your article is certainly interesting (note in passing that Paul Andreu is a French architect though) I am a bit surprised by the choices you made. These buildings are very easy to find as a first time traveler, are in every guide. So it lacks a bit of novelty or “hard-to-find-treasure” feeling.
In Beijing, the Summer Palace is also well known but worth visiting, the Confucius Temple always had a soothing effect on me (contrary to the Lama Temple too touristy), how about the White Dagoba in Beihai or other less commented monuments.
Then again I appreciate your article as well, but I will not recommend Qianmen street for eating, at least not if you want a real feeling of Beijing food. The hutongs are much better for this, even the touristy Nanguoluxiang is more authentic.

Jamie Kwan September 8, 2013 - 1:56 pm

Thanks so much for the comment! Yes I do agree that the buildings I’ve chosen here are quite typical in guides, but there is a reason why these buildings/sites are so note-worthy.

This tour was based on my first days in Beijing last year, when I was there studying architecture, and instead of listing off places that most have never heard of, I chose to focus my article on a walking tour of buildings which were reflective of both ancient and contemporary Beijing architecture – that expressive of power, procession, and monumentality. There is definitely a place for the more serene and soothing sites, but I couldn’t include everything. :)

I thought that Qianmen Street was a great place for tourists – good mix of tourist-y shops and for gently hitting the culture shock. Definitely not the MOST authentic – but again, most wouldn’t go to Beijing for the “authentic” Chinese experience. I would probably suggest one of the more inner cities and provinces that tourists can get to for that – cities like YiChang, Wuhan, Datong, etc.

Perhaps next time I will write about some of the more hidden gems in China. There are so many in China (I didn’t get to visit any of the buildings you’ve suggested) that are much more “off-the-beaten-path”. Thanks for the suggestions! Next time I’m there i’ll check out the others.


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