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beijing hutongA great place to begin bumbling around Beijing is the Dongcheng area, near Houhai Lake. Here you can get a glimpse of everyday life in the hutongs, the centuries-old dwellings of Beijing of yore. Many hutongs have been demolished and replaced with the skyscraping apartment buildings that dominate Beijing's skyline. But current hutong residents (and critics of overdevelopment) have fought for the remaining hutongs to be preserved. The city government has recognized the hutong's tourist appeal and labeled them protected areas. Get a map, find the street known as Nanluogu Xiang (also sometimes written Nanluoguxiang) and use it as a starting point.

The aforementioned Houhai Lake makes a lovely spot for a stroll in the warmer months, and when the lake freezes in winter you can rent skates (or a chair with sled-like runners affixed to the legs) and have a bit of fun on the ice.

Missing out on Tiananmen Square while touring Beijing would be like not drinking Chianti when in Tuscany. The iconic square bustles with activity while exuding an air of old Soviet grandeur and that still-unshakable memory of Man vs. Tank.

The Forbidden City is to famous Beijing monuments as fried rice is to a Chinese menu. Lying just beyond Tiananmen Square, the sprawling, walled encampment once housed the Imperial Court during the Ming and Qing dynasties and is so huge that many erstwhile residents are said to have gone their whole lives without leaving the 30-foot high walls of the city. To see every corner of the UNESCO World Heritage Site would surely take an entire day -- and to be honest, it may all start to look the same after a while -- so make sure you hit the impressive Palace Museum within the city walls before you wear yourself too thin.

The Bird's Nest and the Water Cube may be the most memorable venues of any Olympic Games in recent history. Though probably the kind of thing you can appreciate just as well from a postcard, the monuments are worthy of closer inspection if you find yourself in the Olympic Park area in east Beijing.

Taking a stroll through one of Beijing's parks in the morning hours is a great way to start a day in the city. Watch old men ponder over board games, admire groups of people practicing tai chi and get a taste of (sometimes contrived) Chinese landscaping. Beihai Park, Chaoyang Park and the Purple Bamboo Park are all good choices.

If you can only visit one of Beiing's parks, consider the vast green space that surrounds the Temple of Heaven. The temple complex was built under the command of the same emperor who ordered the construction of the Forbidden City. Dating back to 1420, the temple (which was visited by emperors to pray to the heavens for a good annual harvest) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The surrounding park is the greenest place in Beijing.

great wall of china jinshanlingAn old Chinese proverb says, "Not been to the Great Wall, not a great man." And indeed, no trip to China is complete without viewing the countryside's rolling hills from the Great Wall. Almost every hotel in Beijing sells trips to the Great Wall. It's important to know what you want, though, before you embark. Most tours to the wall visit the Badaling section. This is convenient because it's very close to Beijing and the site is outfitted to cater to the masses (think cable cars, newly paved steps, handrails, even a toboggan slide to take you back to ground level). But Badaling is markedly touristy, replete with shops and food vendors and numerous touts hanging out on the wall itself. A quieter, more peaceful option is traveling to the Jinshanling section. Its distance from the metropolis (some three hours by bus) makes it a less popular option, but one still worth considering. There will be fewer tourists (and even fewer touts!) and you'll be face to face with raw, scenic beauty without parking lots or handrails sullying the view.

Also, be aware that most organized tours to the Great Wall will include lengthy stopovers at gem, ceramic or other craft wholesalers where all parties involved will try and make a commission off your tourist dollar. Some tour operators go out of their way to advertise "no stops" trips to the wall. Booking one of these is advisable. See Badaling and Jinshanling Great Wall Tours from Viator.

Discover Beijing Tours and Activities from Viator

Editor's Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a subsidiary of TripAdvisor, Inc., which also owns Viator.


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