Beijing has more than enough sights to keep the average visitor busy, but after traveling all this way, it would be a shame not to grasp the opportunity to get out of the city. Of course, the Great Wall is an absolute must, but not far from the city are also ancient temples nestled on green hillsides and the vast necropolises of the Ming and Qing emperors. To the southwest is the 300-year-old stone Marco Polo Bridge and neighboring Wanping, a rare surviving example of a walled city. Both are an easy suburban bus ride from the city. Otherwise, most Beijing hotels organize tours to these sights.

Marco Polo

Whether Venetian trader and explorer Marco Polo (1254–1324) ever visited China is much disputed. The book he dictated to a ghost writer, who embroidered it substantially, describes aspects of Far Eastern life in much detail, including paper money, the Grand Canal, the structure of a Mongol army, tigers, and the bridge that now bears his name. The Travels of Marco Polo, however, may be based on earlier journeys by his father and uncles, and stories from Arab Silk Road merchants.

Top 10 Sights

  1. Great Wall

    A visit to the wall is an absolute must. The closest section to Beijing is at Badaling, and you can get there and back in half a day. However, if you suspect that your appreciation of this matchless monument would be improved by the absence of coach-loads of fellow tourists, then considering traveling that little bit farther to the sites at Mutianyu, Huanghua Cheng, and Simatai .

    The Great Wall, snaking over high ridges north of Beijing
  2. Ming Tombs

    The Ming Tombs are the resting place for 13 of the 16 Ming emperors. These are Confucian shrines and follow a standard layout of a main gate leading to a series of courtyards and a main hall, with a “soul tower” and burial mound beyond. The tombs are not as colorful and elaborate as Buddhist and Daoist structures, and only three have been restored and are open to the public, however the necropolis is definitely a worthwhile stop-off as part of an excursion to the Great Wall .

    Great Palace Gate, Ming Tombs

    Spirit Way at the Ming Tombs

    Spirit Tower, Ming Tombs
  3. Eastern Qing Tombs

    The remoteness of the Eastern Qing Tombs, over the border in Hebei province, makes them far less popular than their Ming counterparts, despite the fact that the setting is even more splendid. In fact, the Eastern Qing Tombs make up the largest and most complete imperial cemetery in China, built on a scale as grand as the Forbidden City. Of the many tombs here, only five are the burial places of Qing emperors, but there are also 14 empresses, and 136 imperial consorts. Notable are the tomb of the Qianlong Emperor, with an incredible tomb chamber adorned with Buddhist carvings, and the lavish tomb of the devious Empress Cixi.

    • 77 miles (125 km) E of Beijing, Zuahua County, Hebei Province

    • Open May–Oct 8am–5pm daily; Nov–Apr 9am–4:30pm daily

  4. Western Qing Tombs

    If few tourists ever visit the Eastern Qing Tombs, fewer still make it out here to their equally distant western counterparts. This vast burial complex comprises over 70 tombs in all, set in spectacular surroundings. Tombs include those of the emperors Daoguang, Guangxu, Jiaqing, and Yongzheng (r. 1723–35). It was the latter who founded this particular necropolis, perhaps because he could not bear to be buried beside his father, whose will he had thwarted when he seized the throne from his brother, the nominated heir. Also here, in a nearby commercial cemetery, are the remains of Pu Yi, the last emperor of China .

    • 68 miles (110 km) SW of Beijing, Yixian County, Hebei Province

    • 0312 471 0012

    • Open May–Oct 8am–6pm daily; Nov–Apr 8am–5pm daily

  5. Chuandixia

    On a steep mountainside, Chuandixia is a crumbling but picturesque hamlet of courtyard houses (siheyuan), most dating from the Ming and Qing dynasties. An entry ticket allows access to the entire village, all of which can be explored in a few hours. The population consists of about 70 people spread over a handful of families. Accommodation with one of the families can be provided for those wanting an experience of rural hospitality.

    • Near Zhaitang town, 56 miles (90 km) W of Beijing

    • 6891 9333

    • Subway to Pingguo Yuan (1 hr), then taxi , or bus 929 (2.5 hrs, twice daily)

    • ¥20

    Chuandixia village
  6. Tanzhe Temple

    This enormous temple dates back to the 3rd century AD, when it was known as Jiafu Si. It was later renamed for the adjacent mountain, Tanzhe Shan. It has a splendid mountainside setting, and its halls rise up the steep incline. The temple is especially famous for its ancient trees. There are no restaurants in the area, so bring your own lunch.

    • 28 miles (45 km) W of Beijing

    • 6086 2505

    • Subway to Pingguo Yuan (1 hr), then bus 931 or tourist bus 7

    • Open 8am–5pm daily

    • ¥35

  7. Stupa Forest Temple

    Near the parking lot for the Tanzhe Temple is this even more fascinating temple, notable for its marvelous collection of brick stupas hidden among the foliage. Each stupa was constructed in memory of a renowned monk. The towering edifices were built in a variety of designs, and the earliest among them dates from the Jin dynasty (1115–1234).

    • 28 miles (45 km) W of Beijing

    • 6086 2505

    • Subway to Pingguo Yuan (1 hr), then bus 931 or tourist bus 7

    • 8am–5pm daily

    Stupa Forest Temple
  8. Marco Polo Bridge

    Straddling the Yongding River near Wanping town, the 876-ft (267-m) marble bridge was first built during the Jin dynasty in 1189 but was destroyed by a flood. The current structure dates to 1698. The bridge acquired its name when legendary voyager Marco Polo described it in his famous treatise The Travels. The balustrades along the length of the bridge are decorated by more than 400 stone lions, each one slightly different from all the others. On July 7, 1937, the Japanese Imperial Army and Nationalist Chinese soldiers exchanged fire at the bridge, an incident that led to the Japanese occupation of Beijing and war.

    • 10 miles (16 km) SW of Beijing

    • Bus 339 from Beijing’s Lianhuachi bus station

    • Open 7am–7pm daily

    Marco Polo Bridge
  9. Peking Man Site (Zhoukoudian)

    In the 1920s, archeologists removed from a cave at Zhoukoudian some 40-odd fossilized bones and primitive implements, which they identified as the prehistoric remains of Peking Man. It was thought that this exciting discovery provided the much sought-after link between Neanderthals and modern humans. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, the area is geared toward specialists, although the small museum has an interesting collection of tools and bone fragments. Peking Man himself is not here – his remains mysteriously disappeared during World War II.

    • 30 miles (48 km) SW of Beijing

    • 6930 1278

    • Bus 917 from Beijing’s Tianqiao station to Fangshan, then taxi

    • Open 8:30am–5pm daily

    • ¥30

  10. Shidu

    Shidu offers a fabulous escape from the commotion of urban Beijing and a chance to enjoy some stunning natural scenery. Before the new road and bridges were built, travelers had to cross the Juma River ten times as they journeyed through the gorge between Shidu and nearby Zhangfang village, hence the name Shidu, which means “Ten Crossings.” Pleasant walking trails wind along the riverbank between impressive gorges and limestone formations.

    • 62 miles (100 km) SW of Beijing

    • 6134 9009

    • Train daily from Beijing’s West Railway station to Shidu

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