For Ming dynasty emperors—who presided over the creation of masterworks like the Temple of Heaven, the Forbidden City, and the later stages of the Great Wall of China—Beijing was nothing less than the center of the universe. In August of 2008, when it hosted the Summer Olympic Games, China’s capital once again had the eyes of the world upon it. In preparation for its global coming-out party, the city embarked upon a flurry of development—the results of which include several striking, architecturally innovative projects such as the China Central Television Tower headquarters, the National Center for the Performing Arts, and the world’s largest airport terminal. And if these new icons don’t quite match the ancient marvels that are still at the heart of this city, they are certainly evidence of Beijing’s continuing cultural relevancy and enormous ambition.
An excursion to the spectacular Great Wall of China—if possible, via one of the wilder, less-visited entry points like Simatai.
Exploring the Forbidden City in the early morning. If you can get there before the tour groups converge, you’ll get a true sense of the compound’s hushed, echoing enormity.
Getting gloriously lost—and getting a glimpse of old, traditional Beijing—in the Dongcheng district’s clamorous warren of hutongs, or alleyways.