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China has long been an exciting, vibrant and culturally rich destination. From the ancient world to the present day, its capital city, Beijing, has offered amazing and unique landmarks for tourists and travelers to enjoy. Absorb the history and beauty of the impressive architecture of the ancient dynasties, visit the spots of one of the most global controversial events in history or wander around modern China’s international endeavors. With so much to do in this one place, it can be hard to decide how to fill up your time.

Luckily, we’ve compiled a list of five of the best and most famous landmarks that give you a truly historical and cultural view of China through the ages. Even if you don’t have time for anything else, these five spots are truly the highlights of Beijing and a must-see for anyone who is visiting.

Tiananmen Square

Although not likely to be found in local guidebooks, Tiananmen Square is a somber yet important part of China’s vibrant history. The square, located in the center of the city, was site to one of the country’s most devastating tragedies. After the death of populist political Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang in 1989, student-led protests erupted on the square. In a horrific turn of events, the protesters were then massacred by the authorities with deaths totaling hundreds, or possibly even thousands, as no final death count was ever made. Sadly, although it was one of the most poignant moments in the state history, the event is heavily censored.

Although you can still visit the square, which is now just a central hub to the city, there are no monuments or informative signs. The attempts to erase it from China’s history have run so deep that even search terms related to the incident are blocked online. To access information about the tragedy when over there, you will have to use a Virtual Private Network on your laptop or device to bypass the geo-blocking restrictions. The software virtually edits your location by assigning you a different IP address so you can use the internet as if you were at home and get around the censorship.


Olympic Park

More recently, Beijing returned to the international stage for much more positive reasons. As the host city of the 2008 Olympics, China invested countless amounts of money into Beijing to create a modern, unique and impressive Olympic Park. Once the closing ceremony had concluded, the park became an exciting attraction for locals and tourists alike.

Split into three sections—the Forrest Park, the Central section and the Southern section—this four square miles is packed with numerous attractions and activity centers. Nature lovers should head for the former of the three where the artificial landscaping, Olympic-inspired sculptures and 810-foot high sightseeing tower boasts incredible views across the city as well as picturesque strolls round the gardens.

The other two sections are overflowing with sports and leisure activities. The Center is home to the National Stadium, Aquatics Centre, Indoor Stadium and Chinese Museum of Science & Technology; while the South offers multipurpose Sports Facilities and the Chinese Ethnic Museum. With so much to do and see, this astounding park makes a fun-packed day trip for families, couples and even solo-travelers.


The Great Wall

No trip to China would be complete without a visit to the country’s most famous landmark—the Great Wall. From Beijing, there are many sections of the wall that are easily accessible, so which one you chose to visit is dependent on what kind of trip you are looking for. The most popular for tourists is by far the “Badalang”, where many structures and militarily installations have been preserved in order to give visitors a realistic feel of how the wall would have been during the height of its use.

However, for those wanting to avoid the crowds, this may be a spot to avoid. The nearby “Mutianyu” segment offers a much more subdued and quiet experience as it hasn’t been designed to cater to tourism in the same way and is, therefore, much less busy, particularly in peak season.

However, perhaps the most interesting and exciting sections of wall lay out of the city, in a collection of remains known as “the Wild Great Wall”. Visiting segments here, such the Huanghuacheng and Jiankou ruins, provides a challenging trek and a chance to spend some time in nature than is unmissable for any hiking lover.


Forbidden City

The Forbidden City is a central monument and impressive piece of architecture that dates back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). It was the secret and private residence of the emperors, and it’s prowess and importance can be easily seen within the scale and grandeur of the palace. Stretching an incredible 74 hectares, surrounded by a moat with a width of 52 meters and containing 8,700 rooms, this ancient structure is nothing short of incredible.

Originally named “The Purple City”, the word  “Forbidden” was unofficially added later to refer to the fact that very few people were permitted to enter. It remained a mystery to the public until 1924, after the last emperor was driven out and the palace became a tourist attraction. It’s now known as “The Palace Museum” and has received the honor of becoming a UNESCO World Heritage site. Visitors can learn about the building’s fascinating and vibrant history as they take in the stunning architecture and design of this impressive building.


The Ming Tombs

Just outside of the city, the tombs of the emperors who inhabited the palace are an equally as impressive attraction as the building in which they lived. The Chinese Taoist and Buddhist believes hold a lot of importance of the proper rituals of dealing with the dead, and these spectacular tombs are an incredible testimony to that. A short 50km northwest of the city center, this astounding 120km2 park is home to 13 mausoleums, whose unique design and careful placing not only speaks volumes of the important that the Chinese put on the unity with nature, but also makes for an incredible day out for any traveler.

The grand scale of the site means that currently only four areas are open to the public—the Sacred Way, the Changling Way, the Zhaoling Tomb and the Dingling Tomb. However, this is still more than enough to make the burial park a worthwhile and exciting trip and a place to understand real Chinese culture and burial processes from ancient times to modern day.

Beijing has so many exciting and interesting attractions to visit, so no matter how long you spend there, you’ll always feel there is more you want to do. These five landmarks are a great place to start or for those visiting the city for a short period. If you know of anywhere else that you believe should be included in this list or have an experience with anything already mentioned that you want to share, then be sure to leave a comment below!

Contribution by Jess Signet. She has been obsessed with the beauty and the wonder of this wide world since before she could walk or even talk. She was always exploring as a toddler – much to her parents dismay – and things haven’t changed since. As soon as she finished school, she was off and around the world. She has been on the move since 3,5 years (and counting) exploring every corner of this incredible globe and she doesn’t plan on slowing down any time soon – See more from Jess