Beijing holidays and business trips provide the perfect opportunity for amateur photographers to journey through time while capturing priceless photos.
Follow our guide to seven classic and modern architectural wonders in Beijing that will provide the perfect backdrop for your holiday memories. While you do so, marvel over the fascinating stories surrounding these inspiring icons of China’s capital.
1. Forbidden City
Devote a day to unravelling the mysteries of the Forbidden City, China’s largest collection of ancient buildings. At 720,000 square metres, the complex is almost twice the size of the Vatican, and thrice that of the Moscow Kremlin.
Constructed by one million labourers and 100,000 skilled craftsmen over a 16-year stretch in the early 1400s, the Forbidden City housed 24 emperors and their entourages—the last emperor of Imperial China, Puyi, was ousted in 1924.
(Speaking of Emperor Puyi, The Forbidden City’s labyrinth of rooms and gardens were gloriously featured in Bernardo Bertolucci’s epic movie The Last Emperor.)
Be sure to photograph the Hall of Supreme Harmony, where emperors held court on the Dragon Throne; the exquisite Imperial Gardens; and the Nine-Dragon Wall, built to ward off malevolent spirits.
When leaving the Forbidden City, exiting via the north gate and walking in either direction will give you a magnificent view of the Forbidden City’s northeast or northwest turret from across the palace moat. For a bird’s eye view of the Forbidden City, head to the nearby Jingshan Park.
2. Great Wall of China
China’s best-known attraction is accessible from Beijing, and it should not be missed. To date, the Great Wall of China still holds the record for the world’s longest wall with a mainline length of 3,460km, nearly three times the length of Britain.
Construction works for the Great Wall began in earnest around 220 BC, during the reign of Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang, to protect China against attacks from the north. Fortification of the wall continued through the centuries; although the wall failed to prevent incursions, it remains significant as a symbol of Chinese resilience.
Popular with travellers is the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. A 1.5-hour drive from Beijing, it is a relaxing hike for most travellers, even children.
Photographers love the Badaling section (a two-hour drive from Beijing) for its grandeur.
“[It is] one of the best restored and most visited portions… and the views of the wall there, clinging to the steepest peaks and snaking across the horizon, are the best,” says Irish photographer Rian Dundon.
3. Temple of Heaven
Completed in 1420, the Temple of Heaven was a place of worship for the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties, where they made offerings to deities for bountiful harvests. Look out for circular and square motifs here (as well as elsewhere in Beijing); these are said to represent heaven and earth respectively.
For the best photo opportunities, head to the temple’s Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, rumoured to be Beijing’s most beautiful building. It is also noteworthy for the fact that it was constructed using only wooden bars, wood strips, and brackets—and not a single nail.
4. Beijing National Stadium
Designed by Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, the stadium is affectionately nicknamed the “Bird’s Nest” and upheld as the emblem of the 2008 Olympic Games, which Beijing hosted. Its pattern recalls Chinese-style crackled pottery and its shape has been likened to a protective cradle, although officially, its circular form was intended to symbolise heaven.
Post-Olympics, the stadium is an occasional venue for sporting matches, concerts, and other spectator events. Visitors can also purchase a ticket for access to the stadium and its exhibition areas, and take a rooftop walk (separately ticketed) for a more scenic view.
5. Beijing National Aquatics Center
A counterpoint to the “Bird’s Nest,” the soap bubble-inspired “Water Cube” also commanded global attention during the 2008 Olympic Games. Its playful design resulted from a multi-agency collaboration and it is no product of whimsy; the bubble design and cladding material were chosen with sustainability and energy-conservation objectives in mind.
Until it is called into action again at the 2022 Winter Olympic Games, the aquatics centre is enjoying a second life as a water park while the Olympic training pool remains intact for serious swimmers.
Photo hunters can skip the indoor tour and visit at night for choice shots—the building (transparent blue by day) is resplendently illuminated in full colour from 7pm to 10pm daily.
6. National Centre for the Performing Arts
“The Egg” (also known as the “Grand Theatre”) boasts some of the best arts performances in Beijing, but draws just as many visitors for its architecture. Frenchman Paul Andreu designed the centre, which appears to float on an artificial lake; this, he said, conforms to the Chinese imagery of heaven and earth—circle above square.
Whether you are admiring the centre’s titanium-accented glass dome from afar, or within, you will find immense beauty in its assemblage of lines and curves. The centre offers a guided tour of its premises, but attending a performance on this “cultural island” would complete the experience.
7. CCTV Headquarters
Completed in 2012, the China Central Television (CCTV) headquarters gained notoriety for bearing resemblance to a pair of “big pants”. However, Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas has stood by his design.
“[It] is a building that introduces new ways of conceptualising, liberating, and realising structure that did not exist in China before,” he explained. “It articulates the position and the situation of China.”
The building comprises two 49-storey towers that lean into each other and are linked by a 75-metre cantilever. It attracts its fair share of curious onlookers. However, internal access is strictly limited to those with valid passes.
For more Beijing travel tips, read our business travel guide and find out about mobile apps that will make your trip easier. Contact our team at Pan Pacific Beijing to enquire about other interesting things to do in Beijing, as well as our latest rooms and suite offers!