There’s nowhere else in the world quite like Beijing. It’s a modern-day megalopolis at the very core of the world’s second-greatest economy, but it’s also a gateway into China’s imperial past and 5,000 years of history. This is a city where you can stand at the crossroads of time.
In Beijing the march to modernity may seem unrelenting at times, but the city still clings to parts of the past, including a heritage perhaps best encapsulated by the extraordinary Forbidden City. Once home to the emperors of old, it still dominates the city’s center. And then, just an hour or two from downtown, stands one of the great wonders of the world: the Great Wall. Built during the Ming Dynasty to keep out the world, it’s a telling contrast to the China of today.
Despite the proliferation of shiny office towers, high-rise residences, and shopping centers, there are still plenty of world-class historic sites to be discovered, including the famous rapidly disappearing hutong, neighborhoods formed from alleyways. Scores of the city's imperial palaces, mansions, and temples built under the Mongols during the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) were rebuilt during the later Ming and Qing dynasties. Despite the ravages of time and the Cultural Revolution, many of these refurbished sites are still in excellent condition.
On a seemingly superhuman scale that matches its status as the capital city of the world’s most populous nation, Beijing is laid out with vast expanses of wide avenues and roadways organized in an orderly pattern. There are four key districts to note. Within the Second Ring Road (which replaced Beijing’s now-forgotten city walls) are Dongcheng (the east half of the old center) and Xicheng (the west half). Dongcheng is home to many notable imperial sights; Xicheng is more relaxed and laid-back, thanks to a combination of charming alleyways, parks, and lakes. The Chaoyang District, east of the Old City, is where the full force of contemporary China can be felt, among the skyscrapers of the Guomao business district and the main shopping and nightlife hub of Sanlitun. To the northwest is Haidian, the city’s university and tech district, as well as the location of some of Beijing’s more far-flung sights, such as the Summer Palace.