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Beijing is one of those wonderful cities that manages to combine the historic with the modern, and pull off both with aplomb. The billions of dollars worth of renovations that resulted from being awarded the 2008 Olympics Games have transformed what some felt was dowdy backwater of a city into a modern metropolis any country would be proud of.

Beijing is now blessed with top-quality hotels and restaurants, a world-class subway system - set to become the world's biggest by 2015 - and some of the most eye-catching and modern architecture on the planet.

Yet beyond the modernity, this ancient city can still offer an incredible number of historic attractions, including its remarkable network of hutong alleyways, which provide a unique village-within-a-city atmosphere of slow-paced living and timeless charms. Beijing is also the country's most convenient launch pad for trips to China's most famous sight of all; the Great Wall.

Things to see in Beijing

Tourist information: 

Beijing Tourism Administration
11-2 Gongti Bei Lu, Chaoyang District
Tel: (010) 6417 6627.
Website: www.bjta.gov.cn

The Beijing Tourism Administration office organises city tours and excursions. There are several offices citywide, including one just across from Beijing Railway Station (tel: (010) 6528 8448) by the Howard Johnson Hotel, and one near the north gate of Beihai Park, 49 Di'anmen Xidajie (tel: (010) 6403 2726).

China International Travel Service (CITS)
1 Dongdan Bei Dajie, Dongcheng District
Tel: (010) 6522 2991.
Website: www.cits.net

Beihai Park

Beihai Lake covers almost half of the 67-hectare (168-acre) Beihai Park in Beijing, a popular place for skating in winter and boating in summer. Qiong Hua Island (Jade Flowering Island), in the southern end of the lake, is reached by an arched marble bridge and is home to a Tibetan Buddhist shrine (the White Dagoba) and the Temple of Eternal Peace.

Opening Times: Daily 0600-2100 (park); daily 0900-1600 (halls and temples).
Admission Fees: Yes
Disabled Access: Yes
Unesco: No
Address: Wenjin Jie , Beijing, China
Beijing Zoo

Beijing Zoo is the oldest zoo in Asia Pacific and home of the world-famous giant pandas. Located in the northwest area of the city, it is home to more than 7,000 animals, including golden monkeys from Sichuan, yaks from Tibet, sea turtles from the Chinese sea, Manchurian tigers and snow leopards. The zoo is also famous for being the home of zoological research and for housing many rare birds and animals. During the Qing dynasty, the zoo was a private garden, but later became an experimental farm and small menagerie. It was first opened to the public in 1908, but was destroyed during the Japanese occupation of Beijing (1937-1945), only to reopen in 1950.

Opening Times: Daily 0730-1800 (Apr-Oct); daily 0730-1700 (Nov-Mar).
Admission Fees: Yes
Disabled Access: Yes
Unesco: No
Address: 137 Xizhimenwai Dajie, Hǎidiàn, Beijing, China
Telephone: (010) 6831 4411.
Drum Tower and Bell Tower

Every Chinese city once had drum and bell towers, used to advise citizens of the time of day and to announce curfews. Beijing's Drum Tower, in the north of the city, was originally built in the 13th century and reconstructed around 1420 when the Bell Tower was first built. The strikingly different towers offer wonderful views across Beijing, and the surrounding hutong alleys deserve exploration.

Opening Times: Daily 0900-1700.
Admission Fees: Yes
Disabled Access: Yes
Unesco: No
Address: Di'an Men Wai Dajie , Beijing, China
Forbidden City

Built in the 15th century, Beijing’s Forbidden City is an impressive complex of courtyards, halls, pavilions and gardens, which was home to 24 emperors from the Ming and Qing dynasties. It now houses a vast collection of priceless relics, including paintings, ancient pottery and bronzes, and is one of several UNESCO World Heritage sites in Beijing.

Opening Times: Daily 0830-1700 (Apr-Oct); daily 0830-1630 (Nov-Mar).
Admission Fees: Yes
Disabled Access: Yes
Unesco: Yes
Address: Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China
Telephone: (010) 8500 7421.
Hutong alleyways

The heartbeat of old Beijing, these centuries-old alleyways still have a lost-in-time feel to them, and exploring them, either on foot or by bicycle, ranks among the most memorable of Beijing experiences. Contained within many alleys are historic siheyuan (courtyard homes), often hidden behind large, red wooden doorways. Many have now been split into smaller, less uniformed dwellings, adding to the ramshackle charm of the alleys. The best hutong areas are around the Drum and Bell Towers, Houhai Lake and Nanluoguxiang. The Beijing Tourism Administration (tel: (010) 6403 2726) can arrange one-hour, cycle-rickshaw hutong tours with an English-speaking guide.

Admission Fees: No
Disabled Access: No
Unesco: No
Address: Beijing, China
Jingshan (Prospect Park)

Located immediately to the north of the Forbidden City, Jingshan Park contains Coal Hill, which enjoys superb views over the golden rooftops of the imperial buildings. One of the five pavilions on the summit, Wan Chun Ting (‘pavilion of 10,000 springs'), used to be the highest point in Beijing.

Opening Times: Daily 0600-2130.
Admission Fees: Yes
Disabled Access: Yes
Unesco: No
Address: Jingshan Qian Jie , Beijing, China
Lama Temple

Northeast of Beijing, the Lama Temple, built in the late 17th century, was once a centre of learning for the Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism. Today, there are about 70 monks in residence. The temple consists of a series of halls connected by courtyards. A very impressive 18m (59ft) Maitreya, carved from a single sandalwood tree, stands in the furthermost hall.

Opening Times: Daily 0900-1600.
Admission Fees: Yes
Disabled Access: Yes
Unesco: No
Address: Yonghedong Dajie, Beijing, China
Telephone: (10) 6904 4494.
Summer Palace

Beijing’s magnificent Summer Palace, in the northwestern suburbs, was used by the royal court as a retreat to escape the heat of the city and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. The recipient of a pre-Olympics makeover, the former imperial residences are located on the shores of Kunming Lake, which contains small islands, ornamental bridges and a marble boat that was once a teahouse. The Summer Palace can be reached by subway Line 4. Get off at Xiyuan station.

Opening Times: Daily 0630-1800 (summer); daily 0700-1700 (winter).
Admission Fees: Yes
Disabled Access: Yes
Unesco: Yes
Address: Northwest suburbs, Beijing, China
Telephone: (10) 6288 1610.
Temple of Heaven Park

Just south of Tiananmen Square, Temple of Heaven Park is Beijing's largest imperial park and a wonderful place to spend a sunny morning watching locals fly kites, practise tai chi or sing songs. The park’s focal point is the remarkable Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, an exquisite Ming-dynasty sacrificial altar that was used by the emperor once every year to ask the gods for good harvests.

Opening Times: Daily 0830-1800; daily 0600-2000 (park).
Admission Fees: Yes
Disabled Access: Yes
Unesco: Yes
Address: Tian Tan Lu (north gate entrance), Beijing, China
Telephone: (10) 6702 8866.
Tiananmen Square

There's only one place to begin exploring Beijing: Tiananmen Square, where Mao Zedong declared the foundation of the People's Republic. Though more closely identified with the suppression of the student-led pro-democracy protests of 1989, the world's largest public square is an impressive tourism centrepiece. Surrounding attractions include the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall, where Mao Zedong's preserved body is on display, the Qianmen Gate, the Great Hall of the People and the entrance to the Forbidden City.

Opening Times: Tues-Sun 0830-1130.
Admission Fees: No
Disabled Access: Yes
Unesco: No
Address: Chairman Mao Memorial Hall, Beijing, China
Telephone: (10) 6513 2277.