Beijing is the capital of the People’s Republic of China. It is the second most populated city in China and its main cultural center. It is the most Chinese of all of the Chinese cities, beautifully adorned with traditional neighborhoods and royal palaces. That’s not all. Beijing is home to outstanding ancient temples, world-class museums, wonderful parks, and lively pedestrian streets. When it comes to contemporary architecture, Beijing excels too. As if it wasn’t enough, the world’s largest man-made structure, the Great Wall of China, is only a step away. These 15 interesting facts about Beijing will make you fall in love with it just like we did.
01 Beijing Is China’s Second Largest City
Beijing is China’s second-most populous city after Shanghai. According to the last national census from 2010, the urban population of Beijing stood at 16.4 million. At that time, some 18.8 million people lived inside Beijing’s administrative borders. Since then, the urban population of Beijing never stopped growing and is now estimated at 20.4 million. Therefore, Beijing is one of the largest cities in the world. Beijing’s ethnic composition is pretty homogenous, with 96% of the population being Han Chinese. Close to a million ethnic minorities live in Beijing. The largest groups are Manchu, Hui, Mongol, and Korean.
02 Its Name Means Northern Capital
Throughout its long history, Beijing frequently changed names. The current name consists of two Chinese signs: Bei 北 (north), and Jing 京 (capital). Thus, its name means Northern Capital. The name appeared in 1403 during the Ming Dynasty. They wanted to distinguish the city from their southern capital, Nanjing. So, where does the widely used Peking name comes from? Foreign merchants visiting China’s southern ports often heard that name and thought it was the official name of the Chinese capital. Little did they know that southern dialects pronounced Peking the two Chinese signs that make the word Beijing.
03 Beijing Has Been China’s Capital for Centuries
Beijing is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the world. The first city erected on the spot, Jicheng, was founded in 1045 BC and was the capital of the Ji Kingdom. The following centuries saw Beijing ruler’s change constantly. The city became the capital of smaller short-lived empires (the Yan Kingdom and the Yuan Dynasty). Though the Ming Dynasty had two capitals, Beijing was the main one. The following Qing Dynasty also kept Beijing as its capital. Beijing was the capital of the Republic of China until 1928 when Nanjing took the title. As soon as the Chinese Civil War ended, the People’s Liberation Army captured the city and made it the capital of the People’s Republic of China.
04 The Forbidden City Was the Country’s Political Center for Almost 500 Years
Chinese Royal Emperors lived in the Forbidden City of Beijing for almost 500 years. The place was their official residence as well as China’s political center. It took a million workers to build the Forbidden City between 1406 and 1420. Most buildings are wooden, with some marble and brick elements. A total of 24 emperors lived here, 14 from the Ming Dynasty and 10 from the Qing Dynasty. The last Chinese Emperor abdicated in 1910 but kept on living in the city until 1924. Thus, the Forbidden City ceased to function as the political center of China in 1910. Since 1925, it operates as the Palace Museum. The museum includes 980 buildings in an area of 72 hectares. The entire city is grand and delicately beautiful.
05 Other Parts of the Ancient City Still Exist
Though the Forbidden City is gigantic, it is a part of a much larger Imperial City. The Imperial City, with its several large gardens, used to be the buffer zone between the Forbidden City and the Inner City. The so-called Outer City used to be to the south of the Inner City. Each of these cities had city walls, monumental towers, and gates. You can see some parts today! The Zhengyangmen or Qianmen was the southern entrance to the Inner City. The north entrance was the Deshengmen, while the heavily reconstructed Yongdingmen the southern entrance to the Outer City. The ancient Bell and Drum Towers, parts of the Inner City of Beijing, have survived to this day.
06 Beijing Still Hosts Traditional Neighborhoods
Single-family houses and narrow alleys pack the area around the Forbidden City. These are called Hutongs. Historically, rich Chinese lived in hutongs with fancy adorned large houses, nice gardens, and wide alleys. Unfortunately, none have survived. What we see today in Beijing are lower class hutongs, with modest architecture and small courtyards. Don’t get us wrong, they are lovely! The houses inside a hutong are called Siheyuan or courtyard houses. A typical Beijing courtyard house has four buildings, one for each cardinal direction. Originally, one family lived in each Siheyuan, but today many are shared. The most notable Hutongs in Beijing are to the north and south of the Forbidden City.
07 There Is No Proper City Center
Though Beijing does have a city center, it doesn’t feel as such. The city’s focal point is the famous Tiananmen Square. Up until 1989, mass gatherings and political protests took place in the square. Since then, access to the square is limited, gatherings forbidden, and only ceremonial events allowed. Four monumental buildings surround the square: the Tiananmen gate of the Imperial City to the north, the Great Hall of the People to the west, Mao Zedong’s Mausoleum to the south, and the National Museum of China to the east. The closest thing to a proper city center is pedestrian Wangfujing Street.
08 China’s Most Impressive Historical Sites Are in Beijing
Since Beijing was China’s most important city for centuries, its historical sites are the best in the country. Other than the Forbidden City, the most important historical site is the Temple of Heaven. Emperors prayed for a good harvest in this impressive temple. A giant park surrounds the temple. Another royal estate of colossal proportions is the Summer Palace, northwest of the city. The palace hosts the imperial garden of the Qing Dynasty. Prince Gong’s Mansion is a superb imperial mansion and estate. Again, its garden is wonderful. Another fascinating temple is Yonghe or Lama Temple, the largest Tibetan Buddhist temple in Beijing.
09 There Is Also Outstanding Modern Architecture
Shanghai might be China’s modern architecture hotspot, but Beijing doesn’t lag behind. Apart from the impressive Olympic Complex, there are several monumental new structures worth paying attention to. The National Centre for the Performing Arts from 2007 is the largest theater complex in Asia. Its sublime semi ellipsoidal shape is the result of height limitations imposed by the authorities. The new wing of the National Library of China from 2008 is a fusion of traditional Chinese elements with modern building materials. The CCTV Headquarters from 2012 caught the world’s attention for its unusual shape. Locals have named the enormous structure with a giant hole, big pants.
10 Beijing’s Olympic Park Is Impressive
Perhaps the most famous contemporary landmark in Beijing is the monumental Olympic Park. As soon as Beijing was chosen to host the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, the whole country embarked on a plan to impress the world. A total of 28 Olympic sports took place in 37 venues around the country. Beijing homes 31 venues. Seven of these are in the gigantic Olympic Green Park. The park’s epicenter is a curvy lake. The main venues sit along the lake. Our favorite is the Beijing National Stadium, a masterpiece by world-renowned architects Herzog & de Meuron. Due to its quirky shape, people call it the bird’s nest. Another extraordinary venue is the Beijing National Aquatics Center, a giant cube full of bubbles.
11 There are Some Wonderful Pedestrian Areas
As discussed, Beijing’s main square isn’t commercial. However, that doesn’t mean the city doesn’t have areas for leisure. Qianmen Street, to the south of Tiananmen Square, has been an important commercial street for centuries. The architecture that lines the street is a testament to those times. Another interesting pedestrian drag is the above mentioned Wangfujing Street, with new shopping malls and a very popular food market. On the other hand, Nanluoguxiang Street is somewhat different. Since it is in the middle of one of Beijing’s largest hutongs, it has an authentic Chinese flair. Finally, Sanlitun boasts a fabulous modern pedestrian area. The hip and young favor Sanlitun Soho and Taikoo Li Sanlitun.
12 Culture Is Everywhere
Beijing has been China’s capital of culture for centuries. Some of the country’s most renowned museums are here. The Palace Museum, part of the Forbidden City, is known for its outstanding collection of ceramics and porcelain. The National Museum of China is one of the largest museums in the world. Its collection of over 1 million artifacts covers centuries of Chinese history up to the end of the Qing Dynasty. The Beijing Capital Museum is another interesting museum dedicated to Chinese art. The 798 Art Zone, China’s largest art district, has recently enriched Beijing’s cultural scene. It is housed in a former military factory and contains a plethora of art studios, entertainment venues, sculptures, and street art.
13 Beijing Has Wonderful Parks
A picture of Beijing would be incomplete without its gorgeous green parks. The most famous ones surround temples and palaces. Without a doubt, the nicest one is the splendid park around the Summer Palace. Another wonderful park is Beihai Park, also known as the Winter Palace. The largest park inside the former Imperial City hosts a long lake with an island and several nice gardens. Jingshan Park, north of the Forbidden City, surrounds a hill from where you can see all of Beijing. Zhongshan Park, next to the Forbidden City, has a gorgeous collection of tulips. Finally, Yuyuan Park is best visited while its cherries blossom.
14 The Great Wall Is Only a Step Away
The largest man-made structure on the planet is literally just a step away. Beijing is only 60 km from the nearest section of the Great Wall. The wall was built to protect the Chinese empire from northern nomadic tribes. Though some independent stretches of the wall were built in the 7th century BC, the first emperor of China connected them in the 3rd century BC. As you can imagine, the wall was destroyed and rebuilt many times. It’s most famous parts date back to the Ming Dynasty (14th – 17th centuries). It is estimated that the total length of all sections is about 22 000 km (13 000 miles).
15 Beijing Metro Is the World’s Largest
Beijing has the largest and busiest metro system in the world. Back in the 50s, authorities planned to build metro systems in China’s largest cities, Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, and Shenyang. However, construction in Beijing began in 1965. After a long and slow process, the first section of line 1 opened in 1969, making it the oldest metro system in China. Unfortunately, only two lines were completed by the year 2002. Since then, Beijing’s metro never stopped growing. Being some 700km long, it is the longest in the entire world.