Beijing is one of China’s oldest cities but one of its newest, in terms of architecture. In the past 15 years especially, capped by an explosive construction push for the 2008 Olympics hosted by China’s capital city, some of the world’s most innovative and unconventional public buildings have gone up in Beijing. Finding the remaining ancient treasures is getting more difficult.

Old Favorites

Visitors to the city will want to take in both architectural extremes. Perhaps the best-known site is the 44-hectare Tiananmen Square, a sprawling public expanse that contains Mao Zedong’s tomb. This square was built in 1651 around the Gate of Heaven to the adjoining Forbidden City. The square was greatly enlarged in the 1950s by Mao to allow it to hold 500,000 people. Tiananmen Square served for years as Beijing’s social heart and gathering place, before the government’s violent crackdown there on student protesters in 1989. Today, it is patrolled by security forces although it remains open to the public.

Other familiar ancient structures in or around Beijing that are must-sees are the Forbidden City (Imperial Palace) adjacent to Tiananmen Square; the Summer Palace, toward the northwest edge of the central city; the Temple of Heaven south of Tiananmen Square; and the surviving crowded “hutongs,” or narrow, low-rise residential lanes that characterized communal life in Beijing before tall housing projects replaced most of these alleys. 

The Forbidden City, built during the Ming Dynasty in the 1400s, is the best-preserved cluster of ancient buildings in China. Fires, looting and political upheaval have left the former imperial court a post-18th century shell mimicking its original layout, but the vast complex is unforgettable, even stripped of its wealth and original furnishings.

The Summer Palace, once a summer retreat for emperors, is still a retreat for crowd-weary tourists. They can relax or stroll around ancient pavilions, mansions, temples, bridges, teahouses and a huge lake in this 118-hectare park.

Farther from the city stands one of the true feats of human construction, the 5,000-kilometer-long Great Wall. It was built piecemeal over 2,000 years as a defense against invading nomadic tribes. Some sections may have been constructed as early as the 7th century B.C. Only a third of the original wall remains, most often viewed by tourists at Badaling, about 80 kilometers northeast of central Beijing.

Back in Beijing, one way to get a better look at the city’s last hutongs that haven’t been demolished to make way for newer buildings is by pedicab or rickshaw. These awning-covered, man-pedaled vehicles are the only ones that can maneuver through the tight and winding lanes. Their leisurely pace allows visitors to see everyday life at street level in these pre-Communist urban villages. Hutong tours can be booked through your hotel.

Communist Commemoration

To visit a good example of another, more recent style of historical architectural, go to the foreboding China National Museum on the eastern side of Tiananmen Square. It was erected in 1959 as part of a mandated wave of building to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. The museum displays both impressive Chinese masterpieces and prime Communist propaganda.

Another recommended stop to experience contemporary conversion of structures from the same era is the 798 Arts District, located in the Dashanzi area in the northeast of the city. This artists colony, started in 2001, has grown out of industrial rows of 1950s East German-designed factories. Today, the buildings, including one formerly called Factory 798 that produced electronics, house inventive modern galleries, studios, restaurants and living spaces for working artists and other residents.

Cutting-Edge New Skyline

A look at the newer, cutting-edge architecture that shows off China’s rapid embrace of change starts upon arrival at the Beijing Capital International Airport, whose latest expansion was designed by famed British architect Norman Foster. The swooping, huge Terminal 3 was opened for the 2008 Olympics.

Also important not to miss on a tour of modern Beijing architecture is the CCTV Headquarters, designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas to house China’s state television network. The building’s slanting, interconnected form has won raves from architecture critics worldwide. Beijing’s other edgy, new world-class monuments include French architect Paul Andreu’s titanium and glass egg-shaped National Theater, and two structures built for the recent Olympics:  Herzog & de Meuron’s National Stadium, known as the “bird’s nest” because of its interwoven steel shape, and PTW’s luminous blue National Aquatics Center, known locally as the “Water Cube.” All of these new buildings (except the airport’s Terminal 3) are located less than 20 kilometers from the city’s heart.