The political and cultural center of China, Beijing has a rich history that’s mirrored in its spectacular palaces, temples and parks. However, this doesn't mean that it's shackled to the past. Quite the contrary, Beijing is a vibrant international capital that's moving toward the future at hyper speed. Thanks to its roaring economy, skyscrapers crowd the skyline; cars jam the roads and residents flock to spend at a frenetic pace.
Beijing is a city of contrasts, vast neon-lit avenues coexist with narrow (alleys) and futuristic structures of titanium and glass cast their shadow over ancient palaces. Friendly and hardworking, the city's population of about 14 million is also diverse. Wizened men with pet songbirds share the streets with laptop-toting executives and foreign investors with migrants from the countryside. Along with its people, historical sights and vibrancy, Beijing's drawing cards include its mouthwatering cuisine, fabulous shopping and thriving nightlife. In short, a thrilling and unforgettable experience awaits visitors in Beijing.
For centuries Beijing has been a magnet for scholars, merchants and artists who have given it a cultural life unrivalled in China. Beijing culture is a fusion of indigenous and imported traditions since the populace has always included provincials and ethnic minorities. Another factor to consider is the impact of the city's intellectuals on local culture. The capital has more colleges and universities than any other city in China, a reflection of its past as a center of Confucian scholarship in imperial times. This concentration of thinkers has created an enthusiastic audience for literature, painting and the performing arts. As a result, the city has many museums, galleries, theaters and music halls.
Beijing's culture comes in many forms, from food to music, and from architecture to handicrafts. Eat Peking duck, visit the Temple of Heaven, meander in the old hutongs or check out a contemporary art show and you'll discover a unique milieu of new and old that is Beijing culture.
Perhaps the most original expression of local culture is Peking opera. A multidimensional art, Peking opera blends singing, music, dancing and acrobatics. Performers wear elaborate costumes and makeup that identify their roles – from peasant to emperor, and character traits – from selfless to selfish. The singers are accompanied by orchestras made up of traditional Chinese instruments, including two-stringed fiddles erhu and jinghu, lutes, drums and gongs. Plot lines are based on famous myths, well-known stories and historical events.
Since the action can be hard for foreigners to follow, some theaters now provide English subtitles during the shows and offer abridged versions of operas. Several Beijing teahouses also stage scenes from famous operas interspersed with other traditional acts like magic shows, puppetry, and "cross-talk" (comic dialogues reminiscent of Abbott and Costello). Viewing such performances over tea and snacks is a classic Beijing experience. Many visitors likewise enjoy displays of Chinese martial arts and acrobatics, which are regularly held in local theaters.
If you want to witness local culture on a mass scale, nothing beats Beijing's 61 temple fairs. These are held in temples, parks and streets during the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year). Dating back to the Liao dynasty, the fairs mix the spiritual and the temporal. Families come in droves not only to burn incense and pray for good fortune, but also for the carnival atmosphere and performances. The temple fairs are gathering spots for acrobats, singers and dancers. They also attract artisans and merchants who sell an assortment of handicrafts and goods. Some fairs also offer rides and games of chance for those to try their new year's luck. For some visitors, the best reason to come is the myriad stalls serving up savory snacks from around China. Beijing's most popular temple fairs are held in Temple of Earth, White Cloud Temple, and Changdian in the Liulichang antiques district.
Memorable Experiences of a Beijing Holdiay
Taking a shortcut across the frozen Kunming Lake in the Summer Palace and admiring the snow-covered scenery from the top of Longevity Hill.
Spending the day exploring every passageway in the Forbidden City then climbing to the top of the Coal Hill for a panorama view of the Forbidden City and downtown Beijing.
Renting a tandem bike and getting lost in the maze of around the Houhai and Qianhai areas.
Finally getting up to that distant watch tower on the wild Great Wall on a warm spring day with clear blue skies and absolute silence.