With a population of almost 11 million, Beijing is one of three special metropolitan areas in China (the others are Shanghai and Tianjin), separate from provincial control. As the national capital, Beijing is really in a special category of its own. While Shanghai and Guangzhou, among other cities, are far more vibrant economically, Beijing is the city of grace and style, lavishly endowed with the best of everything by the Communist Party top brass, if only because they have to live here too.Add to this the rush towards economic growth that everywhere grips the country, and Beijing is fast developing as a world capital. The city has the ambitions that go along with such a status, and, increasingly, it has the resources to satisfy them, together with a legacy of unique historic monuments and an infrastructure that, although strained, is better able to cope with increasing demands than many other Chinese cities.
Ancient Observatory (Guguan Xiangtai)
The tower was built in 1279 to house the astronomical observatory. It once held the bronze observational instruments from which Chinese astrologers got the data that they would present in horoscopes to the emperor.
Beihai Park (Beihai Gongyuan)
There can be few more beautiful city parks in the world than this graceful former retreat of the emperors, situated slightly north and west of the Forbidden City. Located on the site of a 10th-century palace, many of its structures are reconstructions of originals dating from the 15th to the 17th centuries. Covering almost 70 hectares, half of which is taken up by Beihai Lake, the park is notable for the Round City, adjacent to the south gate, an area established by the Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan (1214-1294) for his palace. At the heart of Beihai Lake is the Jade Islet, whose monumental buildings include the Hall of Universal Peace, and the ghostly bubble of the White Dagoba.
Beijing Zoo (Beijing Dongwuyuan)
Even the famed pandas don’t have much in the way of room or anything at all that even appears like a recreated natural habitat. None of this seems to bother the Chinese, who love the zoo, which is notable also for its tigers, yaks, and sea turtles, among many other species on display.
China Art Gallery (Zhongguo Meishu Guan)
Formerly the Peking University building, opened to the public in 1959 and recently totally refurbished, the gallery features constantly changing exhibitions of Chinese arts and cratts.
Coal Hill, Jingshan Park (Jingshan Gongyuan)
Also known as Prospect Hill, this five-peaked artificial hill provided the emperors with a view over the city from within their private park (they also apparently maintained a supply of coal beneath it, hence its other name). Now open to the public, the park still has superb views, and splendid pavilions from which to appreciate them.
Confucian Temple (Kong Miao)
Now operating as the Capital Museum, the temple was founded in 1302 but, like just about every historic structure in Beijing, it has been destroyed and restored innumerable times since then. It is a curiously antiseptic place, devoid of the natural activity you would associate with a temple. Its main interest lies in its inscribed stone steles, some of them said to be around 2,500 years old.