18 Best Sights in Xicheng District, Beijing

Temple of Heaven

Xuanwu District Fodor's choice

A prime example of Chinese religious architecture, this is where emperors once performed important rites. It was a site for imperial sacrifices, meant to please the gods so they would generate bumper harvests. Set in a huge, serene, mushroom-shaped park southeast of the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven is surrounded by splendid examples of Ming Dynasty architecture, including curved cobalt blue roofs layered with yellow and green tiles. Construction began in the early 15th century under Yongle, whom many call the "architect of Beijing." Shaped like a semicircle on the northern rim to represent heaven and square on the south for the earth, the grounds were once believed to be the meeting point of the two. The area is double the size of the Forbidden City and is still laid out to divine rule: buildings and paths are positioned to represent the right directions for heaven and earth. This means, for example, that the northern part is higher than the south.

The temple's hallmark structure is a magnificent blue-roofed wooden tower built in 1420. It burned to the ground in 1889 and was immediately rebuilt using Ming architectural methods (and timber imported from Oregon). The building's design is based on the calendar: 4 center pillars represent the seasons, the next 12 pillars represent months, and 12 outer pillars signify the parts of a day. Together these 28 poles, which also correspond to the 28 constellations of heaven, support the structure without nails. A carved dragon swirling down from the ceiling represents the emperor.

Across the Danbi Bridge, you'll find the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. The middle section was once reserved for the Emperor of Heaven, who was the only one allowed to set foot on the eastern side, while aristocrats and high-ranking officials walked on the western strip.

If you're coming by taxi, enter the park through the southern entrance (Tiantan Nanmen). This way you approach the beautiful Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests via the Danbi Bridge—the same route the emperor favored.

Directly east of this hall is a long, twisting platform, which once enclosed the animal-killing pavilion. The Long Corridor was traditionally hung with lanterns on the eve of sacrifices. Today it plays host to scores of Beijingers singing opera, playing cards and chess, and fan dancing.

Be sure to whisper into the echo wall encircling the Imperial Vault of Heaven. This structure allows anyone to eavesdrop. It takes a minute to get the hang of it, but with a friend on one side and you on the other it's possible to hold a conversation by speaking into the wall. Tilt your head in the direction you want your voice to travel for best results. Just inside the south gate is the Round Altar, a three-tiered, white-marble structure where the emperor worshipped the winter solstice; it's based around the divine number nine. Nine was regarded as a symbol of the power of the emperor, as it's the biggest single-digit odd number, and odd numbers are considered masculine and therefore more powerful.

The Hall of Abstinence, on the western edge of the grounds, is where the emperor would retreat three days before the ritual sacrifice. To understand the significance of the harvest sacrifice at the Temple of Heaven, it's important to keep in mind that the legitimacy of a Chinese emperor's rule depended on what is known as the tian ming, or the mandate of heaven, essentially the emperor's relationship with the gods.

A succession of bad harvests, for example, could be interpreted as the emperor losing the favor of heaven and could be used to justify a change in emperor or even in dynasty. When the emperor came to the Temple of Heaven to pray for good harvests and to pay homage to his ancestors, there may have been a good measure of self-interest to his fervor.

The sacrifices consisted mainly of animals and fruit placed on altars surrounded by candles. Many Chinese still offer sacrifices of fruit and incense on special occasions, such as births, deaths, and weddings.

We recommend buying an all-inclusive ticket. If you only buy a ticket into the park, you'll need to pay an additional Y20 to get into each building.

Beijing's subway Line 5 (purple line) makes getting to the Temple of Heaven particularly simple. Get off at the Tiantandongmen (Temple of Heaven East Gate) stop. This line also runs direct to the Lama Temple (Yonghegong), so combining the two sites in a day makes a lot of sense.

Automatic audio guides (Y40) are available at stalls inside all four entrances.

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Beihai Park

Xicheng District

A white stupa is perched on a small island just north of the south gate of this park. Also at the south entrance is Round City, which contains a white-jade Buddha and an enormous jade bowl given to Kublai Khan. Nearby, the well-restored Temple of Eternal Peace houses a variety of Buddhas. Climb to the stupa from Yongan Temple. Once there, you can pay an extra Y1 to ascend the Buddha-bedecked Shanyin Hall.

The lake is Beijing's largest and most beautiful public waterway. On summer weekends the lake teems with paddleboats. The Five Dragon Pavilion, on Beihai's northwest shore, was built in 1602 by a Ming Dynasty emperor who liked to fish under the moon.

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1 Weijin Jie, Beijing, 100034, China
010-6403–1102
Sights Details
Y10; extra fees for some sites
Rate Includes: Apr.–May and Sept.–Oct., daily 6.30 am–8:30 pm; Nov.–Mar., daily 6.30 am–8 pm; June–Aug., daily 6.30 am–10 pm

Beijing Ancient Architecture Museum

Xicheng District

This little-known museum, located inside a Ming Dynasty temple, exhibits photos, objects, and elaborate models of ancient Chinese architecture—from ancient huts and mud houses to Ming and Qing Dynasty palaces. The sand-table model of old Beijing is fascinating.

21 Dongjing Lu, Beijing, 100050, China
010-6317–2150
Sights Details
Rate Includes: Y15, Tues.–Sun. 9–4

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Beijing Zoo

Xicheng District

Though visitors usually go straight to see the giant pandas, don't miss the other interesting animals, like tigers from the northeast, yaks from Tibet, enormous sea turtles from China's seas, and red pandas from Sichuan. The zoo started out as a garden belonging to one of the sons of Shunzhi, the first emperor of the Qing dynasty. In 1747, the Qianlong emperor had it refurbished (along with other imperial properties, including the summer palaces) and turned it into a park in honor of his mother's 60th birthday. In 1901, the Empress Dowager gave it another extensive facelift and used it to house a collection of animals given to her as a gift by a Chinese minister who had bought them during a trip to Germany. By the 1930s, most of the animals had died and were stuffed and put on display in a museum on the grounds.

137 Xizhimenwai Dajie, Beijing, 100044, China
010-6839–0274
Sights Details
Rate Includes: Apr.–Oct. Y15; Nov.–Mar. Y10; plus Y5 for the pandas, Apr.–Oct. 7:30–6; Nov.–Mar. 7:30–5

Capital Museum

Xicheng District

Moved to an architecturally striking new home west of Tiananmen Square in 2005, this is one of China's' finest cultural museums. Artifacts are housed in a multistoried bronze cylinder that dominates the building's facade, while paintings, calligraphy, and photographs of historic Beijing fill the remaining exhibition halls. The museum gets extra points for clear English descriptions and modern, informative displays. Entry is free, but tickets must be booked (via the website) in advance.

16 Fuxingmenwai Dajie, Beijing, 100045, China
010-6337–0491
Sights Details
Rate Includes: Free, Tues.–Sun. 9–4

Cultural Palace of Nationalities

Xicheng District

Dedicated to the 56 official ethnic groups that make up China's modern population, this museum houses traditional clothing and artifacts from the country's remote border regions. Exhibits on topics like the "peaceful liberation of Tibet" are as interesting for the official government line as for what's left out. Entrance is free, but you'll need to show your passport to get in.

49 Fuxingmennei Dajie, Beijing, 100031, China
010-6602–4433
Sights Details
Rate Includes: Free, Daily 9–5

Drum Tower

Xicheng District

Until the late 1920s, the 24 drums once housed in this tower were Beijing's timepiece. Sadly, all but one of these huge drums have been destroyed. Kublai Khan built the first drum tower on this site in 1272. You can climb to the top of the present tower, which dates from the Ming Dynasty. Old photos of hutong neighborhoods line the walls beyond the drum; there's also a scale model of a traditional courtyard house. The nearby Bell Tower, renovated after a fire in 1747, offers fabulous views of the hutongs from the top of a long, narrow staircase. The huge 63-ton bronze bell, supported by lacquered wood stanchions, is also worth seeing. In recent years, the authorities have demolished a number of historical hutong in this area, so don't be surprised if you come across serious signs of reconstruction around here.

Beijing, 100009, China
010-6404–1710
Sights Details
Rate Includes: From Y20, Daily 9–5

Great Hall of the People

Xicheng District

This solid edifice owes its Stalinist weight to the last years of the Sino-Soviet pact. Its gargantuan dimensions (205,712 square yards of floor space) exceed that of the Forbidden City. It was built by 14,000 laborers, who worked around the clock for eight months. China's legislature meets in the aptly named Ten Thousand People Assembly Hall, beneath a panoply of 500 star lights revolving around a giant red star. Thirty-one reception rooms are distinguished by the arts and crafts of the provinces they represent. Have someone who speaks Chinese call a day ahead to confirm that it's open, as the hall often closes for political events and concerts.

Beijing, 100800, China
010-6309–6156
Sights Details
Rate Includes: Y30, Dec.–Mar., daily 9–2; Apr.–June, daily 8:15–3; Jul.–Aug., daily 7:30–4; Sept.–Nov., daily 8:30–3

Liulichang

Xuanwu District

This quaint old street is best known for its antiques, books, and paintings. The street has been completely restored and a multitude of small shops, many privately owned, make it a fun place to explore, even if you're just window-shopping. Liulichang, often referred to as "Antiques Street," was built more than 500 years ago during the Ming Dynasty. It was the site of a large factory that made glazed tiles for the Imperial Palace. Gradually other smaller tradesmen began to cluster around, and at the beginning of the Qing Dynasty, booksellers began to move in. The area became a meeting place for intellectuals and a prime shopping district for art objects, books, handicrafts, and antiques. In 1949, Liulichang still had over 170 shops, but many were taken over by the state; the street was badly ransacked during the Cultural Revolution. Following large-scale renovation of the traditional architecture, the street reopened in 1984 under the policy that shops could only sell arts, crafts, and cultural objects. Today the street is a mixture of state-run and privately owned stores.

Niujie (Ox Street) Mosque

Xuanwu District

Originally built during the Liao Dynasty in 996, Niujie is Beijing's oldest and largest mosque. It sits at the center of the Muslim quarter and mimics a Chinese temple from the outside, with its hexagonal wooden structure. When the mosque was built, only traditional Chinese architecture was allowed in the capital. An exception was made for the Arabic calligraphy that decorates many of the mosque's walls and inner sanctums. The interior arches and posts are inscribed with Koranic verse, and a special moon tower helps with determining the lunar calendar. The Spirit Wall stands opposite the main entrance and is meant to prevent ghosts from entering the mosque. This wall is covered with carved mural works on the premise that ghosts can't turn sharp corners. Two dark tombs with Chinese and Arabic inscriptions are kept in one of the small courtyards. They belong to two Persian imams (the prayer leaders of a mosque) who came to preach at the mosque in the 13th and 14th centuries. Because Muslims must pray in the direction of Mecca, which is westward, the main prayer hall opens onto the east. At the rear of the complex is a minaret from which a muezzin calls the faithful to prayer. From this very tower, imams measure the beginning and end of Ramadan, Islam's month of fasting and prayer. Ramadan begins when the imam sights the new moon, which appears as a slight crescent.

The hall, which is open only to Muslims, can fit up to 1,000 worshippers. All visitors must wear long trousers or skirts and keep their shoulders covered. It's most convenient to get to the mosque by taxi. If you want to take the subway, it's about a 10-minute walk from Line 4's Caishikou station.

18 Niu Jie, Beijing, 100053, China
010-6353–2564
Sights Details
Rate Includes: Y10, Daily 8–4

Prince Gong's Palace

Xicheng District

This grand compound sits in a neighborhood once reserved for imperial relatives. Built in 1777 during the Qing Dynasty, it fell to Prince Gong—brother of Qing emperor Xianfeng and later an adviser to Empress Dowager Cixi—after the original inhabitant was executed for corruption. With nine courtyards joined by covered walkways, it was once one of Beijing's most lavish residences. The museum offers Beijing opera and tea to visitors who pay the higher ticket price. Some literary scholars believe this was the setting for Dream of the Red Chamber, one of China's best-known classical novels.

17 Qianhai Xijie, Beijing, 100009, China
010-8328–8149
Sights Details
Rate Includes: From Y40, Mid-Mar.–mid.-Nov., daily 8–4; mid.-Nov.–mid.-Mar., daily 7:30–4:30

Qianhai and Houhai

Xicheng District

Most people come to these lakes, along with Xihai to the northwest, to stroll and enjoy the shoreside bars and restaurants. In summer you can boat or fish. In winter, sections of the frozen lakes are fenced off for skating. This day trip is easily combined with a visit to Beihai Park or the Bell and Drum towers.

Beijing, China

Qianmen (Front Gate)

Dongcheng District

From its top, looking south, you can see that Qianmen (Front Gate) is actually two gates: the Sun-Facing Gate (Zhengyangmen) and the Arrow Tower (Jian Lou), which were, until 1915, connected by a defensive half-moon wall. The central gates of both structures opened only for the emperor's biannual ceremonial trips to the Temple of Heaven. The gate now defines the southern edge of Tiananmen Square.

Beijing, China
010-6522–9382
Sights Details
Rate Includes: Y10, 8:30–4

Ruifuxiang Silk Shop

Xuanwu District

Established in 1893, this shop has thick bolts of silk, cotton, cashmere, and wool piled high, in more colors than you'll find in a box of crayons: chartreuse, candy-pink, chocolate-brown, fresh-cut-grass-green—you name it. Clerks deftly cut yards of cloth while tailors take measurements for colorful qipaos (traditional gowns). Even though you might not be shopping for fabric, in this corner of Beijing, life seems to continue much as it did a century ago.

5 Dazhalan Dajie, Beijing, 100051, China
010-6303–5313

Soong Ching-ling's Former Residence

Xicheng District

Soong Ching-ling (1893–1981) was the youngest daughter of Charles Soong, a wealthy, American-educated bible publisher. At the age of 18, disregarding her family's strong opposition, she eloped to marry the much older Sun Yat-sen. When her husband founded the Republic of China in 1911, Soong Ching-ling became a significant political figure. In 1924 she headed the Women's Department of the Nationalist Party. Then in 1949 she became the vice president of the People's Republic of China. Throughout her career she campaigned tirelessly for the emancipation of women, and she helped lay the foundations for many of the rights that modern-day Chinese women enjoy today. This former palace was her residence and workplace and now houses a small museum, which documents her life and work.

46 Houhai Beiyan, Beijing, 100009, China
010-6404–4205
Sights Details
Rate Includes: Y20, Daily 9–4

Source of Law Temple

Xuanwu District

This quiet temple is also a school for monks—the Chinese Buddhist Theoretical Institute houses and trains them here. Of course, the temple functions within the boundaries of current regime policy. You can observe both elderly practitioners chanting mantras in the main prayer halls, as well as robed students kicking soccer balls in a side courtyard. Before lunch the smells of a vegetarian stir-fry tease the nose. The dining hall has simple wooden tables set with cloth-wrapped bowls and chopsticks. Dating from the 7th century, but last rebuilt in 1442, the temple holds a fine collection of Ming and Qing statues, including a sleeping Buddha and an unusual grouping of copper-cast Buddhas seated on a 1,000-petal lotus.

7 Fayuan Si Qianjie, Beijing, 100005, China
010-6353–4171
Sights Details
Rate Includes: Y5, Daily 8:30–3.30

Temple of the White Pagoda

Xicheng District

This 13th-century Tibetan stupa, the largest of its kind in China, dates from Kublai Khan's reign and owes its beauty to an unnamed Nepalese architect who built it to honor Shakyamuni Buddha (the historical Buddha). It stands bright and white against the Beijing skyline. Once hidden within the structure were Buddha statues, sacred texts, and other holy relics. Many of the statues are now on display in glass cases in the Miaoying temple, at the foot of the stupa.

171 Fuchengmennei Dajie, Beijing, 100034, China
010-6616–6099
Sights Details
Rate Includes: Y20, Tues.–Sun. 9–4

White Clouds Taoist Temple

Xicheng District

This lively Taoist temple founded in the 8th century serves as a center for China's only indigenous religion. Monks wearing blue-cotton coats and black-satin hats roam the grounds in silence. Thirty of them now live at the monastery, which also houses the official All-China Taoist Association. Visitors bow and burn incense to their favorite deities, wander the back gardens in search of a master of qigong (a series of exercises that involve slow movements and meditative breathing techniques), and rub the bellies of the temple's three monkey statues for good fortune.

In the first courtyard, under the span of an arched bridge, hang two large brass bells. Ringing them with a well-tossed coin is said to bring wealth. In the main courtyards, the Shrine Hall for Seven Perfect Beings is lined with meditation cushions and low desks. Nearby is a museum of Taoist history (explanations in Chinese). In the western courtyard, the temple's oldest structure is a shrine housing the 60-Year Protector. Here the faithful locate the deity that corresponds to their birth year, bow to it, light incense, then scribble their names, or even a poem, on the wooden statue's red-cloth cloak as a reminder of their dedication. A trinket stall in the front courtyard sells pictures of each protector deity. Also in the west courtyard is a shrine to Taoist sage Wen Ceng, depicted in a 3-meter- (10-foot-) tall bronze statue just outside the shrine's main entrance. Students flock here to rub Wen Ceng's belly for good luck on their college entrance exams. The area around the temple is packed with fortune-tellers.

Lianhuachi Donglu, Beijing, 100045, China
010-6344–3666
Sights Details
Rate Includes: Y10, Daily 8–4:30