Originally a walled bastion for emperors and officials, the Chinese capital remains a majestic political and architectural marvel. You could spend weeks here and never tire of exploring the sights—centuries-old palaces and temples, gravity-defying skyscrapers, chaotic markets, and cutting-edge galleries and museums among them.
It’s a big city, home to some 21.5 million people and around 6.5 million cars. So, if you need a change of pace and space for quiet contemplation, it’s best to head to the hills. Around 30 kilometers northwest of Beijing is Fragrant Hills, a Jin-dynasty imperial garden that covers more than 160 hectares. It’s beautiful throughout the year, its tracks weaving through forests of cypress and persimmon, and around tranquil lakes lined with pavilions, temples, and ornate gates. But the ideal time to visit is in autumn, when the park’s maples and smoke trees begin to change color, transforming the area in a blaze of fiery hues.
There are two main routes through the park. One takes you past Yanjing Lake, the Mingera Jianxin Zhai temple, and a Tibetan-style lamasery complex built in the 1700s. The second will see you scramble to the top of Incense Burner Peak via a bril- liantly green lake and a number of temples and shrines.
Around 50 kilometers farther northwest is Badaling. This is easily the most visited section of the Great Wall, and for good reason. Its proximity to the capital aside—you’ll zip there along an expressway—Badaling is a brilliant stretch of well-preserved and restored wall dating to the Ming dynasty. Close to four kilometers and 19 watchtowers are open to visitors, and thanks to wide paths and even, shallowpitched stairs with handrails, it’s a pleasure to climb.
To the southeast of Beijing is Tianjin, a former treaty port with European-style houses and tree-lined boulevards contrasting with the gleaming towers of its business district. This is one of China’s largest cities, but thanks in part to its waterside location, it has a more relaxed vibe than the country’s capital. Coastal views aside, Tianjin has an incredible collection of well-preserved colonial architecture, with more than 230 buildings incorporating design styles ranging from Renaissance to gothic to romantic. And then there are the Qing- and Ming-style buildings, many of which you can find along Ancient Culture Street, a strip of restored shophouses that are home to antiques stores, noodle stalls, art galleries, and museums.
Other day trips worth the detour include the Ming Tombs, a World Heritage Site that unites a collection of mausoleums built by emperors of the Ming dynasty. The tombs are around 50 kilometers northwest of Beijing, and could be fitted into a day trip also incorporating Fragrant Hills or Badaling. And around 80 kilometers north of the capital is
Longqing Gorge, known for its karst scenery that is somewhat reminiscent of the southern city of Guilin. Explore caves and forested mountains on a relaxing river cruise, or turn up the adrenalin with bungee jumping, rock climbing, and abseiling.
Autumn foliage around Fragrant Hills. Below, from left: A statue at the Ming Tombs; the Badaling section of the Great Wall.