Beijing is massive, but thanks to an extensive and very logically planned subway system, pretty simple to navigate (as long as you know what subway stop you need for each site). So, I covered a lot of territory in my time there. My first day I headed right for the Forbidden Palace, with its picture of Chairman Mao adorning its main gate, and overlooking Tiananmen Square, with its sad history reflected on the imposing government buildings and museums surrounding it.
The Forbidden Palace itself is as grand as transporting as you’d hope it to be, with wide courtyards, beautiful stone stairways, and one red, intricately decorated hall and throne room after the other. As with much oriental royal and religious architecture, it begins to blur together after awhile, but you’ll be quite happy with your time if you avoid the crowds by ducking into the side courtyards, several of which have interesting exhibitions of priceless and sumptuous imperial clothing, jewelry, and artifacts.
Afterwards, I headed to the park directly behind the back exit, Jinghsan, which boasts a hilltop temple with hands down the best viewpoint in central Beijing. From it you can gaze down at the Forbidden Palace, over to the financial district with its one of a kind CCTV Building, and directly to your right at Beihai Park with its famous White Dagoba and Lake.
From there, I hiked up through some of the last preserved hutongs, or alleyways, which used to be the majority of the city until relentless modernization replaced them with wide avenues and department stores. The remaining ones, especially in the area around the Drum and Bell Towers (which used to sound out the time for the city), are largely touristy, but you can still slip off into a side passage here and there and experience some genuine Beijing neighborhood life complete with dogs and old men barking you along your way.
From there I headed towards the Lama Temple, an ornate, colorful Tibetan Buddhist temple in the middle of Beijing. It seems that several of the Chinese emperors and empresses were fervent Tibetan Buddhists, which might help explain the Chinese attachment to the region.
My last stop of the day was a brand new counterpoint to all of the centuries-old buildings from earlier- the 2008 built Olympic Green, with its modern architecture like the birds nest-looking National Stadium and iridescent, bubble-covered National Aquatic Center that are familiar to Olympics fans worldwide.
Dinner, and my last stop before throwing up my tired feet at my hostel, was the famed Peking Duck- succulent, tender wood-roasted duck served with flour pancakes almost identical to tortillas, sweet, thick, and rich soy-based sauce, cucumbers, and spring onions. You are supposed to dip the duck in the sauce, then wrap it with the veggies in the tortilla for a sweet, savory, crunchy product that paired very nicely with my Harbin beer. Great way to end the day.