Beijing is China's preeminent city, hosting more travelers than any other city in China--and for good reason, since no other city offers so many marvels, ancient and modern. Where else in China (or in the world, for that matter) can you gorge yourself on crispy Peking duck, walk the Great Wall like a modern sentinel, crisscross the haunting expanses of Tiananmen Square, and freely explore the splendors of the Forbidden City, all in a day or two?
While serving as the capital for imperial dynasties from the Ming to the Qing, Beijing has had its pick of the empire's glorious creations, many of which it has guarded over the centuries. Beijing was the capital in the 13th century, when Kublai Khan built his palace there and Marco Polo first paid a visit. It reigned supreme from the 15th century, when the Ming rulers built the Forbidden City, to the 18th century, when the Manchu rulers built the Summer Palace. Beijing continued as the capital up to 1923, when the last of China's emperors was evicted from the Forbidden City. It was reanointed as the city of China's rulers in 1949, when Mao Zedong declared the establishment of the People's Republic of China. No city is more important in recent Chinese history, and more of that history is on display here than anywhere else.
The Forbidden City still stands at the center of Beijing, its golden tiled roofs and vast white courtyards glittering in the sun like an ancient giant's crown. The Summer Palace has survived, too, at the northwest edge of the city, as has the Temple of Heaven to the south, along with dozens of delicate monuments, old temples, and the courtyard houses in little alleyways (called hutongs) that were once the hallmark of ordinary city life.
Add to this Beijing's and China's number-one attraction: the Great Wall, Asia's answer to the pyramids and China's paramount monument to its romantic and turbulent past. As the popular saying has it, "You haven't been to China if you haven't stood on the Great Wall."