Beijing Sunset
Beijing Sunset © Scott Meltzer

The capital of China, Beijing is a bustling hive of activity with countless glittering skyscrapers, sprawling suburbs and buzzing markets. Cranes pepper a skyline seemingly in a continuous state of construction and modernisation, accommodating some 20 million residents who call this megacity home.

Beijing boasts an abundance of attractions of cultural and historical interest. Some of the most popular include the Great Wall of China, the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, the Summer Palace and the remains of Peking Man at Zhoukoudian, all of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Chinese history and culture seem to fascinate Western visitors, and Beijing is a great place to dive in. The city is dotted with palaces, temples, gardens and tombs, many epitomising classical Chinese architecture, and it also has roughly 120 museums and more than 100 public gardens.

The first port of call for most visitors is the Forbidden City, which lies at the heart of Beijing with the rest of the city sprawling out from it in a grid pattern. For five centuries, this massive palace complex, with 9,999 rooms, functioned as the administrative centre of the country and played host to a succession of emperors who lived in luxurious isolation, surrounded by courtiers and retainers. The Palace overlooks the infamous Tiananmen Square, a historical site of considerable political drama and dissent, but also a vibrant social and cultural centre point.

In preparing to host the 2008 Olympic Games, Beijing underwent many major renovations. Public transport was improved, environmental issues were addressed and a general clean up of the city was ordered. The games highlighted Beijing's economic rise and emergence as a world power, and the city has just gone from strength to strength since then.

Travellers should go prepared for less than stellar air quality in this booming city though, but luckily breathlessness is just as likely to stem from excitement and awe. A shrine to both modernity and ancient history, Beijing is a traveller's delight.