Any attempt to truly go in-depth in describing Beijing's cultural cache would be a fruitless injustice; imagine trying to spread a single can of paint across the whole interior of your house. At best, it will be patchy. At worst, you'll miss a few walls and your friends will think you're color-blind and at least a bit eccentric. We suggest seeing this information on Beijing's culture instead as a selection of our favorite color samples; you decide which piques your interest and our activity listings can provide you with more.
As the capital city of the most populous country on Earth and home to a significant populace in itself (oh, you know, about 20 mil), even the most clueless traveler may suspect that there will be a ton to see and do while in Beijing. They would be absolutely correct.
The good news about navigating the city is that most of what you will want to explore will be within the parallelogram that is 2nd Ring Road, although, even then, large distances exist between some attractions that cannot be covered on foot. There are four districts known in particular for their cultural institutions and landmarks; Xuanwu is located near city center, but does not have nearly the cultural capital of the other four districts that we've included.
Dongcheng is the northeast district at the center of Beijing. Its two greatest landmarks are unquestionably the Forbidden City, a well-preserved palace complex that represents the height of Ming and Qing power and wealth, and Tiananmen Square, the ludicrously large public square populated by hidden cameras and cruise ship convention-level horde of tourists. It's the biggest square in the world and is home to the Chinese National Museum, the Monument to the People's Heroes, Chairman Mao Memorial Hall, and much more. Other attractions in Dongcheng include the ancient Drum and Bell Towers on Di'anmen Street, Yonghegong (a temple known for its Tantric practitioners), and the lovely wooden temple known as Zhihua Temple.
At the southeastern corner of central Beijing is the Chongwen District. It's main attraction is the remarkable Temple of Heaven, which is a most compelling collection of Taoist structures located within the largest section of greenery in the city. Other exciting things to do include a stroll on Qianmen Street and a visit to the only remaining section of the Ming Dynasty City Wall.
The other district we'll cover in the center of Beijing is Xicheng. The most popular space here is Beihai Park, which is home to the White Pagoda and other impressive Chinese structures, which are located on an island at the center of Beihai Lake. There are a ton of museums in this area, including the new Capital Museum (with an impressive historical collection), as well as architectural wonders of both the past and present. The White Cloud Temple is gorgeous (Baiyunguan Street), while the National Center for the Performing Arts is an amazing visual achievement, even if you aren't in the mood for the opera or symphony.
The most important district outside of the city center is the massive Chaoyang just to the east. This is where the Central Business District and the many venues that hosted the Olympics in 2008 are located. There are two buildings of note: The National Stadium, which is the world's largest steel structure, and Beijing's tallest building, the World Trade Center Tower III. Also of interest, especially to lovers of contemporary art, is the 798 Art District, which is home to numerous galleries and outdoor displays often representative of Chinese counterculture.
With ten other districts that are considered as part of metropolitan Beijing, there is a lot more to explore beyond what we've discussed today. If you've got questions, peruse our culture listings or speak to our community. There is so much to see and do in Beijing, so whether you do it on your own or check our tour operators, the point is that you do it!