Fortunately for the harried tourist, when the Mongol founders laid down the Beijing (then Khanbalik) city grid, it was on a north-south axis, making navigation straightforward and grouping the key landmarks in a central location. The main downside, for which Kublai Khan cannot be blamed, is that there are few dining options en route, so we recommend that you eat a hearty breakfast at your hotel.
Start: Tian Tan Dongmen (Temples of Heaven East Gate ) metro.
1. Temple of Heaven (Tian Tan Gongyuan)
Just after dawn you'll find regular park goers practicing taijiquan, kung fu, group dancing, or giant calligraphy on this huge park's greenery and paved walkways. As you walk through the grounds, in addition to the music providing background tunes for the dancers, you'll probably hear birds and crickets chirping happily through their cages as their owners (mostly retired elderly men) take them out for walks. Don't miss Qinian Dian (Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests). Its history dates back to 1420, but the current structure is a replica built in 1889 when the original burned to the ground. The circular wooden hall, with its triple-layered cylindrical blue-tiled roof, is perhaps the most recognizable emblem of Chinese imperial architecture outside of the Forbidden City. The main hall is 38m (125 ft.) high and 30m (98 ft.) in diameter and -- here's the kicker -- it was constructed without a single nail.
Ride the metro to:
2. Tian'an Men Square (Tian'an Men Guangchang)
Set on the site of the former Imperial Way, the broad square is also a recent creation, dating from the 1950s when Mao, encouraged by his Soviet advisors, ordered the clearing away of the old government ministries. There were plans to "press down" the "feudal" Forbidden City by surrounding it with high-rise buildings and smokestacks, but the fledgling republic lacked the resources to carry out the plan.
To your left looms the Great Hall of the People, to your right is the National Museum -- neither worth a visit if you're pressed for time. Impressive in its vastness, there's little to do in the Square unless you plan to cut short your tour by unfurling a protest banner.
Walk to the southern end of the Square to:
3. Chairman Mao's Mausoleum (Mao Zhuxi Jinian Guan)
Built on the site of Da Qing Men (Great Qing Gate), this hastily constructed building is unimpressive in itself, but what makes this site compelling is the genuine reverence of local visitors for The Great Helmsman. It makes for a memorable 15 minutes of people-watching. Note: The Mausoleum is closed Sundays.
Walk north, taking the underpass to:
4. Tian'an Men (Gate of Heavenly Peace)
Climb to the dais above Mao's portrait for a view south along the former Imperial Way. Beyond Qian Men (Front Gate) you may spy the newly reconstructed Yongding Men. It's not in the same spot as the original, but it is one of the first steps in a plan to revamp the north-south axis. A boulevard connecting to Olympic Park in the north of town is underway, with input from Albert Speer, Jr., who also happens to be the son of Hitler's personal architect.
A less traditional structure is apparent to your right: The National Center for Performing Arts resembles a UFO that made an emergency landing in a pond. Continue north, through the gate to:
5. Forbidden City (Gu Gong)
The majority of visitors to Beijing's main attraction rent their audio tour and rush through the central route without ducking into the eastern and western axes. This is a mistake. The most charming and intriguing parts of the Forbidden City are located away from the main tourist route. Allow at least 3 hours, and do not miss newly opened sights, particularly the Wuying Dian (west side) and Juanqin Zhai (northeast side).
Take a Break -- After battling the crowds at all the sites, retreat to Ch'ien Men 23 (tel. 010/6522-4848), a set of restaurants located in historic buildings that once housed the American embassy. You can take your pick from Chinese, French, or Spanish cuisine at Zen 1903, Maison Boulud, or Agua (see chapter 6 for more details). From the Forbidden City, walk south along the eastern edge of Tian'an Men Square. When you reach the south end of the square, turn left, cross the street, and Ch'ien Men 23 will be on your left.
If you wish to also get an aerial view of the Forbidden City, proceed to the rooftop bar of The Emperor hotel. From the eastern gate (Donghua Men) of the Forbidden City, turn left on Beichizhi Dajie, then right on Qihelou Jie. The low-rise hotel will be on your left.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.