Beijing (translated as the Northern Capital) stands tall as the control tower over China’s emergence as the 21st century super power.  The choice residence for several dynasties, Beijing has served as the political and cultural centre of China since the days of Kublai Khan in 1279.  She has played a weighty role in the history of the ‘Middle Kingdom’ and her influence looks set to continue into the future.

One of the 4 great ancient capitals of China, Beijing is an integral part of the nation’s history.  She has seen the rising and falling of many dynasties and has under gone long periods of foreign occupation and influence.  Most recently, she witnessed the descent of Communism.  Since 1949, Beijing has been the  seat  of  the   communist political power in China.   Tiananmen Square, where birth of the People’s Republic of China was announced, has to be one of the most symbolic sites of the nation.   Take some moments to linger in the almost intimidatingly vast spaces of the Square and be brought back to the city’s recent history with an acute awareness of the centralised power.

First time travellers are often surprised by Beijing's unabashed modernity.  Economic reforms in the last few decades came to a climax at the 2008 Beijing Olympics as the arrival of the New China was trumpeted.  No expense was spared to transform this ancient capital into a true metropolis.  Exorbitant sums were spent on the infrastructure and facilities as well as a face-lift programme to get the Northern Capital ready for her coming out party. Home to more than 100 flyovers, eight-lane motorways, countless high-rise and more to come, Beijing today is a mass of modern buildings and colossal expressways.  There’re still ample photo opportunities of bicycle swarms, but it is the armies of taxis, cars and buses that bring traffic to a crawl.

Yet, despite the blitz of modernisation and change,   strong remnant of past grandeur lives on.  Beijing is the most visited city in the country for that very reason: the staggering array of sights and history that is found in this modern metropolis. There are countless major buildings and structures in Beijing with national historical significance, amongst them are lavish palaces, exquisite temples, and huge stonewalls and gates, all awaiting exploration. Of course, no visit to this Northern Capital is complete without a tour of the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven and the Summer Palace – bedazzling structures each with ancient stories to tell.  The must-see Great Wall and the Ming Tombs lie outside of the capital but it is a day trip many wouldn’t miss.  Besides, it’s also an excellent escape from the urban chaos!

For a more intimate glimpse into old Beijing, take a walk through the centuries old siheyuan (courtyard houses) and hutong (alleys) and soak in the communal lifestyle that is fast disappearing. Be sure to check out the smaller, quirkier sights such as the little antique markets, and the parks where you'll likely catch Beijingers practising taijiquan (tai chi) and, if you listen closely, hear the songbirds piping.  Unlike their counterparts in Hong Kong and Shanghai, local Beijingers find time to step away from the rat race and sit and watch the world go by. The buzz and makeover from the Games have given Beijing a go-getting spirit, but you’ll find that the people have kept their easygoing nature and love for all-day conversations in teahouses (which incidentally have been making a come back together with Imperial cuisine).   Give Starbucks a miss for a day and drop in at the teahouses for your day’s brew of the tea culture that has survived all the invasions amidst the background ‘music’ of Mandarin chater.  History persists the whole year round but Beijing is still best in autumn, when it's dry and mild.

Writer:  Lindsay Seet