You don't need a guide book to know four of this city's five "Must Sees" of travel. Just get the boxed set of travel coffee mugs sold at most Starbucks in Beijing. They're all there, the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, the Summer Palace and the Great Wall. The only major tourist site that didn't make the cut was Tiananmen, perhaps for political reasons.
A tour of the sites during the Olympics is its own kind of world travel, with sightseers, athletes and coaches from every corner of the globe jostling with Chinese families to get the perfect photo. They all say one thing: China is big and its tourist sites are monumental. Here's a quick rundown:
TiananmenThe original Gate of Heavenly Peace, or Tian An, was built in the 15th century. Mao Zedong declared the formation of the People's Republic of China at this site in 1949, though it wasn't until 1958 that he enlarged it to its current almost 100 acres size, making it the world's largest city square. In the West, the square is most famous for the government crackdown on democracy protesters in 1989. To tourists, it's often the first stop on a Beijing city tour, with milling crowds trudging across the vast square under a burning sun.
"We don't have anything this big in Spain," says Aurelio Garcia Abellan of La Mancha, Spain.
Forbidden CityNext to Tiananmen is the Forbidden City, the heart of the ancient capital. The enormous complex of palaces, apartments, ceremonial grounds and pavilions covers 120 acres. Many of the dazzling painted patterns on the buildings have been redone for the Olympics, and the buildings, once somewhat run-down, now look as sparkling as the day they were built.
Siamone Martin, 31, of Providence, called it "gorgeous" and said it would take "the National Mall and the Smithsonian all rolled in to one to get something of this caliber."
Temple of HeavenThis temple complex south of Tiananmen is one of the largest in China. It's where the emperor came on the winter solstice to offer sacrifices to the heavens. While the main temple is astounding, to visitors and Beijing residents alike the vast, green lawns and gardens of the temple grounds are hugely popular as a place of respite. The long, covered walkways and wide pathways are host to knots of people doing martial arts, playing musical instruments, doing Western jitterbugs, choral singing and the occasional card game.
Armin Hilpold of Bolzano, Italy, bought a Chinese version of a hacky sack, which consisted of a metal plate with a rubber cover about the size of a silver dollar, and a two-inch cluster of feathers. Chinese grandmothers stood in a circle nearby kicking it neatly around the group with effortless behind-the-back taps.
"We just saw it and thought it would be a nice gift," Hilpold said, but he was having trouble keeping it in the air with the ease the Chinese showed.
Summer PalaceThis enormous collection of lakes, parkland, temples and pavilions to the northwest of Tiananmen began in the 12th century as a cool escape from the heat of Beijing's broiling summers for the Imperial family. The entrance looks a lot like the Forbidden City, but a quick walk through the first series of halls brings visitors to a large lake filled with families happily churning paddle boats.
The theme of the sheer size of China's tourists attractions continued. "Everything here that's beautiful is either really long or really high," says Nico Ursem, a builder in Amsterdam. "You must have strong legs to be a tourist here."