Beijing’s famous buildings sit at polar opposites of the time and design spectrum. From ancient temples to modern marvels, a stroll through this city is an architect’s dream. The Temple of Heaven is Beijing’s historic showstopper, with the classic Chinese gables that symbolises the country’s ancient architecture. Though, since the Olympics, the Bird’s Nest and Water Cube have had the all-important airtime to become Beijing’s new iconic beauties.
Temple of Heaven
While the Ming Dynasty was building the Forbidden City, they also found the time and resources to construct the larger Temple of Heaven. A series of buildings in a 660 acre complex, the main temple was used by the ruling emperor to pray for good harvests. As well as offering sacrificial items to the gods, the temple was the site for the Heaven Worship Ceremony. Symbolic and stunning, this early example of Chinese architecture represents heaven and earth using circles and squares. While 12 pillars in the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest link the seasons, solar and lunar systems. The reason for the symbolism? During the Ming Dynasty, the ruling emperor was seen as the son of heaven, placing a huge importance on their connection with the skies above.
Though the Temple of Heaven in Beijing covers a huge area, it’s the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests that’s the most recognisable building in the parkland. Though, the circular wooden gables don’t quite date back as far as the park itself. After a fire in 1889, the hall had to be rebuilt.
Water Cube / Ice Cube
Anyone who was glued to the Olympics in 2008 or 2022 will be familiar with the Water Cube. Beijing’s bubble-walled building was transformed from the National Aquatics Centre into the ice covered curling rink for the Winter Olympics. But the architectural feats go beyond draining the pool and popping up some scaffolding. The building’s exterior uses lightweight ETFE panels to let in daylight and trap solar energy. Which all feels a little more eco-friendly when you see Beijing’s famous buildings glowing at night. You’ll find the cube in the Olympic Park, just next door to the Bird’s Nest…
Towering over the Water Cube, Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stole the show at both Olympic games. And rightly so. As the world’s largest steel structure, this metal mountain is a $400m+ homage to Chinese architecture, symbolism and stadium capacity. Capable of seating 91,000 sports fans, Beijing’s National Stadium can also withstand earthquakes (up to level 8 on the seismic scale). Impressive for an interwoven stack of 22 miles of steel. Designed to also absorb sound, events inside the stadium are unlikely to trouble surrounding residents – while delivering on incredible acoustics for the matches, concerts and festivals in the grounds.
In addition to the complex calculations needed to create a building of this size, planners also parked the venue on the city’s famous North-South axis, aligned yin and yang with the neighbouring cube and gave the city a record setting structure that because the first venue to host ceremonies for both the Winter and Summer Olympic Games.
The Forbidden City
Beijing’s most famous buildings were once home to Chinese emperors. As a palace for rulers during the Ming and Qing dynasties, this 180 acre Forbidden City clocks up some world records and fascinating facades for architecture lovers. As the world’s largest palace – by overall area, it’s one of the things to do in Beijing that you’ll need to allow at least a day for. Exploring the seventeen palaces, walls and gardens comes with the chance to take a deep dive into Chinese symbolism. And, when you’ve worked your way through UNESCO’s largest and well-preserved collection of historic structures, the nearby Tiananmen Gate and royal gardens are further chances to revel in Beijing’s ancient architecture.
Shilin Gorge’s UFO
The glass observation deck that teeters out over Shilin Gorge offers uninterrupted views of the drop below. A thrill for architecture lovers, pure terror for vertigo sufferers and a quirky instagram shot for casual onlookers, the deck isn’t the only structure that gathers a crowd here. The waterfalls below pool into coloured ponds, blurring the boundaries between nature and man-made construction. Taking the cable car to the top to take the leg work out of a lengthy hike – but it should come with a spoiler alert. The view over the gorge, trees and waterfalls is simply stunning.
China Central Television Headquarters
The future-forward, leaning towers of CCTV (China Central Television Headquarters) might look like an assertive, striding robot to some. To others? They resemble a massive pair of pants. This building is famously known as ‘big pants’ in Beijing. Which is probably a little upsetting for the team that spent $900m designing and building the 51 storey behemoth of the business district. Inside the towers, China’s state-owned tv company is busy broadcasting news, Chinese Opera and more across the 50 channels controlled by the Chinese Communist Party.
The Chapel of Sound
There’s a new contender vying for a place among Beijing’s famous buildings. But you’ll need to take a road trip to find it. Tucked away in the mountains, The Chapel of Sound might be a two hour drive from the centre of Beijing, but the open-air concert hall is worth your time. Surrounded by a wooded valley, this boulder of a building was built by China’s OPEN architectural design company. Layers of concrete stack up to form a semi-open amphitheatre that gives the audience a little protection from the elements. Different from the capital’s sleek and chic or ancient buildings, the chapel was intended to work in harmony with nature to deliver a very different entertainment venue experience.
If you’re a regular browser of Instagram’s architectural content, you might recognise the sweeping curves of Beijing’s entertainment and business complex. Galaxy SOHO’s streamlined and futuristic angles attract photographers looking to find a lens big enough to capture all 332,000 square metres of the centre’s allure. Beijing’s hutongs and historic structures inspired the designers to include courtyards within the four connected buildings. While on the exterior, layers of glass and aluminium created a layered look drawn from China’s iconic rice fields.
The Great Wall
You can’t compile a list of Beijing’s famous buildings and architecture, without including the Great Wall. Over 13,000 miles of wall were created to defend China, but the utility of the wall pales in comparison to the size, scale and complexity of the build. Some parts are held together with sticky rice – a Beijing fact that often flies under the radar. And while the crenellations can’t be seen from space, the iconic wall is an architectural marvel. One of the seven wonders of the world, the wall is gradually disappearing. Bricks have been taken to build everything from reservoirs to houses and farms. Tourists are also slowly chipping away at the wall, popping home with a slightly heavier suitcase than when they arrived.
In Beijing, the best-preserved section of the wall is known as the Badaling section. Though, as you’d expect, it draws a crowd. The Mutianyu section is often quieter, still in great shape for a wall of its age and has several rare watchtowers.