From the Great Wall to the birthplace of Mao Zedong, the Historic Sites in China paint a fascinating picture of this country’s incredible past.
Whether you’re interested in its ancient past, its magnificent dynasties or its more modern story, the Historic Sites in China offer a tangible link to times gone by and a way to immerse oneself in the history. Among the very best of these cultural attractions are the world famous Terracotta Army and of course the Great Wall of China. However, there are hundreds of other fascinating places to explore, from Huanghuacheng to the Forbidden City and the Ming Tombs.
We’ve put together an experts guide to Chinese cultural landmarks and monuments with our top ten places to visit as well as a full list of Historic Sites in China, which shouldn’t be ignored if you have the time.
What are the best Historic Sites in China?
The Great Wall of China is an iconic structure and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Originally made up of several different defensive walls, it was during the reign of the first Emperor Qin Shi Huang in 221 BC that the Great Wall of China was amalgamated into the single structure we know today.
At its peak, the Great Wall of China stretched for approximately 5,500 miles from Shanhaiguan in east China to Lop Nur in the west.
Today, the Great Wall is the country’s most famous tourist attraction and one can find sections of the wall in various places. The most popular, and therefore most touristy, of these are in Bādálǐng and the neighbouring Juyongguan, around 70km from Beijing. This part of the wall was built during the Ming Dynasty and, whilst much of it has been has been overhauled by modern restoration, it remains the most frequently visited section of the Great Wall.
The Terracotta Army, part of the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor, is one of the world’s most famous, intriguing and visually arresting ancient sites, dating back to the third century BC.
A chance find by a group of peasants in Xian in 1974, the Terracotta Army is a collection of around 7,000 life sized clay sculptures of soldiers, infantry, carts and horses in battle formation, each created with its own individual features.
The Terracotta Army formed part of the elaborate mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang, built from 221 BC to his death in 210 BC. Today, the Terracotta Army is a UNESCO World Heritage site and has become a popular museum spanning an area of 190,000 square meters. Overall, a visit to the Terracotta Army Museum should take around 3 hours.
The Forbidden City, also known as the Imperial Palace or the Palace Museum, is a fifteenth century palace complex in Beijing.
Sprawled over a staggering 720,000 square meters and very well-preserved, The Forbidden City is one of the most popular tourist destinations in China and is on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites.
Home of the Emperors
The Forbidden City was originally constructed under the remit of the third emperor of the Ming dynasty, the Yongle Emperor, between 1406 and 1420, although it was the Ming Emperor Zhudi who was the first to live there. It continued to serve as the imperial residence for almost five centuries, including during the Qing Dynasty era.
In all, the Forbidden City had housed 24 emperors, the final one being the last Chinese emperor, Emperor Puyi, who was evicted in 1924.
The name “Forbidden City” derives from the fact that access to it was extremely restricted despite its central location, demonstrated by its 10 metre high walls and a 52 metre wide moat. Furthermore, with 9,900 rooms and halls and almost a thousand surviving buildings it is very much a city within a city.
Inside the Forbidden City
The Forbidden City is characterised by its clear street plans lined with buildings made up of vermillion walls rising up to meet yellow roofs.
Inside the Forbidden City Museum, visitors can see the vast collection of artwork together with religious and imperial artefacts dating back as far as the seventh century. Tours range from two hour tours to a full day and audio guides are available for a fee. You can see the tour routes through a very fun little application on the Palace Museum’s official site.
This site also features as one of our Top Ten Tourist Attractions in China.
The Ming Tombs were established by the third Ming emperor, Yongle, in the fifteenth century and house the mausoleums of 13 emperors of the Ming Dynasty.
Three of the Ming Tombs are open to the public. Emperor Yongle’s tomb, known as Chang Ling, is perhaps the most remarkable of the three, with its ornate interiors and impressive architecture.
However, it is the Ding Ling tomb which is the only one to have been excavated and the only Ming Tomb in which visitors can enter the underground vault.
The Ding Ling tomb is the final resting place of emperor Wanli, the longest serving Ming emperor, often blamed for the fall of the dynasty. Unfortunately, most of the artefacts and original pieces in the Ding Ling tomb have been destroyed, but visiting the tomb is an interesting experience in itself.
The Museum of the First National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party is the site where Mao Ze Dong and a further eleven members of various communist groups from around China met for the first time as the National Communist Party.
The meeting took place on 23 July 1921 and marked the birth of the party. It was soon discovered by the police, requiring the participants to flee from the site.
Today, the Museum of the First National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party allows visitors to see the meeting place, with a reconstruction of the event.
The Mùtiányù section of the Great Wall of China dates back to the Qin Dynasty, although it was renovated during the Ming era.
The added distance to Mùtiányù from Beijing, as opposed to Bādálǐng, makes it a less touristy and less crowded experience. There’s a cable car taking visitors onto the wall or you can take the stairs. For more information on the Great Wall of China, see the main Bādálǐng entry.
The Temple of Heaven in Tiantan Park in Beijing was originally built by Ming Dynasty Emperor Yongle in 1420 as a place of worship for Chinese emperors. However, it was only during the reign of the Jiajing Emperor that the site was named The Temple of Heaven as well as being extended and renovated.
Constructed in accordance with Chinese religious principles, The Temple of Heaven is characterised by square buildings with round roofs, the square aspects representing the earth and the circular ones representing heaven. Amongst these buildings are The Imperial Vault of Heaven, The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, where emperors would perform sacrifices to ensure a good harvest year, and The Circular Mound Altar, which was enlarged in 1749 by Emperor Quanlong.
The Temple of Heaven represents is the oldest holy temple in Beijing and the only surviving Ming Tang building as well as being a truly authentic Ming and Qing architectural structure. Make sure to go to the museum in the northern building. Audio guides are available for a rental fee.
The Huánghuā section of the Great Wall of China is far less visited than its counterparts in Mùtiányù and Bādálǐng. This is due to a number of factors, including the fact that it is further from Beijing and that it is not promoted as part of the traditional tourist trail.
The Huánghuā section was built under the remit of Lord Cai during the Ming Dynasty. He went to extraordinary lengths to build each bit of this section, including investing an entire day’s labour by each worker on every inch of the wall. Unfortunately for Cai, rather than seeing this as an act of diligence, the Ministry of War of the time decried it as an extravagance and he was duly beheaded.
Note that this is not an officially open part of the Great Wall and that the Chinese government have on ocassion prevented people from going there and even issue fines for visiting it. For more historical information about the Great Wall, see the Bādálǐng entry.
Beihai Park is an imperial garden and palace in Beijing, China established during the Liao Dynasty in the first century AD. Since then, Beihai Park has undergone significant changes and renovations, with each imperial dynasty making its mark on the gardens. In fact, Beihai Park has served as a haven for every Chinese royal family since its founding, including the Jin, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties through to 1911.
Spanning more than 69 hectares, Beihai Park contains numerous historical structures and was considered at one time to be the “nucleus” of Beijing. The most famous aspects of Beihai Park are Qionghua Island with its iconic white 17th century dagoba, Tuancheng Island, and the north bank containing the Five-Dragon Pavilions.
Behai Park is rich with references to Chinese mythology, particularly as relates to the fairyland mountains of Penlai, Yingzhou and Fangzhang on which its structure is based. Many Chinese emperors have built their palaces in accordance with these fairytales as they are supposed to guarantee immortality.
Visitors to Beihai Park can enjoy not only its expansive grounds, but its many Buddhist temples, exhibitions, royal residences and halls.
Jingshan Park in Beijing, China started life as an imperial garden in Ming Dynasty era during the reign of Emperor Yongle. Jingshan Park has often been called “Coal Hill” due to the fact that it is an artificial mound made up of soil extracted during construction of the Forbidden Palace moat.
The intention in building the hill in Jingshan Park, a feat undertaken with a combination of manual labour and animals alone, was to protect Beijing from evil spirits.
Visitors to Jingshan Park can see numerous historic structures including the holy Hope Tower or “xiwanglou”, the coffins of the members of the Qing Dynasty at the Visiting Virtue Hall or “Guandedian” and the site where the final emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Chongzhen, hung himself from a Chinese scholar tree (although the tree is no longer there).