The capital of China is quickly becoming one of the priciest cities in the world, driven by several decades of breakneck economic growth. But some of Beijing's most interesting areas are still free to visit, and provide a bridge between the city's rich cultural and political history and its modern incarnation as a dusty metropolis of gargantuan government buildings and glass-and-steel skyscrapers.
1. Tiananmen Square Tiananmen Square, the world's largest public square, is surrounded by buildings of political and cultural significance and is visited by thousands of tourists daily. The Great Hall of the People to the west is where the country holds legislative meetings and hosts visits by foreign leaders. The National Museum is to the east, while to the north is the Tiananmen Gate with a gigantic portrait of Mao Zedong, which separates the square from the Forbidden City. A mausoleum in the centre of the square displays Mao's body.
2. Ritan Park
Some of the bigger parks in Beijing charge admission, but not Ritan Park, the historic garden where emperors once made offerings to the sun in an ancient circular wall-enclosed altar. Today, the park offers a window on daily Beijing life, starting at dawn with residents practising tai chi and other exercises like walking backward or rubbing one's back against a tree.
3. 798 art district
Not everything in Beijing has been ripped down and replaced by nondescript buildings. The city's art district, often compared to New York City's Greenwich Village, is a thriving community of about 400 galleries, shops and restaurants on the eastern edge of Beijing, housed in a complex of former electronics factories built with the help of East Germany in the 1950s.
4. Murder mystery tour
Midnight in Peking is journalist Paul French's meticulously researched book about a real-life 1937 murder mystery involving a motley cast of international expats and colourful Chinese. A free downloadable map and audio walking tour of key sites from the book provide an excellent flavour of old Beijing. For details, visit the website at midnightinpeking.com.
5. Hutong stroll
To see a side of Beijing other than shopping malls or imposing, Soviet-style government buildings, take an afternoon to explore the city's ancient narrow alleyways, known as hutongs. Here you'll get a glimpse of ordinary city life, with residents sitting on stools outside their homes chatting with neighbours or huddled around a chess game.
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