A beginner's guide to Beijing's 7 Unesco World Heritage sites

Whether it's history, architecture or landscapes, these sites have contributed to the collective interests of all humanity

Photo: Diego Jimenez/Unsplash.com
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, aka Unesco, selects landmarks or areas around the world to be included in their World Heritage List. Aimed at protecting sites 'important to the collective interests of humanity', the Heritage List is basically a worldwide bucket list of the best places to see with cultural and natural significance. With 1,092 properties included around the globe, Unesco's World Heritage List contains remarkable feats of construction (such as the Pyramid Fields and Angkor Wat), incredible natural phenomena (like the Great Barrier Reef and the Sundarbans), as well as historically vital sites from across the ages (including prehistoric rock carvings and archaeological sites to more contemporary sites such as Robben Island and Auschwitz-Birkenau).

Sites have to meet at least one of the ten selection criteria – with this set of criteria ranging from 'represents a masterpiece of human creative genius and cultural significance' to 'contains the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity'. Italy has the most World Heritage Sites of any country, with 54 natural and cultural sites, but it's followed rather closely by China, which has 53. And while you may have to make a few travel plans to see them all, we're lucky enough here in Beijing to have seven sites right at our door.

Read on for our beginner's guide to Beijing's Unesco World Heritage Sites and start checking off your list today.

Unesco selection criteria

(i) To represent a masterpiece of human creative genius.

(ii) To exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the. world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design.

(iii) To bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilisation which is living or which has disappeared.

(iv) To be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history.

(v) To be an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement, land-use, or sea-use which is representative of a culture (or cultures), or human interaction with the environment especially when it has become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible change.

(vi) To be directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance. (The Committee considers that this criterion should preferably be used in conjunction with other criteria).

(vii) To contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance.

(viii) To be outstanding examples representing major stages of earth's history, including the record of life, significant on-going geological processes in the development of landforms, or significant geomorphic or physiographic features.

(ix) To be outstanding examples representing significant on-going ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of terrestrial, freshwater, coastal and marine ecosystems and communities of plants and animals.

(x) To contain the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation.

The Great Wall of China (长城)

Date of inscription 1987

Criterion met (i), (ii), (iii), (iv) and (vi)

It’s China’s best-known monument, one of the seven wonders of the modern world and – biased as we may be – bloody great; there’s quite simply no other structure that matches the staggering scale and ambition of the Great Wall of China. The wall joined the World Heritage List in 1987 because it meets all five of the cultural criteria.

Why's it so important? Well, for more reasons that we'll get into here. But suffice to say, it's a rather incredible architectural undertaking, having been under construction for hundreds of years. The behemoth wall was seen as the ultimate defence against invaders from the north, stretching in a loose east-to-west line over 20,000 kilometres. A masterpiece of engineering, military fortification, cultural protection and landscape integration, the Great Wall is a symbol of architectural ambition and history around the world. 

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The Forbidden City (故宫)

Date of inscription 2004

Criterion met (i), (ii), (iii) and (iv)

The Forbidden City was declared a World Heritage Site in 1987 as part of the Imperial Palaces of the Ming and Qing Dynasties (the other palace, in Shenyang, was added to the list in 2004). It's the jewel in our city's crown, its geographical centre and historical heart, our poster boy and the cover girl to countless guidebooks. It meets four of Unesco's criteria, cementing its place not only on our 'unmissable' list, but apparently also on those that care about world heritage. 

The Forbidden City spans over 180 acres and contains more than 900 buildings. This impressive imperial architectural feat is largely why the Palace is considered a World Heritage Site. Construction on the extravagant complex began under the Yongle Emperor of Ming in 1406, following the capital's move from Nanjing to Beijing. It is said to have taken over 1 million workers 16 years to complete the job, and over the next 500 years, it would serve as the imperial abode for 24 rulers of the Ming and Qing dynasties and their entourage. Its 980 different rooms now house the Palace Museum – the world’s most visited museum – which welcomes nearly 15 million curious guests each year.

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By: Patrick Moore

The Summer Palace (颐和园)

Date of inscription 1998

Criterion met (i), (ii) and (iii)

Beijing has no shortage of traditional architecture, pavilions and gardens, however the Summer Palace located in the Haidian district masterfully combines all these features to give you an imperial garden where you can spend hours soaking it all in. It was first built in 1750, but destroyed during the Second Opium War in 1860, however, was later reconstructed and now is under protection and conservation to maintain the integrity of the property and landscapes.

The location of the Summer Palace is also what contributes to its charm – being surrounded by a landscape of beautiful mountains and lakes, which falls in line with Chinese philosophy of balancing man and nature. In 1988, this site makes the list because of its outstanding expression of Chinese landscape garden design whilst also taking into account the nature which surrounds it, giving us very zen vibes.

The Summer Palace used to be a place of political and administrative duties, however one of the more commonly shared stories is that the royal family would normally retreat to this haven during the summer to avoid Beijing's sweltering heat before returning to the Forbidden City during winter – giving the palace its apt name.

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By: Patrick Moore

The Temple of Heaven (天坛)

Date of inscription 1998

Criterion met (i), (ii) and (iii)

Easily one of the most recognisable structures in Beijing, the iconic three-tiered Temple of Heaven was originally constructed during the Ming Dynasty in 1420 as a sacrificial temple used by emperors during the Ming and Qing dynasties to appease the heavens, bring prosperity to the empire and ensure good crops for the coming year. Built according to strict religious principles, with perfect symmetry and covered in dark blue tiles representing heaven, every detail of the architecture is built in nines – the number that represented the emperor.

Sitting in a large park, the three main altars – the iconic Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, the Imperial Vault of Heaven and the Circular Mound Altar – draw in the crowds all year round. The Temple of Heaven, one of four sacrificial temples around Beijing, makes the Heritage List cut thanks to its 'symbolic layout and design [that] has had a profound influence on architecture and planning in the Far East over many centuries'. 

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Imperial Tombs of the Ming and Qing Dynasties

Date of inscription 2000, additional tombs added in 2003 and 2004

Criterion met (i), (ii), (iii), (iv) and (vi)

The Ming tombs, first inscribed onto the list in 2000, are essentially a collection of mausoleums which house the resting places of Ming emperors and their empresses. Home to the 13 dead Ming Dynasty emperors, this resting place stretches out, web-like, with an architectural style resembling the Forbidden City. The 13 tombs branch out from a 4.5 mile 'Spirit Way', forming a tree-shaped complex of mausoleums, each holding its own temples and halls.

The planning, location and design of the tombs are recognised as a tribute to feng shui and once again fulfil the Chinese philosophy of harmoniously combining man and nature. The tombs thus make the World Heritage List because of their testament to ancient imperial funerary architecture. 

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Changchi Rd (Chaoyang, Chaoyang)

The Grand Canal (京杭大运河)

Date of inscription 2014

Criterion met (i), (iii), (iv) and (vi)

One of the more recent additions to the list, Tongzhou's Grand Canal – also known as the Jing-Hang Grand Canal – is the longest and oldest canal in the world. Stretching all the way from Beijing to Hangzhou, this man-made beast of hydraulic engineering was once the backbone of the Chinese empire's inland communication system, allowing for the transportation of food and raw materials.

By the thirteenth century, the waterways stretched over 2,000 kilometres, connecting five major basins as well as the Yangzte and Yellow Rivers. Still in use today, the canal has played a pivotal role over the centuries in ensuring the country's economic success and prosperity.

The sections of the canal that are actually in Beijing have a scenic bike track and are definitely worth a visit if you're up for a little exercise cycling.

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Tongzhou Grand Canal (Tongzhou)

Peking Man in Zhoukoudian (北京猿人)

Date of inscription 1987

Criterion met (iii) and (iv)

Located just 42 kilometres south-west of Beijing, the Peking Man site in Zhoukoudian is where the remains of our Homo erectus ancestors were uncovered and is one of the most important palaeontological sites in the world. Zhoukoudian is a system of caves which have yielded significant archaeological finds over the years, comfortably earning the site a place on the World Heritage List due to its illustration of the process of human evolution and contributions to the fields of world history, archaeology and science.

While all of the human remains in the museum are replicas (the originals vanished in 1941), the primitive tools and animal skeletons from the mid-to-late Pleistocene era are genuine with scientific work continuing at the site to this day to see what other remains can be uncovered. Of the fossils already discovered, some of the most important are Homo erectus perkinensis, who lived during the Middle Pleistocene period 700,000 to 200,000 years ago, and Homo sapiens, dating back 100,000 to 200,000 years. Visitors can explore the 15 excavation sites, and the Peking Man cave is the deepest, darkest and most bone-chilling of them all: it's the exact site where man’s ancient ancestor lived some 500,000 to 700,000 years ago.

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1 Zhoukoudian Dajie (Fangshan)

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