A beginner's guide to the Temple of Heaven

Temple of Heaven is known for its magnificent altars and plush grounds

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Originally constructed during the Ming Dynasty in 1420, the Temple of Heaven (Tiantan, 天坛) was a sacrificial temple used by emperors during Ming and Qing dynasties to appease the heavens, bring prosperity to the empire and ensure good crops for the coming year. 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. But there’s more to the Temple of Heaven than the magnificent altars, there's a huge park to explore!


The tour


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Start at the east gate of the park. Although the ceremonial procession traditionally started its journey through the Temple of Heaven at the south gate, the east gate’s proximity to Tiantan Dongmen subway stop makes it a convenient starting point for a modern-day pilgrimage.


Once you’ve battled your way through the ticket barriers (no elbowing, please), continue straight, heading west, for roughly 100m, past the dancing pensioners, until you reach the 1. Long Corridor. Formerly used on the eve of the sacrificial ceremony to transport all offerings – including silk, fruit and grains – to the altars, the 350m brightly coloured corridor is now a popular hang-out for Beijing’s octogenarians. At this great people-watching spot you’ll find crowds of Beijingers taking shelter in the awnings, engrossed in games of cards and Chinese chess (xiangqi, 象棋) and holding impromptu singing sessions.


Follow the Long Corridor and the masses round to the Temple of Heaven’s real crowd pleaser, the 2. Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. As the name suggests, this is where emperors would come to give thanks and, well, pray for good harvests.


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Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. Photo: Wikimedia Commons


This Beijing beauty is a national treasure and a must-see relic in its own right – massive tick for the China bucket list. Standing 38m tall, stone marble steps lead up to the three-tiered wooden masterpiece, which is painted in hues of blue, yellow and green to represent heaven and Earth.


Sadly, the original structure was reduced to cinders in 1889 after being struck by lightning, but it was soon rebuilt in the same Ming Dynasty style. Take a few minutes to wander around its exterior – looking outwards on a sunny day you’ll get a great view of the park beyond and mountains in the distance.


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The inside of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. Photo: Saad Akhtar / Wikimedia Commons


Once you’ve caught that perfect Instagram shot, slip away from the hoards heading south and exit by the West Annex Hall for a very worthwhile detour through the park grounds. Follow the path west for roughly 400m, exploring the lush 3. Chinese Rose Garden (which usually blossoms in May with thousands of flowers) and 4. 100 Flower Garden on your left. Your next stop is the 5. Pavilion of Longevity. This bad boy was built in Zhongnanhai – the home of the Communist Party since the early days of the People’s Republic – during the 1700s and relocated to the Temple of Heaven in 1975. Take some time to contemplate the intricate paintings that cover it while basking in the tranquillity of the area.


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Pavilion of Longevity. Photo: Wikimedia Commons


Enlightened? Awesome. Return to the fold, making your way south for around 400m to the 6. Fasting Palace. The story goes that emperors would stay here before rituals, refraining from all things fun – food, sex, music and politics – as a sign of piety. Surrounded by a double wall and a (now dry) double moat, security is tight, but a flash of your passport or ID card will get you the golden ticket for a glimpse inside the palace walls. Have a meander around the beautifully landscaped gardens, complete with giant bronze bell – sounded during the ceremony to signal the emperor’s departure and return to the Fasting Palace.


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Fasting Palace. Photo: Vmenkov / Wikimedia Commons


Bring your detour to an end, making your way southeast for 650m towards the next big attractions. You’ll notice numerous tour groups battling it out for a look at the 7. Nine Dragon tree. This golden oldie has been standing strong for over 500 years and, some say, brings luck thanks to its gnarled shape, resembling nine dragons (hence the name) twisting their way up into the sky. Nine is an auspicious number in Chinese culture and dragons are just the bomb, of course.


You’ll see references to nine all around the Temple of Heaven, with much of the architecture built in patterns of nine. Nine symbolises Heaven itself and on Earth is representative of the highest being, aka the Emperor.


Once you’ve queued to touch the tree for luck with thousands others, disinfect those hands and make for the 8. Circular Mound Altar, where sacrifices were made. While less impressive-looking than the halls, palaces and pavilions, the altar is an impressive feat of engineering, designed to make sounds travel in a certain way. Stand on the Heaven’s Heart Stone in the centre, and any noise you make will be amplified. Nifty, eh? For that reason, it’s from here the emperor would call high into the Heavens so he could be heard.


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Gates of the Circular Mound Altar. Photo: Diego Delso / Wikimedia Commons


While you resist the urge to shout rude words at the top of your voice, snap a north-facing selfie overlooking the 9. Imperial Vault of Heaven, our next point of interest. The Imperial Vault of Heaven looks similar to its northern counterpart, The Hall of Prayer, but on a smaller scale. Traditionally used to store the gods’ tablets, the real point of interest is now the Echo Wall that encircles it. Legend has it that if you stand by one side of the wall and whisper, your friend will hear it on the other – of course, to test the theory now you need to battle against the crowds, so get in early.


Return north across the 10. Danbi Bridge. The ‘main road’ through the Temple of Heaven and Beijing’s first overpass, the 360m bridge connects the north and south altars.


When you reach the end of your tour at The Hall of Prayer, take the opportunity for one last look before making your back to the Long Corridor. Chances are by now there’ll be a whole new crowd of people to watch.


The map


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Essential info


When to go To avoid major queues, visit the park during off-peak season (November 1 to March 31). Failing that, early in the morning is your best bet.

Don’t forget your passport or ID card Although you can get a ticket for three main altars without your passport, you’ll need a form of ID to get a free ticket into smaller attractions like the Fasting Palace. The ticket office for side attractions closes from midday-1pm.

Pack a picnic Walking is hungry work. If you’re planning on making a day of it, you’re going to get hungry and you’ll find yourself paying premium for strictly average sustenance. We’re talking 45RMB for a ‘latte’.

Price 15-35RMB peak season; 10-28RMB off-peak season.

Opening times Apr 1-Oct 31 main attractions open 8am-5.30pm (tickets available 8am-4.30pm). Nov 1-March 31 main attractions open 8am-5pm (tickets available 8am-4pm).

Getting there Take subway Line 5 to Tiantan Dongmen station (Exit A1 or A2).


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