Beijing Planning Exhibition Hall
"Beijing doesn't have a skyline, so the scale model here is a great way to get a feel both for the city's layout and the scope of its new architecture."—Chloe Marsala, student of East Asian Studies and architecture. Detailed replicas of the silvery egg-shaped National Theater, the bird's nest-like Olympic Stadium, Rem Koolhaas' CCTV tower, and more. 20 Dong Qianmen Dongdajie; tel. 86 10 6702 4559. www.bjghzl.com.cn
Beijing Capital Museum
Showcases 850 years of the city's history as a capital. Best features are a timeline of the city's primitive beginnings, a top floor with scale replicas of courtyard houses, hutongs, and a Peking Opera theater—with snack servers in pigtails. 3 Guozijian Lu; tel. 86 10 6401 2118.
Mao Zedong Memorial Hall
"Mao's body is surprisingly small. Great to watch the spectators, which include Chinese bearing wreaths and in tears—as if he'd just died."—Wendy Mock, Beijing journalist. Two-story marble mausoleum open Tuesday to Sunday mornings and afternoons only, with inevitable lines. Free. Tiananmen Square; tel. 86 10 6513 2277.
"If you see just one Peking Opera performance (and one is probably enough), see the daily show at Li Yuan Theatre. The performers are superior and the stage big enough for real martial arts."—Nancy Pellegrini, performance editor, Time Out Beijing. Tip: Arrive early and watch the actors apply their elaborate makeup. Qianmen Hotel, 175 Yongan Lu; tel. 86 10 6301 6688.
Dashanzi Art District
"Asia's largest contemporary art district—worth the trip for the industrial Bauhaus architecture alone."—Patrick Pearce, Beijing filmmaker. Just inside the Fifth Ring Road, $5 by taxi from the city center. Contemporary art galleries, cafés, boutiques, and performing arts spaces. 4 Jiuxianqiao Lu; tel. 86 10 6438 4862. www.798space.com
Forbidden City, aka Imperial Palace Museum
"The world's largest courtyard-style house, with staggering proportions. For five centuries, this was the center of the universe."—Dr. Robert Jacobsen, chair of Asian art, Minneapolis Institute of Arts. The 180-acre imperial compound was built in the early 15th century and was the seat of power during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Tip: Go in the early morning or cold weather to avoid crowds. www.dpm.org.cn
Great Wall at Simatai or Jinshanling
Two rugged, relatively unrestored places to view the Great Wall, about 70 miles (113 kilometers) northeast of Beijing. Simatai has steep climbs on crumbling stones, often without handrails; you're rewarded with stunning vistas. Jinshanling is less gravity-defying, but visitors can camp there overnight. It's 5.6 rugged, lovely miles (9 kilometers) between the two stations—doable in about four hours. tel. 86 10 6903 5025.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Panjiayuan Antique Market (aka Dirt Market)
"Busting at the seams with potential souvenirs, from jade bracelets and lavish opera costumes to satin slippers, ornate birdcages, and lovely antiques."—Heidi Leigh Johansen, editor, Fodor's Beijing. Over 3,000 vendors in 60,000 square yards (50,168 square meters) of organized outdoor space. Real and fake antiques, jade, and Mao memorabilia abound. Third Ring Road at Panjiayuan Qiao.
Temple of Heaven
Magnificent Ming dynasty tower, built in the 15th century as a sacrificial temple. Twice the size of the Forbidden City, the surrounding park is the real surprise: lively and active, with hundreds of locals out as early as 6 a.m. to practice tai chi, play the erhu, compete in chess, sing Chinese opera, dance with ribbons and fans, or just stroll. Yongdingmen Dajie; tel. 86 10 6702 8866.
The world's largest (99 acres) public square—surprisingly devoid of trees, benches, and other boundary-setting details. Gape at the sheer scale, and imagine Mao declaring the birth of a nation, Red Guards agitating for revolution, and tanks pushing back hundreds of student demonstrators. At dawn, uniformed military guards raise China's flag. Free. Chang'an Jie to the north, and Qianmen Dajie to the south.