If tackling the 17 palaces and 800 buildings of the Forbidden City sounds overwhelming, a 20-minute ride to the Temple of Heaven might be the perfect introduction. Built in 1420 and tiled in blue to represent the sky, emperors of the Ming and then Qing Dynasty made an annual pilgrimage to Tiantan to pray for a good harvest. Set out from the hotel around 7 a.m., ideally on a Sunday for the most captivating people-watching. Getting to the temple takes twice as long underground, so book a taxi for the 20-minute ride. (We especially like using the service in Beijing because inputting your destination minimizes language issues en route.) On arrival at the East Gate, unfurl your Chinese silk butterfly or lucky goldfish kite and let it flutter skyward as you watch the nonagenarians singing, dancing, and practicing tai chi. The temple itself opens at 8 a.m., when you should buy the Through Ticket (RMB35) to avoid paying separate fees at each venue. You must not miss the Echo Wall within the Imperial Vault of Heaven: its acoustics allow two people to stand on opposite ends and converse without a shout.
Though this is officially a cultural outing, you may consider a five-minute detour to Hongqiao Market where high-quality Chinese silk pajamas and real pearls hang alongside an abundance of fake handbags, jeans, and sneakers. Bargain—hard!