Taking a guided tour with a local is one of the best ways to see into the heart and soul of a city. When we were in Beijing we booked an Intrepid Urban Adventures ‘Beijing Insight’ tour which covered the major sights and also offered the chance to connect with the locals. I had been to Beijing before and toured the major sights but it was my husband and teenage son’s first visit. From the Temple of Heaven to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, we experienced the best of Beijing and also a few surprises along the way.

We met our guide Lily on a chilly morning at the East Gate of the Temple of Heaven which is easy to reach from most Beijing hotels by MRT (or a taxi if you’re feeling less adventurous). Lily grew up in Beijing and was passionate about her home town. She was also used to showing Australians around and had no trouble understanding our accent which was great. We couldn’t believe our luck having the tour to ourselves although apparently this is not that unusual as tours go ahead no matter how many people are booked on them. One of Lily’s Intrepid Urban Adventures a few days earlier only had one person so they got a private tour.

Our tour began with a walk through Temple of Heaven park where we were intrigued by the large number of older Chinese with impressive levels of flexibility and physical fitness. Lily explained that entry to Temple of Heaven park is free to citizens aged over 65 who are encouraged to socialise and exercise throughout the park on the outdoor gym equipment and at free physical fitness classes. As we watched a group practising qigong (which is similar to tai chi), one of ladies broke away from the class and came over to talk to Lily. I thought we might be getting in trouble for taking photos but there was no need to worry. She was delighted to see overseas visitors watching their class and asked if we would like to join in.

Qigong at Temple of Heaven park

My son and I said we would like to try and were welcomed with warm smiles. The music began to play once more and we followed the movements of the qigong masters at the front of the class, marvelling at their grace and control. It was beautiful to watch and we felt privileged to be able to join them. When the song finished, we were rewarded with clapping and more smiles as we left the class and continued on our tour.

Our next stop was the circular and visually striking Temple of Heaven pagoda where emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties would offer sacrifices and pray for good harvests. Visiting early meant we had the temple to ourselves as group tours don’t usually arrive until arrive later in the day. With no one around it was easy to take photos of the temple. Then Lily took us along the Pathway to Heaven, a marble pathway that stretches from the temple to the Yuanqiu circular altar where the emperor spoke to God and made sacrifices to heaven. We all gathered in the small marble circle for the obligatory tourist photo but sadly we didn’t receive a message from God.

Temple of Heaven without the crowds

Following the Pathway to Heaven

On the way out of the park some locals invited our teenage son to join a game of jianzi, a traditional Chinese national sport in which players aim to keep a heavily weighted shuttlecock in the air without using their hands. Think hacky sack played with something that looks like a shuttlecock. It’s a lot harder than it looks according to our son who said this was one of his favourite parts of the tour. If you are travelling with kids the ‘Beijing Insight’ tour is great as it includes some fun things for them to do along with the historical sites.

Playing jianzi with the locals

Our next destination was lunch at a traditional restaurant. Intrepid Urban Adventures have the flexibility to change activities around which we appreciated. We were hungry after a very early breakfast so decided to eat before going to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City rather than afterwards. Instead of  having a pre-selected restaurant for each tour, Intrepid give guides an allowance to buy lunch so they can decide which restaurant their guests might like best after spending the morning with them. The three of us jumped on a bus (definitely not recommended without a guide as nothing is in English) and were dropped less than a minute’s walk from the restaurant.

Time for lunch!

Beijing is home to a treasure trove of fabulous dishes, especially if you have a guide who can lead you in the right direction. We were presented with a mind blowing culinary experience which we were not expecting as part of a guided tour. Lily selected a few local specialties for us to try and also encouraged us to order our own choices from the menu. We sampled the long dumplings which the restaurant was famous for and my husband began his Beijing love affair with kung pao chicken. We were so full of food that we almost rolled along the street to the next stop on our tour, Tiananmen Square.

Tiananmen Square is the centre of Chinese politics and so large that over a million citizens at a time can fit in the square to celebrate national holidays and ceremonies. Don’t forget your passport as you will need identification to enter the site as you must pass through security screening. Westerners are normally just glanced at, especially when they are with a guide, but it is best to be prepared. Patience is also required as Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City can get very busy.

Tiananmen Square on a perfect day

Lily was fantastic at pointing out the major buildings and explaining the political process. We were blessed with sunshine and very little smog which made our visit to the square even better. After we had explored the square we walked to the Tiananmen monument, passing through the Gate of Heavenly Peace (adorned with its famous Mao portrait) which is widely used as a national symbol of China. First built during the Ming dynasty in 1420, Tiananmen is also the entrance to the Imperial City which houses the Forbidden City.

Inside the Imperial City

The Forbidden City was sealed off to most of the world for 500 years and houses the best-preserved cluster of ancient buildings and historic objects in China. Moving in and around the building, Lily told us about the history of this fascinating and sometimes brutal place. The tales of betrayal, spies and intrigue were worthy of a Game of Thrones’ plot, with kingdoms that thrived and others that were doomed to fail. It was a hard to see inside the buildings with so many people crowding around them but if you were patient, you could slip into a spot near the front and take a look.

Entering the Forbidden City

So many people taking so many photos!

After the Forbidden City, we headed to our final destination, Jingshan Park. This park has a man-made hill with a Buddhist temple and 360 degrees views of Beijing and the Forbidden City. Be prepared for a steep climb to the top but it’s worth it on a clear day. After we had enjoyed the view, Lily walked down the hill with us. Even though the tour was officially finished, she helped us get a taxi and stayed with us until it arrived. We felt as if we had spent the day with a friend rather than a tour guide. And we didn’t need dinner that night.

Disclosure: The writer was a guest of Intrepid Urban Adventures. Her son paid for his tour and was equally impressed.