The huge, bustling public space of Tiananmen Square is packed from sun up to sundown, Western tourists jostling with postcard hawkers, Chinese day-trippers queuing for Mao’s mausoleum and young Beijingers hanging out after work. It’s Beijing’s best bet for people watching.

Pick a palace

When it comes to Old Beijing, a visit to one of the splendid palaces is a must. Most make a beeline for the Forbidden City — palatial home to emperors of both the Ming and Qing dynasties and off-limits to commoners for more than 500 years, hence its name.

It’s magnificent, huge and easy to get to (the entrance, under Mao’s brooding portrait, is on the north side of Tiananmen Square), but for a real sense of the imperial court’s opulence, head for the Summer Palace instead.

Set alongside the ethereal waters of Kunming Lake, this mesmerising collection of intricate gardens, ornate temples and decorated pavilions is not to be missed.

Climb the wall

You can’t visit Beijing and not see the Great Wall. Snaking its way hazily across the mountains of northern China, this masterpiece of engineering is within a couple of hours of the capital.

It doesn’t really matter which bit you go to — one section of wall is much like another — just pick one and go.

Badaling, Jinshanling and Simatai are the most popular, but wherever you go expect crowds, steep inclines and hawkers selling overpriced memorabilia.

If you opt to go on a tour, check what you do on the way as many trips stop at the Ming Tombs (not really worth seeing) and various tourist traps.

Eat and be merry

With 1.3 billion mouths to feed, the Chinese people aren’t fussy eaters. Pay a visit to Wangfujing night market for a taster (if you’re brave) of the melée of nibbles on offer. Barbecued locust, anyone? Snake on a stick?

Beijing’s speciality dish is Peking duck, and no one should go home without sampling these succulent slices of naughtiness. Usually served with pancakes, like the crispy duck you’d get in London’s Chinatown, Peking duck has a delicate flavour all of its own. A slap-up meal in one of the city’s many duck restaurants, washed down with plenty of Chinese tea, is a must for all visitors.

» Claire Goodall travelled with On The Go (020-7371 1113; A five-day Beijing Breakaway tour starts from £299.

Olympics trivia

Kick off

At 8.08pm on the eighth day of the eighth month in 2008, the Opening Ceremony of the XXIX Olympiad gets under way in Beijing’s National Stadium.

The Chinese consider eight to be a lucky number.

Bird’s nest

The National Stadium (also known as the Bird’s Nest due to its uncanny similarity to, well, a bird’s nest) will host the opening and closing events as well as athletics and some of the football. The National Aquatics Centre or Water Cube (because it looks like — guess what?)
is a purpose-built venue for all the Games’ water sports. The boxing, wrestling and volleyball events will be held at existing stadiums.

Cute and cuddly

The five Olympic fuwa (mascots) — Beibei, Jingjing, Huanhuan, Yingying and Nini — spell out ‘Beijing welcomes you’ in Mandarin. They represent China’s favourite animals: a fish, a panda, the Tibetan antelope and a swallow, plus the Olympic flame.