Beijing is a very linear city. From the south, you have the Temple of Heaven, moving north you’ll encounter Qianmen Gate, then Tiananmen Square, which is followed by the Forbidden City, directly at the city center. Moving north, Jingshan Park is directly above the city, then the Drum and Bell Towers at the furthers linear northern point. Thus, the important sites in Beijing, historically and culturally, are in a single line from south to north. As such, this makes for a logical and easy way to see the highlights of Beijing in a short period of time.
Starting in the south, logically, with the Temple of Heaven. Here the Emperor would worship heaven, the massive compound and gardens take up a great deal of real-estate in southern Beijing. In the early morning you’ll find a throng of elderly out practicing tai chi or chi qong, or gathering to play cards or gossip. The compound houses the actual Temple of Heaven as well as the sacrificial mound, kitchen and procession area. You could easily spend an entire day here, exploring the outlying buildings as well as the on-site museums and temples. The compound is accessible by subway line 5, taxi or bus, and is called Tian Tan in Chinese.
Moving north we encounter Qianmen, which includes a beautiful market street slightly to the west, and the beautiful gates at the south of Tiananmen Square. They are not accessible, but beautiful nonetheless to witness from outside.
Heading north, you can walk to Tiananmen Square. This used to be the marketplace for Beijing, where cart and merchants would gather to hawk their food or clothing. It was famous because the emperor would address the general public here, and the Communists came to power and announced their rule at this historic square. Today, you won’t find people with little stalls around the square, but monuments to the people and a great view of our next stop north, the Forbidden City.
The Forbidden City is where the royalty of the dynasties lived. Here, you’ll see the emperor’s quarters, his concubine’s rooms and the massive amount of staff needed to care for these royal individuals. You can spend an entire day here, easily, but if you stick to the central line of sites inside the city you can get a fair understanding of the city in 3-4 hours.
Moving north, you can take a stroll up Coal Hill at Jingshan Park, where one famous emperor hung himself from a tree during a revolution. The park itself is beautiful, and the pagoda at the summit has an astonishing view of the Forbidden City.
Finally, the Drum and Bell Towers to the north mark the end of the linear old city. These towers are in and of themselves not exactly exciting compared to the sites you’ve already seen, but the rickshaw rides at the base and the cafes and bars nearby make for an excellent way to end your cultural day.