Though its idyllic name does not suggest as much, the Temple of Heaven was originally where emperors conducted ritual fasts and animal sacrifices. The ceremony, performed to pray for good harvest, was so sacred that commoners were not only barred from entering the Temple of Heaven, but also expressly forbidden from even glancing at the emperor’s yearly procession into the temple lest they bring about bad luck. Fortunately, in the present day, non-royals are allowed inside, so take an early autumn stroll around the area, diving into imperial Chinese history and, later, the prehistoric age at the Museum of Natural History.
The Temple of Heaven grounds cover an expansive 273 hectares, so it might be best to start the day with a fortifying early lunch. Start with Kong Yi Ji Restaurant (1), named after the book of the same name by famous Chinese author Lu Xun. Kong Yi Ji is located about 300m west of Ciqi Kou subway station exit D, on the southwest corner of Qinian Dajie and Zhushikou Dongdajie. Enter Zhenbei Dasha and take the elevator to the second floor to get to this famous Zhejiang-style restaurant.
Kong Yi Ji’s menu has neither pictures nor English, but don’t let this deter you; your perseverance will be well-rewarded. A house specialty is dongpo rou (东坡肉), a famous dish of silky fatty pork chunks. Also try squid and glutinous rice cakes in a dark sauce, moyu chao niangao (墨鱼炒年糕); eggplant and spicy green peppers, hangjiao qiezi (杭椒茄子); or if you must, old standby gongbao jiding (宫保鸡丁). For a chewy delight, order some pumpkin cakes. For six cakes, say banda nangua bing (半打南瓜饼); for 12, say yida nangua bing (一打南瓜饼).
Now you’re invigorated for a long day of walking, so head south one block on Qinian Dajie and you’ll be at the North Gate of the Temple of Heaven (2). Buy a through ticket (lianpiao), as this will give you entrance to all the attractions inside. Tickets are torn at the gate of every attraction you enter, so hold on to yours.
Head south on the tree-lined paths; the first attraction you’ll come to is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests (3). The famous circular hall has a roof with three eaves that symbolize Heaven, Earth, and the mortal world. Painted with intricate, colorful patterns, the hall was built in 1420 but reconstructed shortly after being struck by lightning in 1889.
Head out the south doors and saunter down the Danbi Bridge to the Imperial Vault of Heaven (4), which originally served as the ceremonial place for worshipping Heaven. Encircling the Imperial Vault of Heaven is the Echo Wall. The Echo Wall is constructed so that if you stand on one side and speak, or even whisper, a person on the other side of the wall will be able to hear you.
Keep to the southward path and you will come to the three-tiered Circular Mound (5), site of the winter solstice sacrificial rite. The lower tier represents Hell, the middle tier is the mortal world, and the top tier is Heaven. Stand in the center, where the emperors stood to conduct the ceremony, and your voice will be amplified.
Head out the way you came in, north towards the Imperial Vault. If anyone is hungry or thirsty, grab a snack and a drink at the cluster of small convenience stands. Avoid the crowds by turning west before you reach the Imperial Vault. Turn right, or north, when you reach the next intersecting path. Continue north about 300m past the wall and take the first left. You will see a red building on the left surrounded by a dry, grassy moat.
Turn left and walk toward the bridge which sits across from the column foundations of the Sacrificial Hall. You’re at the Fasting Palace (6); buy tickets and proceed over the bridge and into the inner courtyard. The innermost building features a small exhibit of Chinese musical instruments, portraits of emperors, and rules about the fasting. While all of the information is in Chinese with no English translations, it still makes for an absorbing, peaceful few minutes. Look at the imperial portraits and see if you can pick out the portrait of Emperor Qian Long. He hired Italian painter Giuseppe Castiglione to paint his portrait, and the style is markedly different than the rest of the portraits.
After kicking back with imperial China, head north out of the Fasting Palace to the first big intersecting path. From here, you have two options: pick up goodies from Hongqiao Pearl Market, or catch up with Cretaceous-period pals at the Museum of Natural History. For the museum, turn left and head west. Exit the West Gate onto Yongdingmennei Dajie. About 100m north of the West Gate is the Museum of Natural History (7). Bask in the presence of dinosaurs, fossils, animals and more. However, be warned: the human body exhibit downstairs has a section on fetal development that appears to use real fetuses.
If it’s shopping you’re after, turn right down the large path and walk east through the temple park. When you reach the wall, turn left and up to the wide intersecting path, where you can turn right and walk out the East Gate. Over the crosswalk is the Hongqiao Market (8). Beside the market down the alley is Tianle Toy Market (9), with four floors of blissful shopping. When both money and family are spent, subway Line 5 is only a few paces away.
Kong Yi Ji Restaurant 孔乙己酒店
Daily 10am-9.30pm. 2/F, Zhenbei Dasha, 6 Zhushikou Dongdajie, Chongwen District (6707 5151) 崇文区珠市口东大街6号珍贝大厦2层
Temple of Heaven 天坛公园
RMB 15 (entrance ticket) RMB 35 (through ticket). Daily 8am-9pm (park), last tickets at 8pm, 8am-5.30pm (sites), last tickets at 4.30pm. 2 Tiantan Dongli (North Gate) (6702 8866) 崇文区天坛东里2号
Fasting Palace 斋宫
RMB 10. Daily 8am-5.30pm, last tickets at 4.30pm. Inside Temple of Heaven.
Beijing Museum of Natural History 北京自然博物馆
Tues-Sun 9am-5pm,last tickets 4pm, closed Mon. 126 Tianqiao Nandajie, Dongcheng District (6702 7702) www.bmnh.org.cn 东城区天桥南大街126号
Hongqiao Market 红桥市场
Daily 9am-7pm. 46 Tiantan Donglu, Chongwen District (6713 3354) www.hongqiao-pearl-market.com 崇文区天坛东路46号
Hongqiao Tianle Toy Market 红桥天乐玩具市场
Daily 8.30am-7pm. 136 Fahuasi Jie, Chongwen District (6711 7499) 崇文区法华寺街136号