Unmissable culture on any visit to the Chinese capital
The Chinese city has many – showcasing the bizarre to the history-rich. Here’s the best.
Beijing Opera Museum The 200-year-old Huguang Guild Hall is the site of this museum, dedicated to one of the capital’s greatest cultural exports. Inside the hall is the museum itself, a small but busy room that documents the history of both the building and Peking opera through photographs, newspaper clippings, and costumes. But the main event is the actual theatre, a stunning space that to this day continues to stage opera performances. 3 Hufang Lu, Xicheng district (+86 10 8355 1680).
Beijing Police Museum Full of pictures of smiling coppers saving lives, the museum gives a full history of the city’s police from the end of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) to the present day, using old uniforms, official papers and so on. Check out the many weapons and firearms on display, including gold-plated pistols. 36 Dongjiaomin Xiang, Dongcheng district (+86 10 8522 5018).
China National Film Museum Located just east of Caochangdi, the China National Film Museum isn’t likely to attract a lot of casual visitors. But those who make the trek are rewarded by what purports to be the largest professional film museum in the world; a sprawling hunk of geometrical architecture that boasts 20 permanent exhibition halls. The first ten take you through the history of Chinese film, which is rendered mostly through hokey dioramas. Of greater interest are halls 11-20, which get into the more technical aspects of filmmaking, featuring sets, antique cameras and a special effects area. At the end, treat yourself to a screening at one of the museum’s five cinemas. Don’t miss a 3D screening at the 21-metre high IMAX hall. 9 Nanying Lu, near Wuyuanqiao, Chaoyang district, www.cnfm.org.cn (+86 10 8435 5959).
China Printing Museum At this small, ramshackle museum, displays demonstrate different forms of printing from 200 BC onwards. Woodcuts and tools from across the dynasties are on display here, the most fascinating being the primitive scribblings on tortoise shell. 25 Xinghua Bei Lu, Huangcun, Daxing district (+86 6026 1237).
China Railway Museum Located at the south-east corner of Tiananmen Square, this centrally located branch of the China Railway Museum (also known as the Beijing Railway museum) is a space geared towards the history of locomotives in China. The museum is laid out in a timeline format, telling the story from China’s first commercial railway in 1876 to today’s modern bullet trains. Everything from century-old switching posts to modern-day steel sleepers are on display. 2 Qianmen Dong Dajie, Dongcheng district (+86 6705 1638).
Geological Museum of China With four floors of fossilised remains, precious stones and almost no tourists, the Geological Museum is a rare gem in itself. The Scientific Earth room is full of highly arresting interactive exhibits, including the chance to build your own earthquake-resistant tower. Meanwhile, the ‘minerals room’ has an ethereal air, with its amethyst geodes. Don’t miss the dinosaur fossils dating back to the Jurassic period. 15 Xisiyangrou Hutong, Xicheng district, www.gmc.org.cn (+86 6655 7858).
Peking Man Site Zhoukoudian, better known as the site of Peking Man (one of the first specimens of homo erectus), is one of the most important paleontological sites in the world. All of the human remains in the museum are replicas (the originals vanished in 1941) but the primitive tools and animal skeletons from the mid-to-late Pleistocene era are genuine. You can also explore the 15 excavation sites; the Peking Man cave is the deepest, darkest and most bone-chilling of them all, the exact site where man’s ancient ancestor lived some 500,000 to 700,000 years ago. 1 Zhoukoudian Dajie, Dangshan district (+86 6930 1080).
Poly Art Museum In a wholly unexpected location – on the ninth floor of a modern office block – this display of ancient art is a real find, whether you’re a Chinese bronze aficionado or just searching for some peace. The museum is small and quiet but packed with treasures, and most days you’ll have the dimly lit, elegant space to yourself. Take the chance to inspect the artefacts, which range from the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC) to the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), close up in a way that few other museums will allow. Ninth Floor, New Poly Plaza, 1 Chaoyangmen Bei Dajie, Dongcheng district (+86 6500 8117).
Watermelon Museum of China This shrine to China’s favourite summer fruit is filled with facts about cultivation, breeding technology, distribution and more. This place is all about novelty. The unintentionally hilarious statues in the sculpture garden should provide entertainment. Penggezhuang Township, Daxing district (+86 10 8928 1181).