In the south-eastern Dongcheng District of Beijing, nestled behind high walls, sits a complex of religious buildings known as the Temple of Heaven. Originally built as a ceremonial centre for dynastic emperors during the 1400s, this huge site has been open to the public since 1918 and is now a favourite tourist attraction and UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Bigger and more popular than the Forbidden City, local musicians, dancers and other street performers gather here to practise their arts and hobbies in front of throngs of visitors. Sheltered from the busy Beijing streets, the Temple of Heaven is a welcome retreat from city life, and the impressive buildings are full of symbolic meaning.
The southern section of the complex is square, symbolising the Earth, while the northern part is semi-circular, representing heaven. The buildings themselves are excellent examples of classic Chinese imperial architecture and are replete with designs and decoration that give a fascinating insight into the practices of ancient Chinese religion and philosophy.
There is a traditional ceremonial route that many visitors follow which takes you past all the major structures, but make sure to wear comfortable shoes because it's quite a walk! The route starts out at the Zhaoheng Gate in the south of the complex and follows the main stone pathway around to the tiered Circular Mound Altar, where sacrifices were made by past emperors hoping for a good harvest. Keep an eye out for the antique philosophical symbols incorporated into the temple's design.
Another interesting feature to note is the way the architecture of the altar is centred around the number nine, an important number in ancient Eastern culture. Next, you’ll come to the Vault of Heaven Pavilion, a round imperial building with incredible acoustics and an ornate ceiling with a large golden dragon at its centre.
The Temple of Heaven is in the Dongcheng District. Take the subway to Tiantandongmen Station or jump in a taxi. There are extra charges for various areas of the park and there are audio guides for rent in many languages, including English.