Temple fairs have been a part of daily life in Beijing for hundreds of years, becoming especially popular during the Qing dynasty (1644-1912). Scattered all over the city so residents could easily make their way to the nearest, some fairs were held as regularly as every fortnight. Between stalls hawking the kind of festive knick-knacks we all find so difficult to resist (especially during the holiday season) were opera and acrobatic troupes, puppet shows and cross-talk (the Qing equivalent of a stand-up comedy act).
The Spring Festival fairs were, of course, a much bigger deal. Back in the day, it was the Changdian fair that raked in the crowds, with long sticks of sweetened hawthorn fruits and visiting opera stars guaranteed.
Today, temple fairs remain the best place to get a real taste of the Chinese New Year
. Most begin on the first day of the lunar calendar (5 February this year), and last for five to six days. Here are the best of Beijing's outdoor festivals.
Ditan Park (地坛公园)
One of Beijing's biggest temple fairs, this one is a regular hit with the locals. Inside the park is the Altar of Earth and plenty else to catch your eye.
See if you can spot the Dai people's 'peacock dance' amongst a host of dances from all over China. You'll be able to see exhibitions that cover the life and customs of Beijingers through the centuries as well as the different ways that Spring Festival is now celebrated all over the world. Pick up some (supposedly) antique Chinese handicrafts from stalls and if you get there at 10am, glimpse a re-enactment of the imperial family's traditional prayers for good harvests originally held here in the summer months. If that's not enough, there will also be plenty of other performances including comedy crosstalk, traditional Tibetan folk dances and ancient magic and ventriloquism.
Hungry? Pick up dry-fried beans, jiaoquan (fried dough sticks that taste great dipped into doujiang – thick soy milk) as well niangao (New Year cakes).
Ditan Park Andingmen Wai Dajie, Dongcheng district. 5-9 February. Open 8:30am-5pm. 10RMB.
Longtan Park (龙潭公园)
Located in Dongcheng district, this fair doesn't actually feature any temples, although the park does boast some tasteful Qing-style buildings and will be decked out in dragon-related regalia. Touch the giant character for wealth (fu) made up of miniature dragon figurines while wearing a blindfold and you'll bag yourself some prosperity for the coming year too.
The fair will feature Chinese traditional performances as well as taekwondo and acrobatics. It's set to include dancing and a host of colourful floats that will meander their way through the park. There will be various activities that will keep you out playing in the cold, such as the snow park. You can also watch wrestling, judo, taekwondo and free combat performances from professional sports stars.
Wrap up warm for the outdoor ice carving. If you do get too cold, head indoors for an all-day Chinese chess competition.
Longtan Park 8 Longtanhu Lu, Dongcheng district. 5-9 February. Open 8:30am-5pm. 10RMB.
Grand View Garden (大观园)
For a slightly different kind of temple fair, check out Grand View Garden's 24th temple fair themed after one of China's four great classical novels, Dream of the Red Chamber. Discover your usual temple fair fares and performances but also learn something about Chinese history and the story behind Grand View Garden, one of the locations featured in the classic novel.
Head there before 10am to avoid the crowds.
Grand View Garden 12 Nancaiyuan Xijie, Xicheng district. 5-9 February. Open 8.30am-5pm. 10RMB.
While this fair doesn't exactly involve temples, it is still worth a trip as the fair only happens during the Chinese New Year. It's also a hit with the locals because of its line-up of traditional Chinese performances alongside international events featuring various customs and specialities.
Chaoyang Park 1 Chaoyang Gongyuan Nan Lu, Chaoyang district. 5-10 February. 9am-5pm. 5RMB.
Fenghuangling Nature Park (凤凰岭自然风景公园)
Competing with Beijing's temple fairs must be a tough business, so it should come as no surprise that some temple fairs are trying to up their 'fair' game. There's a lot to unbox at this particular temple fair event, and we're not sure where to start. Want a temple fair with a view? Then check out this mountain park. Can't take being away from modern society for too long? No worries, there's a VR exhibition here, too. Looking for a snow adventure? Fenghuangling Park again. Want to discover more Chinese culture by tasting traditional snacks and watching traditional Chinese performances? It's a temple fair, so it's definitely got that too. It's their sixth year holding this temple fair, so they've got to be doing something right.
Fenghuangling Park 19 Fenghuangling Lu, Sujiatuo Zhen, Haidian district. 5-10 February. Open 9am-5pm. 25RMB.
Shijingshan Amusement Park
Enjoy a mixture of traditional Chinese culture and modern Western influences at the New Year fair hosted by Beijing's answer to Disneyland. There will be a display of traditional craftsmanship, folk artistic performances, wrestling and lion dances.