Time Out's ultimate guide to Tiananmen Square

All the sights, things to do and history in Beijing's centrepiece plaza

Daniel Case
You’ve just touched down in Beijing for the first time, and whether you’re staying for a day, a week, a few months or longer, there’s a good chance you’ll be beelining for the city’s crown-jewel attractions.

Given its position at the centre of the capital – even a nation, you might say – as well as the star-status of its northerly neighbour, the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square finds itself right up there with the top sights, and makes for a logical starting point to any Beijing exploration.

It’s renowned for its massive size and massively open space, but there’s much more to the sizeable square than might first meet the eye; as well as being flanked on all sides by some big-hitting tourist sites, Tiananmen is home to some worthy attractions of its own. Here’s our guide to making the most of them.
A brief history

A brief history

Although an open plaza of sorts has stood before the Tiananmen gate since 1651, during the Ming dynasty, the square as we recognise it today was expanded to four times its initial size and fully paved in 1958 – nine years after Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China here, on October 1, 1949 (pictured above).
 
Ever since its appearance before the gate and the Forbidden City, the square has served as a venue for official ceremonies and mass gatherings. At 500 metres wide and 800 long, it’s actually a rectangle as such, but its 440,000 square metres are said to be able to hold anywhere between 500,000 and a million people; it’s a common misconception that it is the largest public square in the world – that award goes to Dalian’s Xinghai Square – but in any case, it’s well up there in the top ten, and its grandeur is perhaps unrivalled.

The Gate of Heavenly Peace (天安门)

The Gate of Heavenly Peace (天安门)

Transport convenience and the hunt for that killer photo mean most trips begin here at the square’s northerly neighbour – the Gate of Heavenly Peace, or Tiananmen. The imposing red gate tower from which the square takes its name is the entrance to the Forbidden City and Palace Museum.
 
Note the five archways – in imperial times, the central and largest portal was reserved exclusively for the emperor, while his family and subordinates would come and go via the side gates, according to their rank.
 
Since 1949, the gate has been adorned with a portrait of Mao Zedong, with the the iconic, guidebook-covering one you see today first seen after his death in 1976; the two placards that flank the chairman proclaim ‘Long live the People’s Republic of China’ (中华人民共和国万岁, zhongguo renmin gongheguo wansui) and ‘Long live the great unity of the world’s people’ (世界人民大团结万岁, shijie renmin datuanjie wansui).

Grab your token snap and head for one of the massive underground passes to the gate’s east or west to arrive in the square itself.

Chang'an Avenue (长安街)

Chang'an Avenue (长安街)

Looking behind, you’ve just passed under Chang’an Jie (literally, the 'Avenue of Eternal Peace'), a ten-lane mammoth at its widest, and perhaps China’s most famous boulevard. While what is strictly named ‘Chang’an’ only stretches between the eastern and western sides of the Second Ring Road – the limits of the former city walls – an unofficial, extended edition runs just short of 50 kilometres between Shijingshan and Tongzhou districts, also roughly tracing the route of subway Line 1.
 
A major thoroughfare since its construction with the Forbidden City in the early 15th century, Chang’an has been witness to many historical events, processions and spectacular military parades, with the most recent held in 2015.

The flag

The flag

One of the first sights you’ll be met by on entering is the 32-metre, seven-tonne flagpole flying the Five-star Red Flag opposite the Gate of Heavenly Peace. This spot is also the focal point for one of the square’s biggest daily attractions – the flag-raising and flag-lowering ceremonies, which are held to coincide with the precise moment of sunrise and sunset respectively (times available here). Arrive a few minutes before to catch the action.
 
Making a flag-raising ceremony at the crack of dawn can be a bit of an eye-rubber (perhaps best to head straight there after a raging night out?), but they draw patriotic crowds of thousands everyday, who gather both in the square before the pole, and in front of the Tiananmen gate from which guards emerge carrying the flag. 
 
After crossing Chang’an Avenue, the flag is affixed and raised in time to the rising sun, over a precise two minutes and seven seconds, while the national anthem plays behind. Stirring. 

The National Museum of China (中国国家博物馆)

The National Museum of China (中国国家博物馆)

Cramming the oft-quoted ‘5,000 years of Chinese history’ under one roof is a tough task, but this sprawling  on the eastern edge of the square does a fine job of it, and more. With nearly 200,000 square metres of exhibition space, it’s the third largest in the world and the permanent home to over a million priceless relics dating back as far as 1.7 million years, and the remains of the prehistoric Yuanmou Man.
 
Reopened after extensive renovation in 2011, its five floors’ and 48 exhibitions halls’ worth of artefacts take visitors on a journey through a civilisation, witnessing the artworks, implements and inventions that have shaped this nation and the world beyond, including ancient currency, scripts, bronzeware and extravagant imperial jewel collections. 
 
Entrance is free (ID required; closed Mondays), and it’s worth taking a good chunk of time to get around as much as you can – its magnificent size may be overwhelming for even the hungriest of historivores.

Flower beds

Flower beds

It’s Beijing in bloom. Tiananmen Square hosts an ever-changing range of colourful and often flamboyant floral displays, with the extravagance going turbo during holidays and special occasions, most notably for National Day on October 1.

Monument to the People's Heroes

Monument to the People's Heroes

Heading towards the middle of the square, you’ll encounter an imposing, 38-metre cenotaph that serves as a memorial to those who lost their lives in the conflicts and revolutionary struggle of the 19th and early 20th centuries, from the first Opium War to the civil war that ended in 1949. 
 
Completed in 1958, construction of the mighty monument took just under six years, and it is engraved with an epitaph composed by Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, as well as an inscription in the Chairman’s handwriting that proclaims: ‘Eternal glory to the people’s heroes!’.

The Great Hall of the People

The Great Hall of the People

To the west, bookending the square with the National Museum of China, is the Great Hall of the People, and it sure earns that ‘great’, housing 300 meeting halls, a 10,000-seat auditorium and a 5,000-seat banquet hall, as well as more than 50 reception and conference lounges spread over different levels.
 
Opened in 1959 as one of the Ten Great Buildings constructed for the PRC’s tenth anniversary, it’s the venue for the crunch talks of the National Congress of the Communist Party of China, held every five years. Organised trips of the Great Hall take place regularly and grant access to most rooms so long as nothing major is going on when you visit.

Statues

Statues

To the rear of the Monument to the People’s Heroes, just before you reach the Chairman Mao Zedong Memorial Hall, stop to take a look at the pair of statues that flank its northern entrance, which are tributes to soldiers, workers and ordinary people involved in China’s revolutions; the eastern statue pays homage to the New Democratic Revolution period (1919-1949), while its western counterpart honours the contributions of those who helped build the new nation under Mao’s leadership.
 
The pair of statues sat at the usually quieter southern side depict the people continuing to carry out Chairman Mao’s wishes and visions of the revolution. All in all, there are 62 different, intricately carved characters to check out upon the four statues. Gotta catch ‘em all. 

The Chairman Mao Memorial Hall

The Chairman Mao Memorial Hall

Possibly Tiananmen’s biggest attraction is the mausoleum of Mao Zedong – the Maosoleum, if you like – situated at the square’s, ahem, dead centre. Opened in 1977, a year after the leader’s death, the grand hall is home to statues, writings and paintings that commemorate the Chairman, though his embalmed and preserved body is what draws the crowds in, who proceed past his crystal coffin to pay their respects.
 
The debate still rages as to whether the pickled remains are in fact real, but it’s an unmissable activity if you have the time and patience – queues can be prohibitively long, and opening hours restricted to mornings. Best combined with an arrival for the flag-raising.
 
Worth noting is the placing of the hall along the city’s historic central axis – the same line that runs through the Forbidden City, and the one upon which the imperial throne sits. A significant and bold statement, underlining the esteem with which the Chairman is held in the People’s Republic.

Beijing Railway Museum

Beijing Railway Museum

Over the road from the south-east corner of the square is the Beijing Railway Museum, housed inside the former Zhengyangmen East Railway Station. Showing off everything from century-old switching posts to modern-day steel sleepers, the museum takes you chronologically through the story of locomotives in China, from the first commercial railway in 1876 to today’s modern bullet trains. Expect a mixture of info boards (mostly in Mandarin only), historical artefacts (with descriptions in English) and even mid-octane interactive experiences (Train driving simulation? That’ll be 10RMB). Closed Monday; entrance 20RMB.


China Numismatic Museum

China Numismatic Museum

That means coin and currency museum, if you’re feeling less fancy. A cracker of an edifice – surprise! I used to be a bank – its exhibits are spread over three floors, showing off the paper and coin trails of the evolution of currency in China, with more than 300,000 items in total on display, as well as information on their minting and manufacture. 
 
Turns out people have used all sorts over the years, including knives as money, necklaces as money and metals of all descriptions, as money. The name might not be the catchiest, and the subject might not be your go-to, but it’s an interesting little stop for some monetary madness. Closed Sunday and Monday; 10RMB.

Zhengyangmen

Zhengyangmen

Zhengyangmen, or the ‘Gate of the Zenith Sun’, stands commandingly over the southern end of the square, though its colloquial name – Qianmen, literally ‘front door’ – gives more of a clue to its historical function. First built in 1451, this stonker of a guard tower was formerly the tallest gate in the long-disappeared city walls, and in the days of yore, served as the final security check and southern entrance to the Imperial City, along with the Arrow Tower that sits just to its south.
 
At its footing, you’ll find a bronze compass mural marking the zero point of China’s highways – just in case you needed another reminder that you’re at the centre of a nation.

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