If the incense here smells authentic, it’s because this sprawling complex, said to have been built in 739, is the most active of Beijing’s Daoist temples. Chinese visitors seem intent on actual worship rather than on tourism, and the blue-frocked monks wear their hair in the rarely seen traditional manner—long and tied in a bun at the top of the head. One notable structure is the Laolu Tang, a large hall in the third courtyard built in 1228, now used for teaching and ceremonies.
This Daoist temple, built in 1322 and beautifully restored a few years ago, is most famous for a series of 76 stalls that surround its main courtyard. Garishly painted divine judges in each stall can offer relief from practically every ill — for a price. The most popular stall, not surprisingly, is the Department of Bestowing Material Happiness. English signs explain each department’s function.
Fayuan Si (Source of Dharma Temple)
Despite guides droning on about a long and glorious history, most of Beijing’s sights are relatively new, dating from within the last 600 years. This temple, constructed in 645 in what was then the southeast corner of town, retains both an air of antiquity and the feel of a genuine Buddhist monastery.
Guo Zi Jian and Kong Miao
This classic temple-school compound, buried down a tree-shaded street east of the Lama Temple, is still in use. The Kong Miao, China’s second-largest Confucian Temple, is on the right, and the Guo Zi Jian is on the left, both originally built in 1306. The front courtyard of the temple contains several dozen stelae inscribed with the names of the last successful candidates in the jinshi (highest level) imperial examinations. The college, imperial China’s highest educational institution, contains a striking glazed-tile gate with elaborately carved stone arches.
Ox Street Mosque (Niu Jie Qingzhensi)
This is Beijing’s largest mosque and the spiritual center for the city’s estimated 200,000 Muslims. Built in 996, the complex looks more Eastern than Middle Eastern, with sloping tile roofs similar to those found on Buddhist temples. Halls are noticeably free of idols, however.
Yonghe Gong (Lama Temple)
If you visit only one temple after the Temple of Heaven, this should be it. A complex of progressively larger buildings topped with ornate yellow-tiled roofs, Yonghe Gong was built in 1694 and originally belonged to the Qing prince who would become the Yongzheng emperor. As was the custom, the complex was converted to a temple after Yongzheng’s move to the Forbidden City in 1744. The temple is home to several beautiful incense burners, including a particularly ornate one in the second courtyard that dates from 1746. The Falun Dian, second to last of the major buildings, contains a 6m-tall bronze statue of Tsongkapa.