Insider Guide: What to do in Beijing
Important things happen in Beijing. You can feel this everywhere in the city of nearly 20 million people.
There are the majestic imperial buildings, perfectly preserved in their gold and blood-red, sharing the same sidewalk with Soviet masterpieces designed to intimidate.
In the last few years, before and after the Beijing 2008 Olympics, modern wonders of glass and chrome plucked from some architect's whimsical imagination have appeared.
It all makes Beijing's cityscape a study in superlatives; the grand scale of the city planning a campaign for headlines.
And yet, there is a Beijing that is growing organically on a human scale, particularly within the narrow hutongs (tiny alleys that separate traditional courtyard homes).
Unique eateries, music venues and boutiques are birthing in these fast-gentrifying neighborhoods. You are never short of options when planning what to do in Beijing.
This adds up to a city of drama and juxtaposition. Visitors will return home with pictures of epic, historic monuments, and cute alleyway cats resting with elderly people in faded Mao suits.
To experience it all, here's where to start and what to do in Beijing.
The Aman at Summer Palace
Aman’s 1.2-square-kilometers of polished clay floor tiles is the first word in imperial luxury.
The resort is a period Qing Dynasty structure of crisscrossing courtyards, halls and suites, unfolding symmetrically like a miniature Forbidden City.
Attached to the Summer Palace, where the Empress Dowager intended to retire, Aman is Beijing’s most expensive hotel.
Expect all the service and comforts “Aman junkies” take for granted: huge bathrooms, period furnishings, a packed program of tours and cultural events and seriously fine dining at Naoki Restaurant, which serves Japanese kaiseki cuisine.
Some distance from the city center, this one is designed for escape, not exploration.
1 Gongmenqian Lu, Summer Palace, near Tongqing Jie 颐和园宫门前街1号, 近同庆街; +86 10 5987 9999; rooms from RMB 4,000 (US$635); www.amanresorts.com
The Opposite House
The Opposite House is the city’s hippest address.
The work of Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, this 99-room boutique hotel shows off modern Beijing's commitment to design and style.
White rooms accented with natural materials have a breezy, yoga-studio aesthetic. Even the bath tub is wooden.
Below ground is a stainless steel pool like something from Doctor Evil’s lair, though with no piranhas.
Punk, the hotel's nightclub, and Mesh, a lounge, pull in beautiful people nightly.
Not just a place to stay, The Opposite House is also what to do in Beijing.
The Village Building 1, 11 Sanlitun Lu, near Dongzhimenwai Dajie 三里屯路11号,三里屯Village1号楼, 近东直门外大街; +86 10 6417 6688; rooms from RMB 2,500 ($400); www.theoppositehouse.com
Langham Place Beijing Airport
The Langham Place Beijing Capital Airport turns the airport hotel on its head.
Although just a minute away from the international airport, this 372-roomer succeeds in being more than a place to pass out during a layover.
With playful contemporary Chinese art filling the hotel space, Langham Place has a cheeky, creative atmosphere. Appropriate, considering the hotel is just 20 minutes' drive from Beijing's 798 Art District.
If you have only a couple hours to spare between flights, it's worth hopping aboard one of the Langham's pink shuttle buses to get to the hotel and try the excellent dim sum at Ming Court.
1 Er Jing Lu, Terminal 3 Capital International Airport Beijing 首都国际机场三号航站楼二经路1号; +86 10 6457 5555; rooms from RMB 1,800 ($285); beijingairport.langhamplacehotels.com
On the outskirts of Mutianyu village, this eco-conscious boutique retreat rests in the shadow of Beijing’s second most visited stretch of the Great Wall.
A former glazed-tile factory, it’s gone through a full makeover.
Floor-to-ceiling windows with Great Wall views have been installed in all guest rooms at ground level, but curtains are absent, so expect to rise with the sun (or use the eye shades provided).
Breakfast (included) features local bacon, freshly baked pastries and jams made with fruit from surrounding orchards.
A newly opened spa with pool, an outdoor Jacuzzi, sauna and treatment room has all wellness needs taken care of.
Beigou Village, near Mutianyu Great Wall 北沟村, 近慕田峪长城; +86 10 6162 6506; rooms from RMB 1,200 ($190); www.brickyardatmutianyu.com
A laid-back hotel in one of the city's most vibrant hutong neighborhoods, The Orchid offers a pampered way to experience local life in old Beijing.
From a trio of roof terraces you can catch sight of the famed Drum and Bell Towers looming over tiled rooftops.
Outside the front door is Baochao Hutong. Here, visitors can find typical sights and sounds of Beijingers going about their day in the cramped, crumbling courtyard houses.
The neighborhood is filled with good cheap eats, from streetside kebab stands to Yunan delicacies.
Or stay in -- the lobby bar has a well-curated wine list and potent locally brewed beer. Pretty soon everyone in the hotel's 10 guest rooms is well acquainted.
All rooms have an Apple TV set, goose-down beds and jars of high-grade tea.
65 Baochao Hutong, Gulou Dongdajie, near Nanluoguxiang 鼓楼东大街宝钞胡同65号, 近南锣鼓巷; +86 10 8404 4818; rooms from RMB 680 ($110); www.theorchidbeijing.com
Peking Yard (北平小院国际青年旅舍)
This upmarket hostel caters to the needs of today’s “flashpacker” tribe.
Housed in a handsome building in the middle of an old Beijing neighborhood, Peking Yard is all potted flowers and cozy modern furnishings with plenty of Western comforts.
If you're wondering what to do in Beijing, fellow guests here will likely be excited to share their ideas.
With pool table, Belgian beer, pizza and burgers, the lobby bar is the place to meet other travelers and compare Great Wall adventures.
There's a quiet garden in the back and a sun terrace with lounge chairs, a welcome sight after a day of sightseeing.
28 Wangzhima Hutong, near Dongsi Beidajie 汪芝麻胡同甲28号, 近东四北大街; +86 10 8404 8787; rooms from RMB 420 ($65); www.pekingyard.hostel.com
Made In China
It's traditional Chinese food in a modern five-star setting at Made In China.
The smart-casual dining hall is filled with enticing sounds and smells coming from an open kitchen where diners can watch all manner of Chinese food being prepared.
Beggar's chicken and noodle dishes are favorites among regulars, but it's the Peking duck that inspires an obsessive following.
Foodies have long debated whether the duck here is better than that at Beijing's near-undisputed best, Da Dong Roast Duck.
Advanced notice necessary for ordering the Peking duck at Made In China.
Grand Hyatt Beijing, 1 East Chang An Ave. 东长安街1号; +86 10 8518 1234; expensive; beijing.grand.hyatt.com
Celebrity chef Daniel Boulud took over the former United States Embassy for his Beijing outpost.
A stately manor inside a walled compound, Maison Boulud is world-class fine dining at China prices.
The modern French cuisine comes with an accent on local and Pacific Rim ingredients.
On the spring menu, roast pork loin, confit pork shoulder and crispy pork belly are served together with fricassee English peas.
Boulud's signature DB burger is a sirloin burger filled with braised short ribs and foie gras.
The best bargain is the four-course brunch at RMB 288 ($45) per person.
23 Qianmen Dong Dajie 前门东大街23号; +86 6559 9200; expensive; www.danielnyc.com/maisonboulud
Housed in a historic building on the centuries-old Qianmen Dajie, Capital M is somber on the outside but glowingly inviting on the inside.
The atmosphere is moneyed bohemian -- inside are a Van Gogh-esque mural, fresh flowers and views of Qianmen, the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square.
The menu is inspired by local produce, with an emphasis on modern European cooking and elements from as far as North Africa.
Classics from the original M on the Fringe restaurant in Hong Kong and Shanghai's M on the Bund can be found here, such as crispy suckling pig, salt-encased leg of lamb and the pavlova.
Wines are taken seriously at Capital M. Their own label has been supplied by the same South Australian vineyard for 20 years.
3/F, 2 Qianmen Pedestrian St., just south of Tian'anmen Square 前门大街2号，天安门南侧; +86 10 6702 2727; moderate to expensive; www.m-restaurantgroup.com
Da Dong Roast Duck
The king of Peking duck, Da Dong made its name with slices of flavorful, lean-yet-succulent duckmeat topped with crisp golden skin.
But you can't eat duck every night. What keeps Da Dong fans coming back is the consistently high standard of all other dishes on its Bible-thick menu.
Bamboo shoots with pickles, and chestnuts stir fried with cabbage are some of the popular home-style dishes. Banquet dishes such as sea cucumber also impress.
But Da Dong succumbs to the pitfalls of fame, with staff displaying attitude on busy nights and annoyingly hard-to-get reservations.
Avoiding overcrowded weekends is a good strategy.
Even so, for visitors planning what to do in Beijing, this one puts the "experience" in dining.
Dadong Nanxincang, 22 Dongsishitiao, Dongcheng District 东城区东四十条22号南新仓; +86 10 5169 0328/0329; moderate to expensive; for other branches see dadongdadong.com
The best part about eating at hot pot restaurant Haidilao is waiting in the queue.
Tea, fruit plates, Wi-Fi, board games and even manicures are provided for customers while they endure a wait that can stretch as long as 90 minutes. Enthusiastic staff keep waiting diners upbeat.
The hot pot meal itself embraces a staggering choice of vegetables, meat and seafood that diners cook themselves in a bubbling pot of broth placed in the middle of the table.
Ranging from super-spicy to plain, the hot pot broth imbues layers of flavor into the fresh produce, which can then be dipped in your own custom sauce.
If you order the hand-pulled noodles you'll get a tableside noodle dance.
2A Baijiazhuang Lu, Chaoyang District, 朝阳区百家庄2A；+86 10 6595 2982; budget; for other locations around Beijing see www.haidilao.com
Beijingers have a thing for fiery Sichuan food and Chuanban is their favorite place to get it.
The restaurant was opened by the Sichuan Provincial Office in Beijing, so the authenticity of the food is assured.
You can challenge your spice threshold with shuiju yu, tender morsels of fish in a chili-laced broth; or mapo doufu, the famous minced pork and tofu dish.
Everything is dotted with Sichuanese peppercorns, a spice that causes a delightfully numbing sensation on the tongue.
Chuanban is a state-run restaurant, meaning it's casual, perennially too busy and has notoriously uncaring staff. But the incredible food is worth the indignities.
Reservations not accepted. Best to arrive before 6 p.m. or after 8 p.m.
5 Gongyuan Toutiao, Jianguomennei Dajie, Dongcheng District 东城区建国门内大街公园头条5号; +86 10 6512 2277 ext. 6101; budget
Donghuamen night market
A freak show of a food market takes place near Wangfujing each night.
The Donghuamen night market consists of dozens of stalls lined up in a neat row, each selling a variety of Beijing snacks.
Sure, there's the tame candied fruit, lamb kebabs and stuffed buns, but the other end of the spectrum is rather more challenging.
Scorpions, centipedes, starfish, cicadas and snake skin can all be fried and eaten on a stick. A bowl of stodgy gray beef offal -- a Beijing favorite -- will help it all go down.
More than just a meal, this one is at the top of many "what to do in Beijing" lists.
Dong'anmen Dajie, at the north end of Wangfujing东安门大街王府井靠北; budget; 5:30-10:30 p.m.
A pioneer of the hutong bar scene, Bed still feels very "now," even though it opened nearly a decade ago.
The owners stripped down a traditional courtyard house to its whitewashed walls, gray concrete floors and exposed piping. Then they filled it with gorgeous antique furniture, such as opium beds, kang seating and fresh flowers.
The result is cozy, unaffected and chilled-out, despite the trendy people who file in on weekends talking about what to do in Beijing.
Everyone orders the mojitos for some reason.
Be prepared to take off your shoes when climbing onto the beds.
17 Zhangwang Hutong, Xicheng District, 西城区旧鼓楼大街张旺胡同17号; +86 10 8400 1554; moderate
Artisanal cocktails are the thing at Apothecary, a sleek bar that gets so ridiculously crowded on weekends it has to turn people away.
Everything is homemade, from the bitters to syrups.
You can test bartenders' skills at making an Old Fashioned and other classics, or challenge yourself with the bar's original Bazillionaire, a wicked twist on the Millionaire cocktail that adds absinthe and rye to the mix.
For the munchies, it's hard to beat the fried chicken sandwich with sweet potato fries, or the charcuterie platter.
3/F, Nali Patio, 81 Sanlitun Lu, Chaoyang District 朝阳区三里屯路81号那里花园3层;＋86 10 5208 6040; expensive
Haze brings a little bit of the Berlin-style club scene to Beijing. Opened by the former founders of White Rabbit, Beijing's notorious party venue, Haze is the underground scene all grown up.
It's located in the slick Guanghualu SOHO complex, but Haze is just a bare concrete room. Its unisex bathrooms are never clean, but the centerpiece bar does cocktails, all priced around RMB 50 ($8).
Everyone talks about the steep staircase at Haze, comparing it to sections of the Great Wall. But the most memorable thing is still the uncompromising musical talent that the club showcases, such as queen of German techno, Monika Kruse.
22 Guanghualu, SOHO A101, Chaoyang District, 朝阳区光华路SOHO A101号; open 10 p.m. till late, Thursday-Saturday
The World of Suzy Wong Club
Suzy Wong is one of Beijing's longest-running nightclubs. Decked out like a Chinese bordello with no sense of irony, the place is all red lanterns, silk cushions and lattice screens.
There's an electro room and an R & B and hip-hop room. The people who fill them aren't shy about dancing.
An eclectic mix of locals, expats, tourists, models and working girls fill the place almost every night of the week. You come here to meet new friends and get silly.
1A Nongzhanguan Lu (west gate of Chaoyang Park), Chaoyang District 朝阳区农展馆路甲1号朝阳公园西门; +86 10 6500 3377; expensive; www.clubsuziewong.com
Beijing's best known indie concert venue, MAO Livehouse is one great sound system housed in a slapped together old house.
The grungy black-box space hosts the most promising local indie acts, everything from Mongolian folk singing group Hanggai, to punk outfit SUBS and the experimental noise of Lonely China Day.
When international bands play, MAO is too small to hold all the fans, so be prepared to fight for space.
111 Gulou Dongdajie, Dongcheng District 东城区鼓楼东大街111号; +86 10 6402 5080; budget; www.maolive.com
Shopping / Attractions
The place to get a feel for moneyed, trendy Beijing is Sanlitun Village, a mecca of consumerism for the capital's young and privileged.
The 19 low-rise glass and chrome buildings are spread over 120,000 square meters in the middle of Beijing's nightlife zone. It has a funky, futuristic vibe.
Here you can find Beijing’s first Apple store, dramatic flagship boutiques for the likes of Balenciaga and Versace, as well as American Apparel and Adidas. Fashionable restaurants include the Sichuanese Transit Restaurant or Modo and Mosto.
There's always great people watching of the slick, well-put-together variety.
East of Sanlitun Street, Chaoyang District 朝阳区三里屯路东侧; +86 10 6417 6110; www.sanlitunvillage.com
After the decline of the Qing Dynasty, disgraced nobility came here to sell their treasures. Now, Panjiayuan is one of the biggest antique flea markets in China.
Early weekend mornings are the time to hit the market. A huge variety of wares are sold here by shrewd, eccentric merchants.
Mao memorabilia, hand-carved furniture, calligraphy, jewelry, porcelain, ceramics, knick knacks, found photos -- most are fake, some are real, some are done so well that authenticity is irrelevant.
Bargaining is a sport and taken for granted. Try starting with half the asking price and move up from there. And, remember, whoever is most willing to walk away from the deal is the one with true bargaining power.
18 Hua Wei Li, near Pan Jia Yuan Bridge 华威里18号，潘家园桥往西; Monday-Friday, 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m., Saturday-Sunday, 4:30 a.m.-6 p.m; +86 10 8777 2727, www.panjiayuan.com
More than 700 years old, Nanluoguxiang is one of the few protected areas of the old city. It has gentrified beautifully, with hundreds of bars, cafés and boutiques run by young, creative types.
Measuring 786 meters long but just eight meters wide, the street snakes through the neighborhood at the north end of the Forbidden City.
Myriad ever-smaller laneways connect from Nanluoguxiang, leading to hidden, fun things to do and see.
You can get an imperial-style yogurt at Wenyu Nailaodian or pints at Great Leap Brewing microbrewery. Turn down Gulou Dongdajie at the north end of the street and you'll find Zarah Café and perfect espresso.
The south entrance of Nanluoguxiang can be accessed at Di'anmen East Street 南锣鼓巷南口,地安门东大街; www.nanluoguxiang.com
Tiananmen Square and Forbidden City
If you do only one thing on a short trip to Beijing, visit Tiananmen Square. This is definitely what to do in Beijing.
A few minutes at the square is enough for anyone to feel the combined weight of Chinese imperial and communist history. It's staggering.
It's literally located at the heart of Beijing -- the rest of the city fans out in concentric circles from the Forbidden City and adjacent Tiananmen Square.
Standing in the square, visitors can observe the majesty of the Forbidden City gates to the north, and the blockhouse, Soviet-inspired National Museum of China and Great Hall of the People on the east and west.
Toward the south side is Mao Zedong's mausoleum, where visitors file through to get a look at the Great Helmsman's embalmed body.
This is the place to get that postcard perfect snapshot with the triple-whammy background of Chinese flags, giant portrait of Mao Zedong and Chinese tourists milling about making V-signs for their own cameras.
Forbidden City, 4 Jingshanqian Jie, Xicheng District, 西城区景山前街4号; +86 10 6513 2255; April-October, entrance fee RMB 60 ($9.5), open 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m.; November – March, entrance fee RMB 40 ($6.3), open 8:30 a.m. - 4:30 p.m.; www.dpm.org.cn
Tiananmen Square; 东长安街，+86 10 6702 2657; see website for the times for the flag-raising ceremony www.tiananmen.org.cn
Mao Mausoleum, 11 Qianmendongda Jie, Dongcheng District 东城区前门东大街11号; +86 10 6513 2277; cpc.people.com.cn
The Great Wall
As the symbol of China, many Chinese believe that the Great Wall is “the only man-made structure on Earth that can be seen from the Moon.”
This is untrue. But a visit to the wall is still mind-boggling.
Like a sleeping dragon, fortifications made from little more than stone, brick, earth and wood hug the crest of mountains for thousands of kilometers across northern China.
Construction began more than 2,000 years ago on the hardly impenetrable defense system. Parts of the wall that can be accessed from Beijing today were reconstructed around 450 years ago and are well preserved.
Of the seven sections of the Wall near Beijing, Badaling is the closest and most popular. The views are great, but so are the crowds of tourists.
Mutianyu and Simatai Great Wall are further away. The latter is 100 kilometers northeast of Beijing, but there are somewhat fewer visitors, and thus a more serene atmosphere.
Huanghuacheng Great Wall is particularly stunning, with a reservoir that splits the wall and "wild" sections that have been left to crumble.
Jiankou Great Wall is the most undeniably dramatic, rising and falling along sharp, tall mountains. This section of the wall is largely unmaintained -- climb at your own risk.
Badaling Great Wall, RMB 45 ($7); 7.30 a.m.-5.30 p.m.; +86 10 6912 1383; www.badaling.gov.cn
Mutianyu Great Wall, RMB 45 ($7); 8 a.m.-4.30 p.m.; +86 10 6162 6505
Simatai Great Wall, RMB 40 ($6.50); 6 a.m.-9 a.m.; Jia 1, Xi Street, Qianmen 前门西大街甲1号; +86 10 6903 1051
Huanghuacheng Great Wall; RMB 34 ($5.50); +86 10 6165 1111, www.huanghuacheng.com
Jiankou Great Wall, RMB 20 ($3); 24 hours; +86 10 6161 1478
Temple of Heaven
The most striking of Beijing's temples, the Temple of Heaven is a park outing, a cultural experience and physics lesson all in one.
Built for Chinese emperors from the Ming and Qing Dynasty to worship the god of heaven and pray for harvest in spring, the temples within the grounds are iconic for their round, tiered structures resembling the crowns worn by emperors.
A perfectly smooth circular wall surrounds the Imperial Vault of Heaven. This is the echo wall, where words whispered at one end are transmitted to a friend standing at the opposite end. Kids can be occupied here for ages.
Four times the size of the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven grounds are notable for 60,000 ancient trees. They create perfect shade for locals who come to the park to practice martial arts, fly kites and just hang out.
East of Tianqiao, Tiantanlu, Chongwen District 崇文区天坛内东里; +86 10 6701 2402; March-June, open 6 a.m.-5:30 p.m.; July - October, open 6 a.m. - 6 p.m.; November - February, open 6 a.m.-5 p.m.; entrance fee RMB 30-35 (about $6); www.tiantanpark.com
After the monumental Forbidden City and Great Wall, you might feel like you've seen it all and hit all the what to do in Beijing spots. But the Summer Palace can shock the senses of even jaded tourists.
This summer playground for emperors and empresses is another triumph of imperial will. The man-made Kunming Lake was modeled after Hangzhou's West Lake and stretches 2.2 square kilometers, dominating the grounds.
Longevity Hill, about 60 meters high, is the other landmark.
In a random variety of Chinese and Western styles, a plethora of structures built purely for the enjoyment and distraction of imperial minds dot the Summer Palace.
A giant marble boat, for example, sits permanently on the shores of the lake, and the 728-meter Long Corridor is decorated with more than 14,000 paintings.
You'll need a day to fully enjoy all the horticultural and architectural offerings and imperial extravagance that the Summer Palace packs in.
19 Xinjiangong Men Lu, Haidian District 海淀区新建宫门路19号; +86 10 6288 1144; April-October, entrance fee RMB 30 ($4.7), open 6 a.m.-6 p.m.; November-March, entrance fee RMB 20 ($3), open 7 a.m.-5 p.m. Additional entrance fee required for individual attractions within the Summer Palace grounds; www.summerpalace-china.com
798 Art Zone
A former complex of 1950s factory buildings has been taken over by artists, galleries and cafés to form the 798 Art Zone.
Much of the industrial space has been left untouched, including Mao-era propaganda slogans painted on the walls, rusting machines and exposed pipes.
The cavernous industrial spaces are a great backdrop for contemporary Chinese paintings, sculptures and installations, as well as flocks of hipsters, eccentrics and blog-baiters (people who hope to be featured on blogs) that flood though.
Even if contemporary art bores you, 798 has plenty of attractions.
The increasingly trendy neighborhood has atmospheric eateries throughout, such as Sichuan restaurant Tian Xia Yan. The Grace Beijing is a quirky-elegant hotel. Leng Yan tattoo studio is arguably Beijing's finest, if you're interested in taking away a permanent Chinese ink painting.
4 Jiuxianqiao Lu, Chaoyang District, 朝阳区酒仙桥路4号798艺术区; 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; +86 10 5978 9798, www.798art.org