As an ever-expanding city with 20 million people and new buildings sprouting up daily, Beijing may seem an unlikely — not to mention overwhelming — destination for a family vacation. But with careful planning, it’s possible for kids, especially school-aged children and teens, to accompany you on a business trip here. With glassy high rises rapidly displacing ancient hutongs (traditional courtyard residences and alleyways), Beijing is the perfect place to give your kids a primer in China’s history and its ballooning role in the global marketplace. Plus, there’s no better time for young ones to see China’s frenetic capital. If Beijing keeps changing at its current rate, who knows what it’ll look like a decade from now?
For years, Beijing was known as “The City of Bicycles.” Now, its growing middle class has made Beijing a city of cars, poised to become the world’s largest auto market. But Beijing is still biker-friendly, and the best way to get acquainted with the city is still via two wheels. (Most hotels offer cycling tours or bike rentals.) Take a few hours to pedal leisurely down the wide bike lanes on Beijing’s main streets and take in sights like the egg-shaped National Centre for the Performing Arts, bustling Tiananmen Square and the giant Mao portrait outside the Forbidden City. Just make sure you obey traffic signals; Beijing drivers don’t give cyclists the right of way, so crossing streets may feel a bit harrowing.
After you’ve biked up an appetite, take your brood to Black Sesame Kitchen. In 2008, Jen Lin-Liu, a Chinese-American expat, writer and nationally certified Chinese chef, founded this cooking school and private dinner venue in a hutong. Lin-Liu’s cooking school mentors, who once taught her to fold dumplings and slice soup noodles, now work for her. One of them will lead your family in concocting a meal to remember. Over the course of three hours, you’ll make meat and vegetable dumplings from scratch. Kids will love mixing and kneading the dough, rolling and stuffing dumplings and watching as the little pillows are fried or boiled. Then comes the best part: chowing down your creations.
Spend the next day exploring the sights you passed during your bike tour. Tiananmen Square is the world’s largest outdoor square, though it’s better known as the site of the June 4, 1989 massacre, when the People’s Liberation Army opened fire on pro-democracy civilian protesters, killing hundreds. You’ll appreciate the square’s historical significance, but your kids may be bored. It is great for people-watching — hordes of tourists are usually milling around — but there’s not much else to see on the vast plaza.
The opulent Forbidden City, across the street, is far more interesting. This sprawling complex was completed in 1420, during the Ming dynasty, after 14 years of construction. There are said to be 9,999-and-a-half rooms in the entire palace. According to Chinese tradition, the Palace of Heaven has 10,000 rooms, so the Forbidden City, built for mere mortal rulers, had to have one half-room less. For nearly 500 years, 24 Ming and Qing dynasty emperors — as well as their wives and numerous concubines — called the Forbidden City home.
Wandering through the Forbidden City takes a few hours. (You could easily explore by yourselves, but it’s helpful to have a guide; your hotel can set you up with one.) As you make your way from the imposing Meridian Gate to the Gate of the Divine Warrior, you’ll get a glimpse of what Beijing was like during its dynasty days. You’ll see the grand Hall of Supreme Harmony, where important celebrations like the Lunar New Year and the emperor’s birthday were held, and the scenic Imperial Garden. If your kids are into mythical creatures, they’re in luck: They’ll spot dragons and other symbolic Chinese animals on countless structures, from the signature yellow pagoda roofs to elaborate marble carvings. Keep your kids nearby at all times — it’s easy to get lost in the massive crowds here.
Later, visit the Summer Palace. This gorgeous retreat, built around Kunming Lake, covers more than one square mile. It was first constructed in 1750 but was destroyed and rebuilt several times over the years. The Empress Dowager Cixi of the Qing dynasty summered here, and upon arrival, you’ll wish you could, too. Stroll past pagoda-roofed buildings with intricately carved façades and savor the sight of boats drifting lazily across willow-lined Kunming Lake. Take a walk down the Long Corridor, a 2,388-foot outdoor walkway whose beams are adorned with more than 8,000 colorful, painted scenes from classic Chinese literature.
If your kids need a break from sightseeing, let them get cultured another way by going shopping. Head to Nanluoguxiang, an 800-year-old hutong that’s now a center for all things trendy. Here you’ll find clothing boutiques, cafés and hip, local artists peddling their wares on the sidewalk. Or hit up Yashow Market for shopping and haggling. In stall after stall in this multi-level building, vendors sell knock-off clothing, shoes, belts, handbags, accessories, toys and more. Some merchants speak better English than others, but communication will never be a problem. If you want to buy an item, you’ll negotiate the cost by punching the price you’re willing to pay into the vendor’s calculator. You and the vendor will pass the calculator back and forth until you’ve reached an agreement. Be prepared to walk away at least once during the bargaining process. If you show waning interest, vendors are more likely to slash prices further.
No trip to Beijing — or to China, for that matter — is complete without visiting the Great Wall. China’s most iconic structure was built to keep out invading tribes from the north; construction lasted from the fifth century B.C. to the 17th century A.D. Today, the Great Wall spans more than 4,000 miles. Several parts are accessible from Beijing. Most travelers head to the crowded, touristy Badaling section. Those in the know, however, will tell you that the peaceful Mutianyu section is your better bet. The drive there is about an hour and a half from downtown Beijing, a peaceful ride that goes past fields, forests and small towns.
To get onto the wall, you’ll take a cable car tram. The short but thrilling ride whisks you over treetops to Mutianyu’s tallest section. Once you’re there, don’t hurry your hike. The uneven stone steps can make for an awkward climb, plus you’ll want to savor views of the ancient stone wall undulating over green hills. Your kids will probably run up and down the stairs between towers as you (and your aching knees) lag behind. If you need reassurance that you’ll survive walking the wall, check out your fellow visitors: You’ll see people of all ages, from toddling tots to grandparents, trekking from tower to tower.
Before returning to Beijing, refuel at The Schoolhouse, a sustainable art and dining complex situated in an abandoned village school. The buildings were renovated to preserve the original character and complement the peaceful setting among trees and mountains. Dine alfresco on the upper terrace while taking in views of the Great Wall. The Schoolhouse’s lunch menu has Western staples like club sandwiches, as well as Chinese dishes like noodles and lamb curry, and a children’s menu. Stop into the Schoolhouse Glass studio, which hosts free daily glass-blowing demonstrations at 1 and 3 p.m. You can watch a local craftsperson create a Chinese zodiac animal, vase or bowl from beginning to end. It’s a relaxing way to top off the afternoon before heading back into the big city.
Info to Go
Beijing Capital International Airport (PEK) is located approximately 16 miles from central Beijing. Taxi rides to downtown Beijing take 30 minutes to one hour. Or hop on the Airport Line subway, which takes about 20 minutes to reach the Dongzhimen station on the Second Ring Road. For information, http://english.visitbeijing.com.cn/.
InterContinental Beijing Beichen
Opened in September 2008 just minutes from Olympic Park, the InterContinental has 337 sophisticated guestrooms and a full menu of amenities. 8 Beichen West Road, Chaoyang District, tel 86 10 8437 1188, $$
The Ritz-Carlton, Beijing
Beijing’s Ritz in the Central Business District has 305 guestrooms outfitted in classic, elegant décor. 83A Jian Guo Road, China Central Place, tel 86 10 5908 8888, $$$$
Grand Hyatt Beijing
Boasting an unbeatable location in the Dong Cheng district, minutes away from The Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, this 5-star hotel offers a subtle blend of Western and Asian traditions. 1 E. Chang An Ave., tel 86 10 8518 1234, $$–$$$$
Black Sesame Kitchen
Learn to make dumplings or other traditional Chinese dishes under guidance from veteran Chinese chefs in a hutong setting. 3 Black Sesame Hutong, tel 86 1369 147 4408, Private cooking class $$$$
The Schoolhouse at Mutianyu
Savor views of the Great Wall while enjoying Chinese and Western dishes made from locally sourced ingredients. 12 Mutianyu Village, Huairou District, tel 86 10 6162 6506, $–$$
Yu serves upscale Cantonese cuisine and a variety of fine teas, selected by an in-house tea master to complement your meal. The Ritz-Carlton Beijing, 83A Jian Guo Road, China Central Place, 86 10 5908 8111, $$
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