If you’ve never been to Beijing, know this: The city is humongous. On my first visit, I asked the hotel concierge how far it was to Tiananmen Square. “Oh, just a couple of blocks,” he said. So I headed off by foot only to arrive at my destination three hours later. The immense power and scale of China manifest in Beijing, where simply walking around makes you feel like an ant. The palaces, parks, temples and tombs are massive. Street blocks stretch on forever. And the city ranks as one of the most populous in the world with a headcount of approximately 21.5 million.
All of which means you need to allow plenty of time to get around. Beijing, considered China’s cultural, educational and political center, offers much to see and do. Ideally, you and your travel companions should allow at least three days to explore.
Smog and pollution aside, it’s hard to find a bad time to visit Beijing. Winters can be downright romantic with snow swirling off temple pagodas, the air scented with roasting sweet potatoes and area lakes frozen to a gemlike shine, ideal for skating. Summer brings heat yet also a certain ease. Temple and palace gardens bloom with flowers, and streets swell with vendors selling skewers of spicy barbecued meat and icy beer.
Like any historical city trying to blaze forward in today’s global economy, Beijing offers visitors a taste of the old and new. Not surprisingly, the ancient way of life is becoming more difficult to find: lanes filled with residents playing games of mah-jongg, sipping tea and tending to their pet crickets. Look for these scenes in the hutong neighborhoods, known for narrow alleys you can explore on foot or on a rickshaw tour. South Gong and Drum Lane is one such area, along with Skewed Tobacco Pouch Street.
In terms of Beijing’s top sites, begin your tour with Tiananmen Square. Chairman Mao Zedong used this gigantic field of concrete, considered the heart of the city, for viewing gatherings and parades. In 1976, hundreds of thousands of citizens filled the square to pay their last respects to the chairman. In 1989, the square made headlines when soldiers and tanks attempted to quell pro-democracy demonstrators. Now Tiananmen Square is a popular place to meet a friend, fly a kite and visit nearby monuments such as the Mao Zedong Mausoleum. While perhaps not a suitable stop for children, seeing Mao’s preserved body is strangely thrilling. As you stroll past the body lying in the sarcophagus, it appears made of wax.
See a more traditional view of the leader on display in the form of a massive portrait on the nearby Tiananmen Gate, also called the Gate of Heavenly Peace, built to its current state in the 17th century. Crowds of tourists frequent the area, eager to have their photo snapped under the great gaze of Mao.
Passing through the gate, make your way to The Forbidden City, the largest and best-preserved collection of buildings in China and brought alive in the 1987 Bernardo Bertolucci film The Last Emperor. Set on nearly 200 acres, this imperial complex served as the living quarters for 24 emperors and their families and staff from 1420 until 1911. The Yongle emperor, Zhu Di, ordered the construction of the city, which houses 980 buildings. No one outside of the imperial household was ever allowed to enter The Forbidden City, thus making it a place of great intrigue until the dynastic system collapsed in 1911. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. (The brightly colored Lama Temple with its gorgeous gardens, tapestries and frescoes is also worth a visit.)
More World Heritage sites include the Summer Palace in western Beijing, the Temple of Heaven with its exquisite Ming architecture, and The Great Wall and Imperial Tombs of the Ming and Qing Dynasties. The Summer Palace, first built in 1750 and restored in 1886, includes the stunning Imperial Garden featuring hills and open water interspersed with pavilions, temples and bridges. Nearby Kunming Lake offers a popular place to picnic or hire a boat. In winter, once the lake freezes, you can rent skates.
You’ll need to hire a car to take you to The Great Wall and Imperial Tombs of the Ming and Qing Dynasties. You can visit The Great Wall at various points, including Badaling and Mutianyu, inevitably swarming with tourists and vendors selling T-shirts and trinkets. Nevertheless, standing on the massive structure and seeing it wind off to the horizon reinforces the structure’s spectacular symbol of fortitude and power over the past 2,000 years.
To see a more contemporary side to the city, visit the 2008 Summer Olympics Beijing National Stadium, nicknamed the “Bird’s Nest” due to its latticed structure illuminated at night. The National Aquatics Center, nicknamed “Water Cube,” turns blue at night, and its square shape symbolizes earth while the round shape of the nearby stadium represents heaven.
Kids and animal lovers will want to visit the Beijing Zoo, where approximately 600 different species reside, including some unique to China such as the giant panda and red-crowned crane. For contemporary culture, head to the 798 Art District in the northeast Dashanzi area of central Beijing. Formerly filled with factories and warehouses, including Factory 798 which produced electronics, the district has become a hotbed for artists, featuring cutting-edge galleries, boutiques, design studios, restaurants and bars.
When it comes to dining, Beijing’s most famous dish is Peking duck. Siji Minfu earns accolades for preparing this dish in an expert manner — the bird comes to your table glossy and brown, and a tableside carver deftly slices off the crispy skin and meat to tuck into thin pancakes moistened with hoisin sauce. Following tradition, the kitchen turns the carcass into umami-rich broth served at the end of the meal. To sample more Beijing specialties, head to Baodu Feng Jiumen Xiaochi, a food court consisting of multiple covered stalls selling approximately 200 different kinds of snacks to eat at tables or on the fly. In addition to tripe with a secret dipping sauce and braised beef, you’ll encounter such ancient dishes as bean curd topped with braised mushrooms, mashed pea cakes and fried flour tea made from flour fried in oil and added to hot water sweetened with the fragrant flowering plant osmanthus.
Since Beijing lights up at night — literally and figuratively — consider grabbing a post-prandial cocktail or listening to some music. Currently, the buzz hovers around Cos, a swanky, modern, LGBT-friendly bar, as well as Hush, an upscale nightclub known for offering serious cocktails and Champagne along with a pleasing mix of hip-hop and pop music. Or, if you prefer to step back in time, attend a Peking opera.
Beijing Info to Go
International flights arrive at Beijing Capital International Airport, about 20 miles from downtown Beijing. The Beijing Capital Airport Express light rail line runs from terminals 2 and 3 to two stations in the downtown area, Dongzhimen and Sanyuanqiao. For ease and comfort, arrange for a car or taxi for transfer to and from your hotel.
Where to Stay in Beijing
Four Seasons Hotel Beijing Enjoy all the privileges and services you expect along with luxurious guestrooms and suites, six restaurants and lounges, a gym, a spa and a menu of activities for kids. 48 Liang Ma Qiao Road, Chaoyang District $$$$
The Opposite House This über-cool hotel in the city’s business district features sleek, Zen-like guestrooms; three eateries; a gym; and a beautiful pool. 11 Taikoo Li Sanlitun N., Sanlitun Road, Chaoyang District $$$$$
Rosewood Beijing The Rosewood evokes a plush residential feel with elegant guestrooms and suites, six restaurants and lounges, a spa and the Manor Club executive lounge with exclusive services. Jing Guang Centre, Hujialou, Chaoyang District $$$$
Restaurants in Beijing
Black Sesame Kitchen Enjoy a 10-course dinner with wine pairing every Tuesday and Friday at a communal table in this intimate spot which also offers lunchtime cooking classes Wednesdays and Sundays. 28 Zhong Lao Hutong, Dongcheng District $$$$
China Grill Inside the Park Hyatt Beijing with jaw-dropping panoramic views over the city, this 5-star restaurant offers upscale versions of home-style Chinese food; sushi; and Western steaks, chops and seafood. Park Hyatt Beijing, 2 Jianguomenwai St., Chaoyang District $$$$$
Siji Minfu Locals and visitors flock to this spot to savor authentic Peking duck in all its glory. The quacking ducks ensure the food is fresh. 32 Dengshikou W. St., Dongcheng $$$$
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