Beijing, the time-honoured metropolis of Kublai Khan and the Empress Dowager Cixi, is today one of Asia’s most modern and dynamic capitals. China’s shopfront, it sits at the heart of a nation that will shape the course of the 21st century like no other. A swirling mass of humanity, the city’s population nearly doubled between 2000 and 2010 and now tips the scales at over 20 million people. Beijing is big, bold and burgeoning, in every sense, and the whirlwind evolution of the Chinese capital shows no sign of abating.
I lived here from 2004 until 2009, when a transformative frenzy gripped the city in the run-up to the Olympics. When I return to my old haunts — usually once a year — I’m struck by how many of these cherished places are still changing, or have already completely disappeared.
It may be a well-worn cliche, but nowhere outside of Beijing will you witness such a stark contrast between old and new China. This is a place where awe-inspiring historical sights stand side by side with a confident and thriving avant-garde culture. A place where wizened gentlemen in Mao jackets dangle fishing rods below soft green willows, while girls in the latest designer clothes totter past to dates at their favourite sushi spots. A place where middle-aged ladies with bouffant hair dance the night away below some of Asia’s most cutting-edge contemporary architecture.
What this great dichotomy means for visitors is an eclectic and ever-expanding mix of experiences, sights and activities. Take in Beijing’s iconic hutong neighbourhoods from a motorcycle sidecar in the morning. Titillate your taste buds at a Michelin star-quality restaurant for lunch. See the latest Chinese stars in wax at Madame Tussauds in the afternoon. Round things off with dinner and dancing in the 798 Art District before retiring to your uber-chic courtyard hotel or luxury pad beside the Great Wall. Or simply relax and spend the day people-watching at the Temple of Heaven and Tiananmen Square.
One thing’s for sure, if Beijing is your first port of call in China then be prepared to have your preconceived ideas busted. At times it will be expensive (this is a city that does exclusive as well as any other). People will speak some English to you. And you’ll be able to find Marmite, if you really want it. You’ll soon realise that hardly anyone knows kung fu. And that Chinese nightlife is so much more than teahouses, acrobatics and a bottle of snake wine. Above all, be curious and adventurous, and you’ll discover this city of many incarnations goes far beyond the stereotypes.
What to see & do
Beijing Opera: Some consider Beijing Opera to be the pinnacle of Chinese entertainment. See a colourful show at the Zhengyici Peking Opera Theatre.
Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal: This UNESCO World Heritage Site stretches nearly 1,120 miles from Hangzhou to the Beijing suburb of Tongzhou, around 21 miles west of the centre. Visit the Grand Canal Cultural Park for a boat tour.
Summer Palace: Spring and early summer are a great time to visit Beijing’s Summer Palace. Highlights include the vast Kunming Lake, which can be explored by ferry or pedal boat in warmer months. In its middle is Nanhu Island, reached by the elegant Seventeen-Arch Bridge, China’s largest ornamental span.
798 Art District: Located in Dashanzi, in the capital’s northeastern Chaoyang District, 798 Art District has become the third most popular destination in Beijing, after the Forbidden City and the Great Wall, since it opened in 2002. Often compared to New York’s Greenwich Village or Paris’ Left Bank, the complex of former military factory buildings is home to a bohemian community and is a must-see for modern-art lovers.
Olympic Green: The Beijing Olympics saw the Chinese capital endowed with some striking modern architecture; chiefly the Olympic Stadium — aka the ‘Bird’s Nest’ — and the adjacent National Aquatics Center, or ‘Water Cube’, both located at the Olympic Green in the north of Beijing.
Temple of Heaven: Despite Beijing’s futuristic buildings and preponderance of neon, there’s still plenty of ancient culture on view if you know where to look. An early-morning trip to the Temple of Heaven is a must for people-watching, with legions of elderly locals practising yoga and tai chi.
Shichahai: Take a pedicab ride around Shichahai, one of Beijing’s most popular destinations with its lines of willow trees, hutongs and siheyuan (courtyard houses), not to mention a thriving cafe culture.
Like a local
Taxis: Taxi Fare Finder is a handy website to refer to before your journey to check you aren’t being overcharged by your taxi driver.
Cuisine: Dive into the world of Beijing cuisine at the Hutong Cuisine Cooking School, which offers everything from taster sessions to 10-day courses.
Where to stay
Double Happiness Courtyard Hotel: Tucked down a Dongsishitiao alleyway, this hotel gives guests the chance to experience authentic courtyard life.
Grace Beijing: Situated in the heart of Beijing’s 798 District, the Bauhaus-style, bijou Grace Beijing is the perfect hangout for culture vultures and art aficionados alike.
Sunrise Kempinski Hotel: Perched on the edge of Yanqi Lake close to the Great Wall, the Sunrise is Beiing’s most exciting new hotel. Its stunning, orb-like structure is covered in more than 10,000 glass panels.
Panjiayuan Flea Market: You’ll find everything from Mao caps to Ming pottery at the capital’s biggest and best-known arts, crafts and antiques market.
Liulichang Culture Street: Beijing’s oldest street is packed with stalls and shops selling all manner of curios, calligraphy brushes, handicrafts and scroll paintings.
Yaxiu and Silk Street: Multi-floor discount markets Yaxiu and Silk Street are packed to the rafters with out-of-town sellers peddling fake designer clothes and watches, but are nonetheless a great place to pick up traditional Chinese products and souvenirs at bargain prices — just be sure to haggle.
Where to eat
Wangfujing Snack Street: Head to this street near Tiananmen Square to witness a Chinese culinary smörgåsbord. If they’re on offer, grab a jianbing, Beijing’s savoury crepe par excellence.
Green T House Living: Launched by an artist, tea connoisseur and celebrity chef, this former bohemian bathhouse has morphed into a popular eaterie. The restaurant’s array of dishes — all of which incorporate tea in some way — are the perfect complement to the stylish interior.
Made in China: The menu at Made in China, flagship restaurant of the Grand Hyatt Beijing, exemplifies the evolution taking place in many of the city’s exclusive kitchens. Its piece de resistance is the capital’s iconic dish, Beijing duck.
Centro: The stylish Centro is arguably Beijing’s finest cocktail venue. On most nights you’re likely to find an A-list crowd of film stars, Communist Party bigwigs and an athlete or two, not to mention a bevy of beautiful people.
Modernista: The recently reopened Modernista has already earned a reputation as the place to see some of Beijing’s hippest live music acts. The newly enlarged, art deco-inspired space now features an absinthe room, cocktail bar, Italian restaurant and rooftop terrace.
Bomb Shelter Bar: The quirky Bomb Shelter Bar is tucked away inside the Red Capital Residence, an authentic courtyard in Beijing’s Dongsi neighbourhood. This subterranean three-room watering hole comes complete with Cultural Revolution kitsch, old communications equipment and screenings of propagandist opera. Try a flaming Lin Biao Crash cocktail served by women in Red Army uniform.
All single journeys on the vast Beijing subway (17 lines and over 230 stations) cost 2RMB/20p, except the airport line (25RMB/£2.60). Avoid rush-hour ticket and swipe card queues by loading up a prepaid swipe card in advance. Beijing’s taxis are cheap, but most drivers don’t speak English. Ask your hotel to write your destination in Chinese and carry a card with your hotel address on it in Chinese. Never take an unofficial taxi.
Spring and autumn are best with temperatures around 20C. Winters can be bitterly cold and windy, and summers baking hot and humid.
Need to know
Visas: UK citizens need a visa prior to arrival and a passport with over six months’ validity. chinese-embassy.org.uk
Visas may not be required for stays of up to 72 hours if flying on to another country (check with airline).
Currency: Yuan (RMB). £1 = RMB9.2
Vaccinations: Check with your GP prior to arrival.
International dial code: 00 86 10.
Time difference: GMT +8.
How to do it
On The Go Tours offers the five-day Beijing Breakaway from £349, not including flights. Return flights with British Airways and seven nights’ B&B at the Holiday Inn Express Temple of Heaven, from around £830 per person.
Published in the September 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)