Beijing is huge. Its suburbs gnaw at the horizon with a hunger that is consuming the surrounding countryside at a ravenous rate. But its centre is oddly compact, and remarkably accessible thanks to a subway system that was upgraded and expanded before and after the kick-starter of the 2008 Olympics. It’s a fascinating mixture, too. For every section of neon-sign commercialism, notably the main shopping district Wangfujing, there’s a glorious fragment of yesteryear (not least the former royal palace, the Forbidden City). For every slab of lofty aspirational architecture — such as the glass towers of the CCTV (state television) Headquarters, which seem to collapse in on themselves — there’s a traditional hutong where one-storey homes frame narrow alleys.
For five-star finesse: Peninsula Beijing (£££)
If this temple of accommodation were subject to the cliché about walls being able to talk, it might give you a presentation on the recent story of the Chinese capital. The Peninsula opened in 1989 but thanks to a recent overhaul has been effectively rebuilt from its first to 14th floors. What was once a giant of 525 rooms has been condensed into a more svelte proposition of 230 — with larger suites and a greater emphasis on space. The result is a shard of contemporary Beijing that also knows its roots. Huang Ting, one of two showpiece restaurants, keeps culinary matters thrillingly domestic via a Cantonese menu of everything from steamed shrimp dumplings to wines from the Ningxia region — while Jing heads into international waters with slabs of wagyu beef and tuna tartare under French chef Julien Cadiou.
Rooms: Doubles from Y1,530 (£173), room only.
For a simple slumber: Novotel Beijing Peace (£)
This mid-range refuge on Jinyu Hutong subscribes to the notion that a hotel shouldn’t be a distraction from a journey. Unremarkable to near-invisibility, it stands you on your feet in the morning, and ushers you outside to explore the city. It’s comfortable and fastidiously clean, and its ground-floor restaurant — awash with art installations — serves a buffet breakfast (both Western and Chinese) broad enough to fuel any day of wandering.
Rooms: Doubles from Y572 (£65), room only.
For shopaholics: Renaissance Beijing Wangfujing (££)
This sculpted box of a hotel has a certain visual presence, shining where the sun hits its glass facade. But its calling card is that it’s located on Wangfujing Street, an arrow-straight five-minute southbound amble from the pedestrianised segment of Beijing’s mall heartland. This — as much as the spa and the indoor pool — is most of note to guests returning, weighed down with shopping bags.
Rooms: Doubles from Y794 (£90), room only.
For city contrast: Crowne Plaza Wangfujing (£)
There are few clearer indications of the pace of development in Beijing than the way this budget-friendly hideaway rears above its neighbour on Wangfujing Street — St Joseph’s Church, a Catholic bastion since 1904, is now a speck among the high-rises. Not that the Crowne Plaza is worried, busying itself instead with its sizeable ninth-floor pool — and the Chinese fare of Xiaowang’s Home Restaurant.
Rooms: Doubles from Y621 (£70), room only.
For a calm kip: Red Wall Garden (££)
Tucked into a low-slung hutong in the Chaoyangmen district, Red Wall Garden appears to operate at a calmer pace than the rest of the city. Its rooms are set around a lovely courtyard where trees whisper in the breeze. This internal focal point is the chief attraction. It comes alive in the evening via an outdoor restaurant and al fresco tables. The menu changes regularly — dishes, such as rice noodles with beef and pork, are scrawled on to a chalkboard behind the cooking station. A happy, informal air rounds out the ambience, ensuring you’ll want to stay longer than you’ve booked for.
Rooms: Doubles from Y870 (£99), with breakfast.
For inexpensive style: Hotel Kapok (£)
Considering the undemanding room rate, there’s a pleasing sheen of visual flair to this untrumpeted four-star, sitting just two blocks east of the Forbidden City’s moat. It makes a play for passers-by with its green lattice fibreglass front and keeps up the appeal inside via a lounge area where seats are laid out on a series of broad steps and the word ‘KAPOK’ is spelled on the wall using books slotted into shelves.
Rooms: Doubles from Y677 (£76), room only.
For boutique escapism: Hotel Coté Cour (££)
Hidden in the same narrow alleys as Red Wall Garden, but even smaller, this delightful oasis is the antithesis of Beijing’s five-star titans — though in size rather than standard of lodging. All rooms — just 14 of them — are bright, clean, and of reasonable scale, peering out on to a small enclosed square dressed with little more than a cluster of tables, a water feature and a Buddha statue. This, however, is the idea. Here is a place of respite. There’s no restaurant or other facility, but a basic breakfast is served every morning in the reception-lounge, and this seems enough.
Rooms: Doubles from Y802 (£90), with breakfast.
For state visits: Beijing Hotel (££)
A big, brash version of modern China steps forward in this blocky five-star behemoth. State-owned, it has hosted numerous key figures, from Richard Nixon in 1972 to the International Olympic Committee in 2008. As such, it’s a showy affair from the cavernous lobby, broken up by large balloon-esque lightshades in strong hues of red and yellow, and booths selling fine rice wines and expensive watches.
Rooms: Doubles from Y1,188 (£133), room only.
For imperial grandeur: Grand Hotel Beijing (££)
If you were, somehow, to check into this landmark unaware of its exact location — at the southeast corner of the Forbidden City complex — you would not escape its admiration for the lost royal China. Stylistically at least, this property of 217 rooms and suites looks back to before 1912 and the demise of the Qing dynasty, visible in the lacquered portraits of rustic scenes from some romantic yesterday.
Rooms: Doubles from Y1,100 (£123), room only.
For hipsters: Guxiang 20 Club (£)
Beijing’s 21st-century development has seen the long hutong of Nanluoguxiang become a hip strip of independent fashion stores and vinyl-record throwbacks. There are small hotels, too — among them Guxiang 20 Club, which offers reasonably priced shelter to some of the many people who flock here. The Starbucks sign by the door is evidence of Nanluoguxiang’s growing commercialisation — but not, thankfully, of a flat-pack one-size sort of lodging. Rooms have four-poster beds and dark-wood furniture, and the red doors of the temple-esque entrance salute classical China.
Rooms: Doubles from Y630 (£74), with breakfast.
Published in the September 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)