An insider’s guide to Beijing
BEIJING has become a an increasingly attractive travel destination in recent years, particularly in the wake of incredible growth following the 2008 Olympics. From historic relics to trendy shopping to the unbeatable delight of savory local food, Beijing has much to offer every kind of traveler.
You’d be remiss to skip any of the tourism biggies. Yes, the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Summer Palace and the Great Wall tend to be jam-packed with tourists and can involve hours of shuffling grumpily past other sight-seers. But they’re still worth visiting. Why, you ask? Well, because they are ancient relics of China’s history in a city that is rapidly outgrowing its past. And while there’s not much to be done about the tourist-trap feel of the first three, there are ways of getting a more authentic experience of the Great Wall. Skip popular Badaling and head instead to beautiful Jiankou, or even Mutianyu. The cable car and toboggan ride are a little cheesy, but it’s less crowded – and therefore more enjoyable – than Badaling.
When you’ve reached your limit on how much you can take of the tourist sites, head to Gulou, the neighborhood surrounding the Drum and Bell Towers, and venture into the hutongs. These mazes of alleyways that make up the old neighborhoods of Beijing offer plenty of local color, not to mention the cheap and tasty food at the hole in the wall restaurants here. Pop into a small dumpling shop for some jiaozi and a Yanjing, or go for something harder at one of the numerous trendy bars that have opened in restored hutongs.
The 798 Art District isn’t exactly off the beaten path anymore, but it is a great place to see fine art, and another side of modern Beijing. Down the road sits Caochangdi, a smaller and less-developed artistic neighborhood that is also home to some interesting galleries.
Accommodations in China’s capital range from the cheap and cheerful hostels to the luxury suites of the Fairmont Beijing, Ritz-Carlton Beijing or any of the other top of the line hotels in the city. Rates at hostels can be as cheap as $8USD, while posh suites can obviously get up to several hundred dollars a night. For something in the middle, try The Orchid, a beautiful boutique hotel nestled into a Gulou hutong, where prices range from about $110–190USD a night.
Dining & Nightlife
It almost goes without saying that when in Beijing, you must sit down for a sumptuous meal of Peking duck. Da Dong serves up a succulent meal in a pleasant environment and the main course comes served with a number of sides in which to dip your meat, including garlic and sugar. The Peking duck at the Grand Hyatt’s Made in China restaurant also comes highly recommended as being among the best in the city.
For other authentic Chinese cuisine, you’d do well to pop into any small local restaurant and order up some di san xian, a deliciously garlic-y dish of potatoes, eggplant and peppers covered in a tangy sweet sauce, and heaping plates of savory veggies such as gan bian si ji dou, spicy green beans. If you’re hankering to sample regional cuisines, restaurants specializing in Yunnan, Sichuan and Xinjiang foods abound.
In addition to a plethora of local establishments, Beijing boasts a burgeoning restaurant scene that includes Italian, Mediterranean, French, American, Japanese and Spanish cuisines. The Sanlitun neighborhood, a hub for international dining, shopping and entertainment, is home to a number of these restaurants. They are conveniently located a stone’s throw from popular nightlife destinations such as Miga’s, Apothecary, First Floor, and the seedy but fun dive bars and clubs of the Sanlitun bar street.
If rowdy and debaucherous isn’t your thing for a night out, head away from Sanlitun for post-dinner drinks and check out the more relaxed bars along Nanluoguxiang, such as quirky Salud and the ever-inviting 12SQM. Further up the road, Mai Bar serves excellent cocktails in a chic but unpretentious hutong setting. For an evening of intimate conversation and quite often good live music, head to ZaJia, a small but beautiful space in a restored temple.
And then of course there is the club scene. If gyrating to dubstep and electronica into the wee hours of the morning is your thing, make night of it in Beijing’s Gongti neighborhood, which is home to a number of the city’s most popular clubs. This author recommends Elements, also in the Gongti area.
Head to the Beijing markets for your obligatory souvenir shopping, but be prepared when you do. At places like YaShow Market in Sanlitun, vendors will try to charge far more than their goods are worth but most are amendable to some negotiation. Avoid the Silk Market, which is well known for its aggressive vendors and overall aggravation. Take advantage of the low prices and bargaining opportunities to have suits and dresses custom made, a more useful souvenir than, say, a cheap dragon statue.
For higher end shopping, there are a number of luxury brand shops in the Sanlitun Village and North Village. A wander along Gulou Dongdajie or Nanluoguxiang will take you past some lovely and off-beat boutiques where you can pick up some Beijing kitsch to remind you of your trip.
If you’re traveling to Beijing from outside of China, book a flight into Beijing Capital Airport, then hail a cab (about 80RMB or $13USD) into the city. You can also hop onto the clean and reliable Airport Express train, which takes about 30 minutes to arrive in the city and costs 25RMB ($4USD).
If you’re coming from Mongolia or Hong Kong, you can take an overnight train and take in the countryside on your way to the capital. Prices vary depending on the seat you choose, but it is advisable to go for a soft sleeper every time. The price is higher but you’ll be grateful for the extra space on the long journey. Tickets can be purchased directly at the train station, and occasionally through a third-party vendor such as chinatraintickets.net.