Beijing travel guide
For all the Maoist boulevards and brutal high-rises, Beijing today brims with glamour. Of course, it oozed wealth in Imperial times, too (two words: Forbidden City). And these days? It’s a whirl of top-notch restaurants, big-money art and couture cocktails in nook-like bars tucked away down old lanes. Ming, Qing – and now bling.
Things to do in Beijing
Pay a visit to the Forbidden City
First stop: the Forbidden City, the proto-bling of the Ming and Qing emperors. Grand lacquered palaces line up, raised on multi-storey pedestals. Radiating out are lesser halls with golden roofs like eagles’ wings. This is the most resplendent Imperial architecture in the country. If you can’t be here by 8.30am when it opens, wait for the crowds to dwindle at 2.30pm – you’ll still have two hours to explore before it closes.
Shop in traditional districts
While tourists fill the old residential streets of the traditional districts (hutongs) uptown, you can try the up-and-coming Dashilar lanes south of Tiananmen Square, where artists live and work in still-affordable ateliers, interspersed among the hipster bookshops and cobblers. The cubbyhole shopfronts of Yangmeizhu Street, all ceramics galleries and stationers, are sure to waylay you.
If shopping is Beijing’s blingiest sport, the Sanlitun area is its playing field. Pink-haired fashion victims swan around, while skater boys toy with tech gadgets. The centrepiece is DSM Beijing – Dover Street Market’s Chinese counterpart – all asymmetrical blazers and outré faux fur. Across the street to the north are the city’s coolest independent boutiques, Anchoret and Sanlipop, selling edgy Chinese and European fashion.
See Beijing’s art offerings
For Beijing’s nouveau riche, the shiny Guardian Art Center (1 Wangfujing St) exhibits and auctions billions’ worth of art. But China’s emerging art stars show in Dashanzi, aka 798 Art Zone. Hail a taxi for the half-hour ride to the cobbled maze of galleries. The white hangar-like Ullens Center has a top shop selling hip sunglasses and £2,000 prints. Lesser-known Hive sits behind a leafy living wall.
If Picasso and Escher designed a building together, it would be just like the Minsheng Art Museum, recently opened in an abandoned factory on the fringes of 798. Set aside an hour to explore the angular concrete interior and bathe in streaks of sunlight from the skylights. The surreal art will be a ‘trip’, too, if past shows by Wang Haiyang and Zhang Dali are anything to go by.
Pensioners practise tai chi across the lawns, while children drag their doting elders over stepping stones on the pond: sprawling Chaoyang Park is the village green to 12 million Beijingers. But for bling-seekers, it also borders Chaoyang Park Plaza, Beijing’s glossiest recent development. Designed by audacious architects MAD, it forms a mountain silhouette in black glass and steel.
Half an hour from town lies a tranquil wood with willow-shaded paths and carved-wood colonnades framing views to Kunming Lake. They form part of the 300-year-old Qing Dynasty Summer Palace, a network of tile-roofed villas stepped up the hillside to a tiered pagoda at the peak – the hardy can climb for a bird’s-eye view.
Sip chilli-spiced cocktails in fancy bars
It’s party time, so head back to Sanlitun, where the neon keeps your brain abuzz all hours, Vegas-style. Start at Scandal, a tropical cocktail bar that defies its gaudy name with expertly-mixed drinks and a white-gloved atmosphere. At weekends, European DJs start spinning at 10pm. As the night wanes, follow the flash set to Parlor (39-9 Xingfuercun), a gritty speakeasy with dancefloor and chilli-spiced cocktails.
5 of the best restaurants in Beijing
1. Meeting Someone
The fashionable fusion
Drinks arrive under a cloche in this warren of art-filled lounges. The food – say, pork in plum-wine sauce – is picture-perfect.
Travel’s tip: Ask to sit in the bar – the restaurant is tucked away upstairs. 99 Yangmeizhu St, Dashilar.
2. Dali Courtyard
The al fresco favourite
Yunnanese dishes merge Vietnamese aromas with the piquancy of Sichuan. The set menu is based on what’s fresh, be it tofu ‘fettucine’ in stewed peppers or tongue-scorching fried chicken with sesame-dusted potato fries.
Travel’s tip: Call two days ahead to get a table in the courtyard – it’s heated off-season. 67 Xiaojingchang Hutong.
3. TRB Hutong
The expat rendezvous
Continental innovations (such as sea bass with bacon crust and curry oil) are a break from spicy Chinese – hence the expats in this remodelled temple courtyard.
Travel’s tip: Go for ‘The Classic’ five-course menu – a full-on sensual experience that outsizes its relatively modest price tag. 23 Shatan Bei St.
4. Da Dong
The ritual banquet
The wood-fired duck is carved at your table, as per the original imperial rite. The crispy skin comes off to be dipped in sugar, then the tender meat is served with pancakes, veg and garlic sauces.
Travel’s tip: Locals won’t leave without tasting the brain (ya nao) a vehicle for greater intelligence. 22A Dongsi 10th Alley, Dongcheng.
5. Peninsular Hotel
The high tea
It’s pure extravagance: pâtisserie, precision-cut sarnies and Darjeeling. Silk-suited servers bring it to your table – with English-language newspapers – to strains from the string quartet.
Travel’s tip: Ring ahead for an outer table in the vaulted space by the windows. 8 Jinyu Hutong.
3 of the best bars in Beijing
1. Janes and Hooch
The hip whisky joint
This wood-panelled bar is more Brooklyn than Beijing, with gingery Eastern-themed cocktails and funk.
Travel’s tip: While their menu changes frequently, the Old Fashioned is a mainstay – and it’s sublime. 7pm-9pm. Building 10, 4 Gongti Bei Lu, Chaoyang.
2. Mai Bar
The romantic speakeasy
Beijing is in love with ’40s jazz standards, and in this candlelit home in a narrow hutong alley they’ll put you in the mood. The Beijing Passion cocktail, poured over thick passion-fruit pulp, might help.
Travel’s tip: The loos are sub-standard. Go before you go. 40 Beiluoguxiang, Dongcheng.
The killer view
It’s got a vista of glittering skyscrapers, sprawl and sunsets, 80 storeys up. The mood is grown-up and buttoned-down, the cocktails classic and modestly-priced.
Travel’s tip: Weekday happy hour is legendary… 1 Jianguomenwai Ave.