By Manya Koetse Whats on Weibo
It is a cliché of course, but China is big – very big. This means that anyone traveling to the ‘Middle Kingdom’ needs to make big decisions. Will you visit Xian’s Terracotta Army, or would you rather see the bright lights of Shanghai’s Bund? Check out the Panda Zoo in Chengdu, or go rock climbing in Yunnan? Whatever choices you make, there is one destination you can’t miss: Beijing, China’s vibrant capital.
Beijing is situated in Northern China (“bei-jing” literally means “north-city”), and is the cultural and political heart of the country. The Great Wall is its most famous tourist attraction, but the city has a lot more to offer. Trendy bars and modern malls have mushroomed over the past decade. With so much to see, do and taste, you could easily plan a three or four-day stay to discover the city. We’ll show you the go-to places in three of its must-see neighbourhoods.
DRUM & BELL (GULOU AREA)
Around the Drum and Bell Towers (near to the Gulou subway station), you’ll find one of Beijing’s nicest areas to stroll. Although the oldest parts of the neighbourhood have been partially demolished and renovated, you can still find authentic courtyards and hutongs (old alleyways) here, filled with colorful shops and cute little bars.
Let’s start the day off with some baozi (steamed buns) for breakfast. Most streets around here have their own little baozi places: just pick one that is busy, and you’ll know it’s good. Are all the tables taken? No worries, in most baozi places it’s common to share a table. Besides steamed buns with pork, veal, or vegetables, most of these tiny restaurants also offer noodles, fried rice or dumplings. When you have eaten your fill, you can take a look in the Drum Tower. The Drum and Bell towers were originally used as musical instruments and for letting people know what time it was. The Drum Tower offers a great view of the old neighbourhood and its hutongs. Nanluoguxiang is the most famous hutong street in this area. It once used to be the place where Beijing’s aristocracy lived. Now, it is one of the most-visited streets of the city because of its trendy stores and cafes. You can visit Plastered here, where they sell t-shirts with nostalgic China prints.
If you would rather get away from the crowds of Nanluoguxiang, just turn into any alley on the left or right to continue a more quiet walk and enjoy the vibe of old Beijing. Treat yourself to a foot massage on Gulou main street (the street that connects Nanluoguxiang to the Drum Tower).
Right by this road you will also find a little street named Baochao. Here, in the heart of the hutongs, you find the cosy and romantic boutique hotel The Orchard. The rooms are all uniquely decorated with a view of the courtyard. Make sure to reserve a room beforehand because the hotel only has ten available. Near to The Orchard, on the opposite of the street, there is a little restaurant with home-made jiaozi (a kind of Chinese dumpling): Mr Shi’s Dumplings. Quench your thirst with a big bottle of Tsingtao Beer, like the locals do. For dancing and drinking, you can go to Modernista down the road (number 44), a little French joint with a 1930s vibe to it.
If you haven’t been to the Forbidden City, you haven’t been to Beijing. From the Gulou area, you can walk (60 min) or rent a bike and cycle (20 min) Because this is the ‘holy’ place where China’s emperors lived from the 15th century, it attracts hundreds of Chinese tourists every day, so try to go early in the morning to avoid the crowd. Exiting the Forbidden City, you arrive at the impressive Tiananmen Square where you can cross over to Qianmen, a century-old street that has been transformed into one of Beijing’s more popular commercial areas since the Olympics in 2008. Alongside shopping for national and international brands, you can also enjoy some haute cuisine here.
Qianmen is home to restaurant Capital M by Australian restaurateur Michelle Garnaut, whose Hongkong ‘M at the Fringe’ and Shanghai ‘M on the Bund’ restaurants already received rave reviews: Garnout seems to know the ingredients to success. Capital M does not only serve good food (French cuisine with Middle-Eastern influences), it also offers a great terrace with one of the best views on Tiananmen.
If you’re in the neighbourhood anyway, you might as well take a stroll to Chienmen 23. This is the old Legation Quarter where, amongst others, the American Embassy was based from 1861 to 1959. The quarter is a go-to spot because of its impressive buildings (the central house was visited by Henry Kissinger during his secret 1971 China trip), but also because of its nice restaurants. Lost Heaven is one of them, a modern-creative Yunnan restaurant with an intimate dark teak interior. Since the region’s cuisine (lime, mushrooms, lemongrass, peppers, flowers) is not well-known in Europe or the US, Lost Heaven is, according to the New York Times, “more than great eating: it’s a learning experience.” For an after-dinner drink, you could go to the bar of the Emperor Hotel, east of the Forbidden City, where you can enjoy a drink on their rooftop in spring or summer.
Embassy Area (around Sanlitun)
The city district Chaoyang is the modern center of Beijing. Except for the foreign embassy neighbourhood, this is also a business district. There is always something to see and do around shopping area Sanlitun Village. Countless shops, restaurants, beauty parlours and a big cinema, it is hard to get bored here.
Ever wanted to smell like freshly cut grass, cucumber or sea breeze? At Demeter Fragrance Library (basement level of the mall), you can smell and buy the craziest perfumes.
Nearby you will find the 3.3 mall, where you can get a massage and manicure at Lily’s on the third floor. Right behind the 3.3 building is a futuristic building with green windows designed by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma. This is The Opposite House, the hotel that is frequented by guests such as Beyonce and the Beckhams.
We can totally understand why; the light and and ultramodern rooms and lobby are beautiful. From the glass floor on the first floor, you can look right down the swimming pool. On lower ground, the Sureno or Jing Yaa Tang restaurants are definitely worth a try. According to the staff, celebrities often stay here, so who knows you might run into one in hotel bar Mesh.
One of Beijing’s expat favorites is The Bookworm. It is a bookstore, café, bar, library and event venue all in one. It is the perfect place to grab a book and relax with a sandwich and drink (insiders tip for singles: this is a great spot to meet new people).
Later at night, you could grab a cab to Club Lan for some wacky luxury and to see how China’s nouveau riche is sipping on whisky and cigars. The place is designed by Phillipe Starck, and is already worth a visit just for its overscale chairs and many mirrors (12B Jianguomenwai Dajie). Feeling a bit hungover in the morning? Don’t worry. Just have some baozi for breakfast and you’ll be ready for a brand new day.
…..something extra for art lovers
798 is a former communist factory area (named after factory number 798) that has been changed into a Beijing ‘art zone’ where artists and designers come together in their studios and exposition spaces.
798 is in Chaoyang, about a twenty-minute drive from the embassy area. You could spend an afternoon exploring the galleries, shops and bars. There is not only art inside the exposition rooms, but also outside on the streets. In shops like the UCCA Design Store you’ll find original gifts for home, right next to the UCCA (Ullens Center for Contemporary Art) exposition space. The area also offers enough venues for lunch, dinner, or a small snack.
To begin to plan your journey to Beijing click here.