Beijing, a multi-faceted metropolis and the capital of the People’s Republic of China presents a striking kaleidoscope of contrasts. As the seat of power for the communist political command, Beijing still retains the imperial glory of its bygone era and at the same time flaunts its power as a modern global city. The museums, temples and palaces paint a vivid portrait of yesteryears while the sprawling and luxurious shopping malls, amusement parks, chic and stylish pubs, bars and clubs promise a life of contemporary indulgence.
Visitors to this intriguing city can trace Beijing’s cultural and historical legacy through its famous Lama Temple, Tiananmen Square or Forbidden City, seek solace in the nearby Fragrant Hills, stare at a blank Soviet-style monument at one step and admire the awe-inspiring Birds Nest stadium at the next. You can see the city’s mood swings as you meander through the felled hútòng (narrow alleys) and past the huge underground bomb shelters scooped out during the paranoid 1970s.
History may have been trampled in Beijing over the past half century but the city has moved on to gain its rightful place as the capital of one of the world’s greatest emerging economic super powers, a fact that the world witnessed when Beijing hosted history’s most expensive Olympic Games in 2008. Amidst all the action visitors can also try to understand how the locals manage to defy the fast pace of growth and find time to play chess and watch the world go by.
Things To See
The historic and culturally rich city of Beijing has much to offer tourists. The effects of war and revolution have left behind their imprints but the city has managed to move on. Beijing played host to the 2008 Olympics and wowed the world with its world-class services, signature stadiums, shimmering skyscrapers and colossal flyovers. Yet, amidst all this modernity, the awe-inspiring imperial grandeur too makes its presence felt.
Forbidden City: Rightly considered as Beijing’s signature landmark, the Forbidden City has played a pivotal role in shaping the character and identity of the city. The area gets its name from the fact that for about 500 years it was off-limits to most of the world. A mosaic of ancient buildings, courtyards, halls, pavilions and gardens, this walled city has played home to 24 emperors from the Ming and Qing dynasties. Most of the buildings of this UNESCO World Heritage site date back to the post-18th century and now house a vast collection of priceless relics including paintings, ancient pottery and bronzes.
Lama Temple: Situated in the north east of the city, this magnificent edifice of archways and halls are adorned with multi-colored glaze tiles, Chinese lions, tantric statuettes and revolving prayer wheels. The architecture and the interiors are a fusion of Mongolian, Manchu, Tibetan and Chinese influences. Gracing the Wanfu Pavilion is the stupendous 18m high statue of the Maitreya Buddha in his Tibetan form is sculpted from a single block of sandalwood. Though taking photographs is not allowed within the temple buildings, you will get a free mini Lama Temple VCD with your ticket.
Tiananmen Square: The grand Tiananmen and Qianmen gates located at either end of Tiananmen Square stand as reminders to the fact that Beijing was once a walled city. The vast imposing square is home to the Great Hall of the People, China’s parliament, the Mao Zedong Memorial Hall, where the body of Chairman Mao rests, the Monument to the People’s Heroes, and an obelisk depicting the major events of the revolution. Tiananmen Square is also the world’s largest public square and you can enjoy breathtaking views on any clear day. The Forbidden City is located just across the street. However the square is most known as being the site of a student protest in 1989 that was brutally crushed by the People’s Army. While this incident is known throughout the entire world, its existence has been erased in China, where the majority of people don’t know about the incident.
Beijing Botanical Gardens: Nestled in the Western Hills, the beautiful botanical gardens are a welcome respite from the city’s bustling atmosphere. The Beijing Gardens Conservatory is home to around 3000 different types of flora and a rainforest house.
Summer Palace: Now a UNESCO world heritage site, the Summer Palace situated in the northwestern suburbs, was once used by the royal court as a summer retreat to escape from the heat of the city. This imperial structure with its expansive palace grounds, temples, gardens, pavilions and the majestic 17-arch bridge spanning over the lake, make for a great tourist attraction.
Fragrant Hills Park: The Fragrant Hills Park is situated against the backdrop of the Western Hills. A short hike will lead you to Incense-Burner Peak, however if you do not feel like walking you can opt for the chairlift to go up and enjoy the expansive view of the countryside. In autumn the hillside is covered in splashes of red maple leaves and the view is simply spectacular.
Temple of Heaven Park: Built in the 15th century, this signature landmark, which is China’s largest temple complex, is symbolic of Beijing’s rich cultural legacy. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is known for its unique and distinctive architectural features. Observe the fact that the temples are round and the bases square, which signifies the ancient Chinese belief that heaven is round and earth is square. Therefore you will find the northern end of the park is semicircular and the southern end is square in shape.
798 Art District: 798 Art District, a group of radical art studios in the workshops of a largely abandoned military electronics complex, attracts artists, visitors and collectors from across the world. The contemporary art galleries, studios and cafes stand in complete contrast to the Communist propaganda; fading slogans exhorting the toiling masses can still be seen on some of the factories’ walls, reminding artists and visitors of the fervour that fuelled the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
Bell Tower: At one time a bell tower could be found in all the Chinese cities and was used to make general announcements or inform the citizens of curfews. Originally constructed in 1272, the Bell Tower in Beijing was destroyed a number of times by fire and war. The present structure dates back to 1745. It is worthwhile to climb up the steep steps to enjoy sweeping views of the city and marvel at the 63-tonne bell close up.
Beijing Aquarium: The Beijing Aquarium, the ‘world’s largest indoor aquarium’ is home to Amazon rainforest coral reef and a shark aquarium where, if you are adventurous enough, you can dive with the flesh eaters. There is also a marine mammal pavilion where you can enjoy aquatic animal displays.
Beijing Zoo: The Beijing Zoo is home to the world famous giant pandas and also a good collection of polar bears. Besides marveling at these beautiful creatures, you can enjoy a pleasant stroll amid the vast parklands, trees and along willow-fringed lakes.
The Bird’s Nest: The national stadium which hosted the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008Olympics has become a showpiece of China’s growing power and wealth. The success of the Olympics has turned the structure into a source of national pride. The iconic stadium can seat 80,000 people is giving the other major attractions of Beijing a run for their money.
Tour the Hutong district: Step back in time with a tour of Hutong, this part of town was an ancient area of housing where courtyards were surrounded by single-storey houses. You can hop onto a rickshaw or traverse on foot to explore this ancient section of Beijing, it’s a great way to spend an afternoon.
Thanks in large part to Beijing’s hosting of the Olympics there are scores of newly built hotels strewn around the city. From luxury accommodations in international 5-star hotels, to budget lodgings in ancient courtyard dwellings you can choose from a host of options to suit your tastes and budgets.
Most of the international five and four-star hotels are situated within the posh premises of the city, while mid-range hotels can usually be found a little outside the city centre. A few low-budget accommodations are also available but they are usually over booked and it is advisable to either book in advance or a pay a bit extra to get a bed.
You can stay in the eastern district, Chao Yang, or central district, Dong Cheng if you want to be within easy reach of the city’s attractions, shops, and restaurants. On the other hand, if you have an early flight or want to avoid the city traffic, you can stay in hotels in the northeast of the city, near the airport.
The Hai Dian, near the university district, offers an abundance of small and modest Chinese hotels and guesthouses. The area is also home to the spectacular Shangri-La Hotel – an oasis of five-star luxury, catering to the employees of China’s Silicon Valley.
The Jian Guo Men Wai/Ri Tan area is also home to numerous business hotels including the massive China World Hotel and the exclusive St. Regis boutique hotel. The area also caters to the backpackers who can find a number of clean and friendly hutong hostels near Hou Hai such as Beijing Hutong Inn and Sleepy Inn Downtown Lakeside Beijing.
The Chinese are passionate about their food and the recent economic boom has brought about a major change in the dining culture of Beijing. You can enjoy an expansive range of local delicacies such as Yunnan specialties, Tibetan yak and tsampa, Hakka-based dishes from southern China, sample spicy culinary delights from Sichuan and chewy noodles from Shaanxi.
Besides local Chinese delicacies, you can even treat your taste buds to a variety of international cuisine including French, Thai, Italian, Japanese and Malaysian etc at the various restaurants in the city. The list of restaurants and eateries in Beijing is exhaustive; however we would suggest the following.
The Courtyard: Overlooking the Forbidden City’s moat, this restaurant has carved a niche for itself with its innovative and fusion menu of Asian and European flavours and an equally impressive wine list.
Bā Guó Bù Yī: This award-winning Chéngdū restaurant chain serves an authentic platter of Sìchuān dishes amid an ambience of Chinese inn-style setting. The delicacies entice with their delicious aromas and urge you to sample its varied culinary delights time and again.
Beijing Dadong Roast Duck Restaurant: This is regarded as one of the best restaurants in the town for serving duck delicacies. You can choose from a range of fowl including the international favourite super-lean. Duck specialties are a popular part of Chinese cuisine and this place is perfect to sample some of the most sought after delicacies.
Huang Ting: The restaurant literally translates into ‘Phoenix Court’ and captures the essence of the Ming Dynasty with a replica of the courtyard adorned in grey brick walls, antique furniture and a wooden entrance door. The restaurant is worth a visit to experience the charm of a bygone era and sample authentic Cantonese dishes and popular Beijing specialties such as the famous roast duck.
Danieli’s: This classy and stylish restaurant at the St. Regis Hotel is known for serving a selection of finest Italian dishes amid an equally impressive ambience of crackled glass doors and a marvellous alcove interior.
Donghuamen Night Market: Those who love to experiment with food, unique sounds and atmosphere should visit the Donghuamen night market. Each evening the place comes alive with a large number of stalls that serve a range of interesting and unique dishes such as skewered grasshoppers and scorpions and if that doesn’t appeal, you can always try the usual fare of noodles and fruit kebabs.
Beijing is known for offering a wide range of consumer goods that are made either locally or imported from western counterparts. As a consumer, you can choose from varied international and luxury brands or opt for traditional Chinese silk or authentic Chinese artifacts at the numerous shopping malls and stores. For those whose shopping expeditions are incomplete without including some hard bargaining Beijing doesn’t disappoint. The city has a fair share of bargain stores and markets where you can put your skills to work and walk away with some great products at throw away prices.
Silk Alley Market: Once a delightful venue of hundreds of outdoor stalls, the Silk Alley Market now houses all the stores under one roof. Shoppers can bargain relentlessly for Chinese handicrafts, or branded wears such as Pumas and Nikes at discounted rates, children clothes etc.
Beijing Silk Store: Your shopping experience in Beijing will be incomplete if you go back home without taking back some authentic Chinese silk. And the Beijing Silk Store has been supplying has been supplying silk since 1840.
Oriental Plaza: This colossal mall on Wangfujing Dajieis is a large shopping mega-complex that offers a great range of shops and stores selling all kinds of popular brands. Those who have a penchant for finer things in life must pay a visit to this large and luxurious mall.
Panjiayuan Antique Market: Reminiscence of Chinese tradition and culture, this weekend flea market is the ideal destination to dig out those perfect curios or an exquisite antique from a large number of stores. With over 3,000 vendors jostling to sell their products, this colourful market is known for offering an interesting range of products such as jade bracelets, oracle bone, porcelain vase, ancient silk screen, scrolls, calligraphy, Buddhist statues, opera costumes, curio cabinets, Tibetan jewelry, lotus-flower shoes, jade dragons, antique mirrors and so on. Given the fact that it is a flea market, it goes without saying that you really must bargain hard to get the best deal.
Jingdezhen Ceramic City: Situated off Wangfujing Dajie is a large emporium is spread over a huge area featuring well-lit ceramics from the Jingdezhen kilns. Here you will find exquisite pieces of work depicting traditional decorative styles and glazes such as doucai, fencai and qinghua.
Hongqiao Market (Pearl Market): It is said that Hongqiao is home to more pearls than even the South Seas, and you will believe this to be true when you see the impressive range of pearls on display.
Excursions From Beijing
The countryside and the hills surrounding Beijing are dotted with a host of interesting sights, the foremost being the Great Wall of China. Take out a day from your holiday itinerary to visit some of the nearby sights and attractions.
The Great Wall: If you have a full day to spare, then a tour of The Great Wall is a must. The Great Wall of China is undoubtedly the country’s symbolic landmark. This UNESCO World Heritage Site extends for thousands of miles across China. From Beijing, the nearest section that you can access is Badaling. Badaling’s portion of the Great Wall is open daily and can easily be reached by taxi or tour bus from Beijing.
Nightlife and Entertainment
Though nightlife was almost unheard of in Beijing 20 years ago, things have drastically changed and now the city narrates a different story. With an array of eclectic nightlife options mushrooming all over the city, there is plenty to choose from whether it is cinemas, theatres, nightclubs, clubs and bars.
For details on the various events you can always pick a copy of ‘Beijing This Month’, the monthly magazine ‘That’s Beijing’ or the fortnightly Beijing handbook, ‘City Weekend’.
The most popular bar area is Sanlitun, situated in the northeastern part of the city. The bars in this area are known for their lively ambience and for serving draught beer at Western prices. Most bars remain open until midnight. Some popular bars and clubs include:
Alfa: This bar with an exotic ambience has an outdoor terrace, a pool to enjoy a cool dip and a lounge area with cushion-strewn booths. It is usually jam packed on Fridays when it features an Eighties night.
Beer Mania: This is a small but popular haunt for those who just can’t go without their mug of draught. With over 75 different kinds of ales available, beer definitely comes before everything else.
Bookworm: A hub for expats, this place has an ambience of an English-language lending library and regularly conducts seminars and lectures on current affairs and China-related events. The place is a must visit for those who like to spend their evenings discoursing on affairs of the world while enjoying a single malt.
Cargo: Situated near Workers Stadium, Cargo is a cluster of clubs that attract some of the biggest names in dance music. The place attracts a really hip and happening music savvy crowd.
Face Bar: Spacious, classy and sophisticated, the bar is the perfect venue for those seeking an evening spent in luxury and style.
Bed Bar: This is a favourite with both the locals and tourists for its unique ambience and a layout of interconnected rooms and kang-style floor seating.
Browns: Be prepared to expect the unexpected as soon as you make an entry. It’s a place that pulsates with a hip crowd and rocking music most nights.
The ideal time to visit Beijing is either in spring or early autumn, when the weather is pleasant and fewer tourists are in town. However, it is advisable to book one month in advance to travel during these seasons.
From May onwards, the summer sets in and it can get really hot with the mercury reaching over 40°C. Surprisingly the summer months also constitute the peak tourist season and hotels are typically more expensive in comparative to other months. In the winter months temperatures can be quite freezing, but it can be worthwhile to catch a view of the glorious Forbidden City and Summer Palace, looking majestic with their tiled roofs covered in snowflakes.
For the crowd averse, it is advisable to avoid making trips to Beijing during Chinese New Year (mid-January to mid-February), Labor Day Holiday (first week of May) and National Day Holiday (first week of October).
By Air: Capital International Airport (PEK), located 28km northeast of the city centre is one of the main international gateways to China. The international terminal offers more than 5,000 scheduled flights that link about 88 Chinese and 69 international cities. In 2008 a new glittering terminal was opened to usher in the Olympic Games.
Approximate flight time to Beijing:
- London: 11 hours 45 minutes
- New York: 14 hours 15 minutes
- Los Angeles: 12 hours 30 minutes
- Toronto: 14 hours
- Sydney: 13 hours
Airport facilities: Facilities in the airport include bureaux de change, hotel reservations, transfers, and a colourful array of all kinds of stores, duty free shops, cafes, restaurants and tourist information kiosks. Metered taxis are easily available from the airport. Alternatively there is an airport-city shuttle bus that departs every 30 minutes from outside arrivals hall No. 11. The shuttle buses traverse five routes, with the most popular one being the one to Xidan in Central Beijing, near the Forbidden City.
By road: Beijing boasts a well-connected network of road transport and as a visitor you can find innumerable long-distance bus stations situated at the periphery of the city.
By train: Beijing is well connected by train both domestically as well as internationally to a couple of cities such as Moscow, Pyongyang (North Korea) and Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia). Beijing has two train stations, one is located southeast of the Forbidden City and the colossal Beijing West Train Station is in the southwest.
There are plenty of ways to get around depending on your budget and your interests.
On foot: Though the traffic and chaos has added a bit of dampener to a walking tour of the city, it can still be a nice way to explore for more avid travellers. Meandering through the old hutongs is truly a unique experience.
By bike: Bike is another interesting way to get around the city. A bicycle can easily be rented at most hotels, and while cars have cut into the popularity of the bicycle in recent years, most roads still have wide and well defined bike lanes.
By subway: To avoid Beijing’s heavy traffic jams, you can always opt for the subway, which is both convenient and a considerably fast mode of commuting around the city. For the convenience of commuters, the stations are marked in both Chinese and English.
By taxi: Taxis are easily available during the day, however you might have trouble finding one during rush hour or if it’s raining. Also there’s a 20% additional surcharge after-hours, which is applicable between 11pm and 5 am. Be wary of black taxis that have rigged meters, you should only travel in taxis with official markings.