- Great Wall
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Stone Boat Bar, China
This tiny, tranquil watering hole on the edge of an artificial lake in Ritan Park is the perfect place for a summer-evening cocktail. Grab an outdoor table, order a cold beer, and relax under the gingko trees.
Tel: 86 10 0134 8785
Bed Bar, China
Tel: 86 10 8400 1554
Set on a hutong alley in a traditional courtyard house, this softly lit bar and tapas restaurant is furnished with traditional Chinese kang beds (more like platforms than mattresses), tables and chairs, and modern Chinese art on the walls. Ideal for postprandial lounging, Bed is popular with young sophisticates, who enjoy reclining on piles of silk cushions to sip sangria and listen to sexy, DJ-spun salsa beats.
Tea Street (Maliandao), China
A Shangri-la for tea lovers, this enormous indoor market has 600-odd shops that seem to sell all the tea in China. Stroll among the stalls and learn about the different leaveseach province has its own specialty, from Anhui's gentle green tea, to Hangzhou's fragrant longjin dragon well, to Yunnan's pu'er tea, which is aged over decades like fine wine. There's little English spoken here, but vendors are eager to offer samples and advice. An array of tea accoutrements is also on offereverything to make the perfect pot.
Panjiayuan Market, China
Tel: 86 10 6775 2405
If you only go shopping once in Beijing, take a trip to this colorful outdoor bazaar. Also known as the "Dirt Market," (the name comes from the long-ago days when vendors spread their wares on the ground), it's best on the weekends, when densely packed rows of stalls stock all kinds of antique (and antique-looking) curios. There's everything from Communist-kitsch items (Little Red Books, propaganda posters, and pastel-colored statues of Mao), to faded silk qipao dresses, to heavily embroidered "minority textiles"—fabrics made by minority tribal women from China's southern provinces of Guizhou and Yunnan. Savvy bargain hunters know to come on weekends, when there are the most vendors, and to arrive at the crack of dawn for the best prices.
Nanluo Guxiang, China
Beijing 100009, China
While large swaths of Beijing's historic hutong districts were razed and replaced with sky malls, this small neighborhood near the Drum Tower has somehow survived the destruction. What started as a quiet row of houses renovated into shops and cafés has rapidly gentrified into a hip area of boutiques, small hotels, and restaurants. Perusing the artsy stores is a pleasure day or night. Start at Grifted for tongue-in-cheek modern reworkings of Cultural Revolution slogans painted onto furniture, accessories, and clothing. Then head to Plastered for brash T-shirts and streetwear. Finally, look for the small wall plate for La Mu, which sells beautiful leather-bound stationery and leather jewelry. For a break from the shopping, Xiaoxin's Cafe at no. 103 serves fresh-brewed coffee and home-baked muffins.
See + Do
Beijing has dozens of ancient temples, some chaotic complexes, others quiet jewels. There are far too many to visit in one trip—but Beijing's three most famous temples are all must-sees.
Built during the Ming dynasty, the ornate Temple of Heaven was closed to commoners until 1912. Today, the main halls retain their splendor (helped by an ongoing renovation in preparation for the 2008 Olympics), and anyone can admire the magnificent architecture and stroll in the tranquil park (Yongdingmen Dajie, Chongwen District; 86-10-6702-8866).
North of the Temple of Heaven, the grand and gorgeous Lama Temple is often thronged with Tibetan Buddhists issuing clouds of purifying incense into the sky. The collection of buildings, with their imperial-yellow tiles, ornate halls, and formal gardens, were once the home of the Qing dynasty's Prince Yin Zhen. Today, the crowds of monks, worshippers, and tourists can make it feel like an enormous spiritual party (12 Yonghegong Dajie, Dongcheng District; 86-10-6404-4499).
The Confucius Temple has been a tranquil oasis amid the bustle of Beijing for 700 years. Built to honor the great Chinese philosopher, the main courtyard of this tiny temple has stone tablets carved with the names of all the scholars who passed the imperial civil service exam in the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties. The temple halls are plain and visitors scarce, making this a peaceful spot to rest under the ancient gingko trees (13 Guozijian Jie, Dongcheng District; 86-10-8402-7224).
See + Do
Tiananmen Square, China
Named for the Gate of Heavenly Peace, an entrance to the Forbidden City that stands at the north end of the square, this vast concrete expanse (it covers more than a hundred acres) is dominated by an unsmiling portrait of Chairman Mao. It was here that the former dictator announced the formation of the People's Republic in 1949. In the center stands the towering Monument to the People's Heroes, a ten-story obelisk that honors revolutionaries from 1839 to 1949. Also in the heart of the square is the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall, where you can glimpse the embalmed Great Helmsman. No trace remains of the 1989 pro-democracy protest, in which hundreds of students died when columns of military tanks suppressed the uprising. Instead, you'll find digicam-wielding Chinese tourists strolling the perimeter or watching the daily flag ceremonies at dawn and dusk. Just off the southeast corner of the square is the Beijing Planning Exhibition Hall, featuring an impressive nearly 3,230-square-foot scale model of Beijing in 2020 and an exhibition detailing the capital's 2008 Olympic planning.
See + Do
Great Wall, China
Stretching almost 4,000 miles across northern China, the Great Wall of China was a 1,800-year construction project designed to keep out invading Mongolian warriors. Begun during the Qin dynasty in 200 B.C., the wall has inspired many myths—and for the record, it is not visible from space, nor is it a continuous structure. Several sections are easily accessible from Beijing. The most famous, and consequently overrun, is Badaling, an hour's drive northwest of the city. The location makes it ideal for a whistle-stop tour, and you'll get a window into the Chinese tourism machine (take a gondola up one side and a roller coaster down the other to a market jam-packed with stalls, all selling identical T-shirts). To dodge the worst of the crowds, avoid weekends and arrive in the early morning or late afternoon.
About an hour northeast of the city, the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall has expansive scenery, fewer tourists, and a cable car for quick trips up and down. A bit farther afield (about three hours northeast of the city), fit types can take the four-hour hike between the "wild wall" sections of Simatai and Jinshanling, which are indeed overgrown and semi-ruined, but beautiful. Most Beijing hotels can arrange day trips to the Great Wall, but visitors who prefer to take their time exploring should consider staying nearby, at the Commune by the Great Wall Kempinski or the Red Capital Ranch. More intrepid types can book a guide for an overnight hike and either camp atop one of the crumbling watchtowers or stay with a family in a nearby farmhouse. Cycle China arranges private guides for overnight trips.
See + Do
Forbidden City, China
Built during the Ming dynasty by 200,000 laborers and completed in 1422, this grandiose palace sits at the heart of the modern-day capital city. The complex is a vast maze of courtyards and ceremonial halls surrounded by towering walls—it's designed to make you feel tiny, and it does. It's a fitting home for an emperor, and for about 500 years, only Sons of Heaven, their families, and their attendants were allowed inside the walls. The site became a museum in the early 20th century (after the abdication of the Qing dynasty's last emperor, Puyi), and today you can stroll through ornamental gardens and ornate buildings and admire the palace treasures on display. Unfortunately, many of the main buildings are undergoing centenary refurbishment and are swathed in scaffolding (the overhaul will be completed in 2020), but they're splendid nonetheless.
See + Do
798 Dashanzi Gallery District, China
Beijing's burgeoning modern art scene buzzes around this Bauhaus-inspired neighborhood. Once a factory district that produced electronics for the military, it began to attract artists with its affordable warehouse space in the early 2000s; it's now a hipster hangout filled with galleries, cafés, and bars. Thirty-odd exhibit spaces host the work of Chinese artists, some of them famous; minimalist art star Ai Weiwei and political pop artist Wang Guangyi have both displayed their work here. Plan to spend an afternoon wandering through the galleries; three don't-miss spots are Star Gallery (2 Jiuxianqiao Lu; 86-10-8456-0591), Beijing Tokyo Art Project (86-10-8457-3245; www.tokyo-gallery.com; closed Mon.), and Beijing Commune (86-10-8654-9428; www.beijingcommune.com; closed Mon.).
Sichuan Provincial Government Restaurant
Tel: 86 10 6512 2277
Packed with red-faced patrons eating lip-tingling fare, this restaurant—which is indeed operated by the Sichuan provincial government and staffed solely by Sichuan locals—is worth seeking out. The decor—if fluorescent lights and linoleum floors can be considered decor—may scream "state-owned," but the kitchen's skillful blend of chile peppers and numbing Sichuan peppercorns makes for some unforgettably spicy meals. Among the best dishes are shuizhuyu—filleted grass carp delicately poached in fragrant oil—and dandan mian, slender noodles tossed with chili oil and ground pork. If your heat tolerance is low, go for the yuxiang rousi: strips of pork in a sweet, savory, only slightly spicy sauce.
Still Thoughts Vegetarian, China
Tel: 86 10 6400 8941
Owned by Buddhists, this brightly lit, sparklingly clean restaurant serves flavorful dishes, all made without meat, onions, garlic, or leeks (the last three are considered stimulants in Buddhist culture, and not very conducive to "still thoughts"). Mock meats like shredded "pork" in a rich, savory sauce, Beijing roast "duck," tangy lemon "chicken," are especially delicious—and guilt-free.
Pure Lotus, China
Beijing 100026, China
Tel: 86 10 6592 3627
Entering Pure Lotus is like stumbling into a pleasantly surreal dream world. The nondescript parking lot entrance is disconcerting until smiling robed guides lead you to the back door. Once inside, the subtly lit dining room blends the mysticism of a Tibetan monastery with the lemongrass scent and lilac-and-grass-green aesthetics of a deluxe spa. It's enigmatically beautiful, and the inventively presented gourmet vegetarian cuisine reaches the same high standard as the decor. Menu picks include organic mushroom dumplings that melt in the mouth and sautéd lotus Artemisia with mushrooms, which is pure veggie nirvana. A kitschy soundtrack of monks chanting covers of Losing My Religion and Tears in Heaven adds an extra sense of levity.
Open daily from 11 am to 10:30 pm.
Mei Fu, China
Tel: 86 10 6612 6847
Step into 1930s elegance at this impeccably restored courtyard restaurant, inspired by the great Peking opera star Mei Lanfang (a man who specialized in women's roles). The entire sensory experience here is dramatic: The series of rooms is filled with antique furniture and opera memorabilia, including one of Mei Lanfang's dramatic hand-embroidered costumes; the service is dignified and attentive; and the high, swaying notes of Peking opera (recordings of the master's great performances) drift through the dining areas. In fact, the only part of dining here that you may find less than completely dazzling is the prix fixe menu; it features the light, low-salt cuisine developed by Mei Lanfang in order to maintain his girlish figure. The flavors of dishes like shrimp with water chestnuts, steamed fish, and stir-fried celery and lily root are, therefore, very subtle—not quite as rich as the rest of the experience here. Reservations are recommended.
Dali Courtyard, China
Beijing 100005, China
Tel: 86 10 8404 1430
This small hutong restaurant is a hidden gem. Tucked down a narrow alley in a converted house, it serves home-cooked treats from southwest Yunnan province. The small wooden-floor restaurant opens out onto a delightful tree-filled patio bordered by an Imperial-style concrete wall. It's a particularly romantic setting on summer evenings. The set menu changes daily and features a range of Yunnanese specialties, including a sweetly spicy dish of fried dark mushrooms, chicken with red peppers, and a mixed green salad with cucumber and strawberries. The combination of rich rustic flavors and back-lane setting creates one of Beijing's most atmospheric dining experiences.
Open daily from 11 am to 9 pm.
Yi House Art Hotel 798, China
Beijing 100015, China
Tel: 8610 6436 1818
Opposite House, China
Beijing 100027, China
Tel: 86 10 6417 6688
Encased in tinted green glass and opened just in time for the 2008 Olympics, the interior of this artsy 99-room lodge, by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, is based on the theme of an urban forest. Stepping inside the lobby—which has a welcome lounge rather than a check-in desk—feels like entering an art museum (exhibits include a Mao jacket and a qi pao dress created from broken pieces of Chinese porcelain by artist Li Xiaofeng). An angular atrium floods the area with light, and two flat reflecting pools sit beneath ceiling-draped wire mesh curtains. Visible below is a 22-meter stainless-steel swimming pool. The minimalist open-plan guest rooms are outfitted with brushed oak floors, glass paneling, and cream bedwear. Each room features free Wi-Fi, complimentary minibar, plasma TV, stand-alone bathtub, and rain forest shower. Shanghai restaurateur David Laris has conceptualized an eclectic collection of restaurants and lounges. There are three places to eat, including Sureño, which serves Mediterranean food in a space decorated with sultry dark woods and caramel detailing. If you're looking for something a bit more authentic, try Bei, specializing in northern Chinese cuisine as well as Japanese and Korean dishes. The hotel's Mesh Bar buzzes with a post-work crowd followed by the party set later in the evening. Opposite House is destined to be the choice of film stars, visiting architects, and anyone who wants to be surrounded by the capital's most dramatically stylish interiors.
Hotel Côté Cour S.L., China
Beijing 1000010, China
Tel: 86 10 651 28020
Tucked down an old Beijing lane between the Forbidden City and the nightlife spots of Chaoyang District, this small, friendly hotel occupies a lovingly restored gray-brick hutong home. The district is a throwback to a different era, with tricycle deliverymen, on-street hairdressers, and fresh produce wheeled along the narrow lanes. All 14 nonsmoking rooms were personally designed by owner Shauna Liu and are elegantly dressed in olive greens and light browns, with subtly latticed Chinese woodwork and oil-polished concrete floors. Each one has a rain-forest shower, flat-screen cable TV, and free Wi-Fi. The guest rooms are set around a rectangular private courtyard with tables and chairs for outdoor relaxation. At night, hanging red lanterns around the courtyard add a sense of romance, particularly when viewed from the spacious rooftop terrace bar. A cozy communal lounge with armchairs, magazines, and contemporary artwork doubles as a laid-back breakfast room.
Commune by the Great Wall Kempinski, China
Beijing 102102, China
Tel: 86 10 8118 1888
In 2001, 12 Asian architects were asked to design their dream homes right at the base of the Badaling section of the Great Wall, an hour's drive from Beijing. The result is this multi-building complex: part boutique hotel; part rural retreat; part showcase of contemporary, high-concept architecture. Kengo Kuma's Bamboo Wall House has an expansive bamboo-framed tearoom hanging over water. Kanika R'kul's Shared House was designed around the theme of communication—even the bathroom has two separate tubs, so friends can bathe together. Great concept—but one, unfortunately, trumped by reality. Many of the 375-square-foot-and-up rooms have been poorly maintained, with paint chipping, floors scuffed, and exteriors sorely in need of pressure cleaning. The sparseness of the furnishings—a mix of Ikea-style modernism with the occasional Chinese antique—does nothing to hide these flaws or to muffle the sound that travels through the thin walls. Moreover, the hotel ill-advisedly mass-reproduced four of the most popular designs, undermining their architectural integrity by chopping up the rooms in awkward ways (you can still rent the originals in their entirety, albeit at a very high rate). Such missteps are all the more frustrating since the Commune gets nearly everything else right, from the friendly service to the elegant Chinese dishes served in the restaurant. The serene common areas, in honey-colored wood designed by Seung H-Sang, also include a screening room, bar, and spa. The Commune also has the ultimate Great Wall location: You can awake to see the mist hugging the Wall's ancient form, take a five-minute shuttle to the most famous restored section, and then retreat from the tourist hordes to a hotel-arranged picnic atop the Wild Wall, an unrestored stretch open only to Commune guests. The view of the lush sloping valley from your perch in a crumbling watchtower just might make the scrappy rooms and hefty rates worth it. The Wall is close enough to Beijing that you can easily tackle it in a day trip, but if you're set on staying out by the Wall and want an alternative to the Commune, you could consider the rustic Red Capital Ranch or hire a company to take you camping on an unrestored section.