Beijing may seem gray and daunting, especially without a river or single distinctive skyscraper to serve as a compass point. But the dynastic planners who designed the city did their job well. If you can see the sun (not possible when the smog is especially thick), you won't get lost: The main streets stretch straight along a true eastwest, northsouth grid, and the six Ring Roads that circle the city are easy points of reference when asking for directions.
The seat of Imperial power, the Forbidden City, rests at the heart of Beijing, and the most interesting sights are located in the area between the temples of the Sun, Moon, Earth, and Heaven. Beihai Park and the back lakes (Houhai) are just to the northwest of the Forbidden City; the tangle of alleys, or hutongs, surrounding the lakes offer a taste of old Beijing. To the east, the glitzy Chaoyang District is home to the soaring new towers of the Central Business District, with offices, classy hotels, high-end restaurants, and swanky cocktail lounges. The energy of student life prevails in the Haidian district in the northwest, where China's top universities (and their attendant cheap restaurants and rowdy bars) cluster near the last Empress's prized Summer Palace. The hip, arty 798 Dashanzi gallery district is blossoming on the northeast side of town, centered around a cluster of Bauhaus factory buildings that once produced electronics for the Chinese military. Sitting just beyond the Fourth Ring Road, on an axis directly north of the Forbidden City, is the vast 2008 Olympic Park, housing a spectacular ensemble of new stadia and sporting facilities.
WHEN TO GO
Autumn is the best time to visit Beijing: The weather is great, and the tourists thin out. Summer is blisteringly hot and the peak season for visitors, so the city's main attractions are sure to be mobbed. The weeks of October 1 and the Lunar New Year (usually in mid-February) are also best avoided; these national holidays, known as "golden weeks," draw huge crowds. While spring brings fewer out-of-towners, the windy, dusty weather is a drawback. The wintertime is virtually tourist-free, but temperatures rarely rise above freezing.
HOW TO GET THERE
Beijing Capital International Airport is 16 miles from the center of town. In March 2008, it opened a giant new dragon-shaped Terminal 3, designed by Lord Norman Foster. The new terminal is a few kilometers from Terminals 1 and 2, so check your tickets carefully; there is frequent connecting transport between the terminals, however (www.en.bcia.com.cn). China's own international airlines don't always offer the friendliest serviceflights to Beijing are also available through Northwest Airlines, United Airlines, Continental, and Air Canada.
Taxis are the best way to get from the airport to the city center. Be sure to avoid the illegal cabbies who lurk at the edge of the airport arrival hall, though; instead, head outside and join the official taxi queue. Make sure your driver uses the meter. A taxi ride to the city center should cost about $10 to $15, including a $2 toll charge.
Exploring Beijing can be tricky for those who don't speak the local tonguebut is much easier than before. Most street signs are now in English, and younger people on the streets will speak English if you ask for directions. If you are not traveling with a tour group, it's a good idea to hire an English-speaking guide from China International Travel Service (626-568-8993; www.citsusa.com).
Traffic-wise, the streets of Beijing are relentlessly congested and lawless, and even the road markings tend to be ignored. When traveling on foot, always be on the alert for oncoming bicycles and cars. If you can navigate the ditie, the rapidly expanding underground train and light-rail system, you'll find it's the safest and quickest way to travel. Taxis are a second choice (be ready for a wild ride), and buses are left to desperate budget travelers (routes are confusing and pickpockets ever-present).
Tourist information on Beijing can be found online at the City of Beijing Tourism Administration website (www.bjta.gov.cn) or through the main China National Tourism website (www.cnto.org). There are also regional U.S.-based China National Tourism offices in New York and Los Angeles to help you plan for your trip.
China National Tourist Office, New York
Tel: 888 760 8218
China National Tourist Office, Los Angeles
Tel: 1 800 670 2228