When I first visited Beijing in 1993 many of the locals looked at me like I was from another planet. Okay, I’m 2 meters tall so that might have had something to do with it. However, it still seemed as if they had never seen a foreigner before. And if I stopped to talk to someone on the street, a crowd of onlookers would quickly gather around.
That was 20 years ago! Today, Beijing is a dynamic and cosmopolitan city with the type of amenities you would expect from any world-class metropolis. Hosting the 2008 summer Olympics also helped the city modernize many of their hotels, create new tourist attractions, and refurbish old ones. Let’s take a look at the best of the old and new.
- CHECK IN
Whether you are looking for high-end or traditional accommodation in Beijing, you can find it all. One of the most upscale luxury boutique hotels in the city at the moment is The Opposite House (T +8610 6417 6688). When you walk into the lobby it feels like you are entering a fancy art gallery. A woman’s dress made of broken Chinese ceramic plates hangs in the window.
The hotel opened in August of 2008 and has quickly become one of Beijing’s best boutique luxury hotels. Conde Nast Traveler listed it on their 2009 Hot List of world’s top new hotels and National Geographic Traveler said it was one of the best-designed hotels in China. World-famous Japanese architect Kengo Kuma created the minimalist design, which includes brushed-oak floors, floor-to-ceiling windows, and a fantastic Italian restaurant with one of the best wine lists in town.
If you are looking for a more authentic experience, you should try staying in one of the many hostels or guesthouses, especially the ones that are located in the older parts of town. For instance, Bejing Downtown Backpackers (T:T +8610 8400 2429), nestled right in the heart of the Nanluogu hutong, is the perfect place to feel the old way of Beijing life. This hostel is housed in a two story grey brick building and offers clean and comfortable accommodation at a very affordable price. Be sure to sign your name and leave a message on the lobby wall!
- CYCLING ADVENTURE
Beijing is such a wide and spread out city that it is difficult to see on foot. The best way to see the city is like a local – on a bike. The city is so flat and there are so many bike lanes that it’s easy to move around.
If your hotel doesn’t rent bikes, there are many bike rental agencies around the city. Try looking around the Drum Tower or Shichahai Lake. Bike Beijing near the Forbidden City not only rents bikes but they offer guided tours in English such as a the hutong bike tour, night Beijing tour, Great Wall bike tour, and more.
- SINGING IN THE PARK
If you want to catch a glimpse of the true heart and soul of this Asian-megacity and its people, look no further than one of the many parks throughout the city. One of the best is Tiantan Park, surrounding the Temple of Heaven (Metro: Tianten Dongmen Station, Line 5).
Every morning around seven, you can see groups of Beijingers practicing their hobbies. For instance, there are impromptu dance classes where people learn how to do the waltz and other ballroom dances. Be sure to join in and dance for a time you will never forget. If dancing isn’t your thing then why not practice the ancient Chinese martial art of tai chi with the elders? It’s easy to become mesmerized by their fluid body movements. You can also watch people playing traditional Chinese games.
Then there are the singers. Up to 50 people or more gather to sing Chinese revolutionary songs. Each group is like a club. People bring their own musical notes, and there is even a conductor. Tiatan Park is a guaranteed highlight for anyone who visits Beijing!
- FUN ON A BOAT
Escape the noise and crowds of Beijing and head to the scenic lakes of Shichahai (Metro: Guloudajie, Line 2). Just north-west of the Forbidden city, this series of three lakes ringed with weeping willow trees is the perfect place to get away from it all.
Here you can take a bicycle rickshaw ride around the lakes, or rent a bike and go off on your own. Better yet, try renting a boat and paddle around the lakes yourself. If you don’t feel like moving, there are plenty of wonderful cafes, bars, and restaurants lining the lake.
- DUCK DU CHINE
No visit to Beijing would be complete without trying its most famous dish – Peking Duck. You can find duck restaurants anywhere around the city but one of the best is from the restaurant Duck Du Chine.
This sleek and trendy restaurant in the Chaoyang district is housed in what looks like a refurbished old warehouse. It has red brick walls and sleek black wooden beams running the length of the ceiling and lit with warm red silk lights.
And then there is the food. Be sure to take a look at the mouth-watering ducks roasting away in the wood oven in the back. The meat is so succulent, crispy, and not too fatty. Duck never tasted so good.
- PARTY TIME
After dinner head over to the Sanlitun Bar district just down the street. Here you can find all types of bars from chill to rowdy. Music pours out from each bar while food vendors sell grilled meat on a stick. People sit in tables out in the street while they eat, drink, and party the night away. It’s very popular with the foreign community living in Beijing, especially since it is located in the middle of the embassy district.
If you’re looking for a late night snack or a great beer in Sanlitun, try Hidden Tree. Voted the best pizza in Beijing many years in a row, along with a number of international beers on tap, you can’t go wrong. For something a little more upscale, try bar Punk in the basement of The Opposite House Hotel.
- SHOPPERS PARADISE
If China is the world’s factory then Beijing has to be the world’s market. There are so many choices of great places to shop that you could stay in the city for a week, shop all day every day, and never see all the markets.
One of the most famous is massive Panjiayuan flea market (a 15 minute taxi ride from the city center). This is a great place to go to find Chinese style memorabilia like statues of Mao. Be sure to go over the weekend when most shop vendors are open.
However, if you are looking for something a little more relaxed and original, then you can’t miss South Luogu Lane (Metro: Andingmen Station Line 2 – a 15 minute walk from station). This street, or better yet alley, dates as far back as 1267 and runs right through the middle of a traditional Beijing-style neighborhood called Nanluogo Hutong. The street is lined with traditional old-style houses that were converted into hip shops selling many custom made goods like t-shirts, leather bound notebooks, and more. There are also many cafes, bars, and restaurants.
- ART FOR EVERYONE
If you are an art lover, or just interested in seeing odd statues, beautiful paintings, and more, then you can’t pass up a visit to the 798 Art District. Take your time and gallery hop around this former arms factory complex in the Chaoyang district. You can easily spend half a day or more wandering around this huge art complex. The outdoor statue of a soldier fighting back a pack of wolves is unforgettable.
- FOOT RUB!
Are your feet tired from a full day of shopping and sightseeing? All that walking around the city will surely drain your energy and make your feet ache. Replenish your “life force”, or chi as it’s known in Chinese, at one of the many foot massage parlors.
Chinese foot massage started in China over 5,000 years ago. A typical massage focuses on stimulating the many acupuncture points in your feet, also known as reflexology. A foot massage at the popular Liangzi Foot Body Massage Center (T: 86-(0)10-6210-6669), with over 30 centers around Beijing, costs 168 RMB for a 100 min massage and 160 RMB for a one hour full body massage.
- OLYMPIC GLORY
Unless you’ve lived in a cave the past few years, you should know that Beijing hosted the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. And if you saw the opening or closing ceremony then you saw the Beijing National Stadium or Bird’s Nest as it’s known on the street.
A visit to this US$ 423 million architectural jewel designed by Swiss architect Herzog & de Meuron is even more spectacular to see lit up at night. Take a walk around the stadium to catch a glimpse of the orange and red colored lights reflecting off the surrounding lake.
Just across from the stadium is a building that looks like a glowing purplish-blue rectangular box of bubbles. It is the Beijing National Aquatics Center but most people call it the Water Cube, and it is the place where 25 world records were broken during the Olympics.
In August of 2010 half of the Water Cube was transformed into Asia’s largest water park. It now boasts a wave pool, spa area, and 13 water slides and rides. The price is RMB 200 for adults and RMB 160 for children. Take subway line 8 to Olympic Park or Olympic Sports Center.
Beijing has a very well developed public transportation system. The city now has 10 subway lines and over 230km of track. It’s very easy to use and costs about 2-3 RMB per ride depending on how far you are going. The only downside to using the metro is that stations can be quite far from some of the attractions.
The bus system can be quite difficult to navigate, especially if you don’t speak Chinese. Taxis are not expensive within the city center so sometimes it is more convenient to just take a taxi.
An airport express train opened in 2008 and it will get you from any of the airport terminal to the center of Beijing in about 20 minutes. A one-way trip costs 25 RMB.
October is one of the best times of the year to visit Beijing. Bring some long-sleeved shirts and a light jacket, along with a sweater or two. You may also want to pack a couple T-shirts in case the weather warms up. The average high in October is 21 C and average low is 8 C.
[This article was previously published in Mabuhay magazine.]