Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2008


For centuries, the city's hulking official buildings served as reminders of the awesome power of the imperial state. That didn't change much when the Communist government took over in 1949. Then, with the reform and opening of China, which began some three decades ago, the new elite — corporate chieftains and their bureaucratic allies — began erecting capitalist monoliths to showcase their newfound wealth and influence. There's a lot of architectural swagger in Beijing, but between and behind it there's also a lot for the tourist to enjoy.

At the physical and metaphorical center of Beijing is the Forbidden City, the vast palace complex of former emperors that is now one of the greatest museums in the world. From here, most of the city's other major sites — except, of course, the Great Wall — are within a radius of a mile or two.

1. Emperor Hotel Bar

The boutique Emperor Hotel is perched just opposite the east gate of the massive Forbidden City palace complex. Trendy and airy, the 55-room hotel has many charms. But best of all for the weary traveler is its rooftop bar, Yin. Built on an ascending series of platforms, the bar has the best view in town hands-down. Having a drink here at dusk as you gaze over the swooping tiled roofs of the vast former residence of the Emperor is magical. A word of warning, though: Presumably in the spirit of adding Chinese authenticity, many of the house cocktails are made with the notoriously potent Chinese rice liquor baijiu. Avoid those.

2. Shichahai Lakes

Everybody visits the Forbidden City, of course, but a stroll around the adjoining lakes, which used to be part of the emperors' vast pleasure gardens is a wonderful complement. Don't pass up renting a rowboat and taking a float around Beihai (or North Lake) Park, while contemplating the huge white Buddhist stupa built in 1271 by Kublai Khan. The three lakes — Qianhai (Front Lake), Houhai (Rear Lake) and Xihai (West Lake) — north of Beihai and about a mile north of the Forbidden City are known collectively as Shichahai and are ringed by restaurants and bars. Try the wildly popular cuisine of the Hakka minority group at Han Cang on the Shichahai East Bank.

3. Hutongs

After a stop for refreshment in Shichahai, head east on Guloudajie Road into one of Beijing's few remaining hutong neighborhoods, with narrow alleys and single story traditional courtyard houses. Hutongs once dominated the city, but in recent years many have been leveled in the name of modernization. Trishaw drivers hang around offering tours, but a better and cheaper (not to mention healthier) bet is to rent your own bike and get pleasantly lost in the back lanes around the Drum and Bell towers. It's not hard to find one of numerous small bicycle shops nearby. Alternatively, look for one of 20 stands dotted around the city, run by the Beijing Bike Rental Company, which rents bikes by the hour, the day or longer.

4. Nanluoguxiang

If you're keen on retail therapy, one must-see hutong is Nanluoguxiang in the Gulou, or Drum and Bell Tower, district, which has several kilometers of shops, galleries and cafés that range from the chic to the kitschy. You'll find lots of cool T-shirts here (Plastered has a good line) featuring tricked-out images of everything from Mao Zedong to garden gnomes. Fun.

5. Dali Courtyard Restaurant

Recharge from shopping in Nanluoguxiang at nearby Dali Courtyard Restaurant, a beautifully restored, laid-back place — it's not gussied up to a fake plastic sheen — that specializes in the food of the southern province of Yunnan. Influenced by the dishes of its Southeast Asian neighbors, Burma and Vietnam, Yunnan cuisine is light and sophisticated, and makes good use of the region's abundant mushrooms and unusual herbs. There is no menu at Dali. Diners enjoy price-fixed courses between US $15 and $40, made from whatever the chef found freshest in the market that day. The place is a little tricky to find. Your taxi will drop you at the mouth of the alley; walk straight down about 150 yards and look to your left for a red lantern down an even smaller alley.

6. The Legation Quarter

For a nightcap, head to the Legation Quarter, just off the southeast corner of Tiananmen Square. This elegant quadrangle of two-story buildings served as the U.S. Embassy from 1903 when it was built, until 1949 when the Communists took over. It has now been lovingly restored and houses a range of restaurants and bars and an art gallery. Head straight to the main building, which houses Maison Boulud, the creation of Frenchman turned New Yorker Daniel Boulud. You can eat his wonderful food of course, but there is also a bar where they make the best lychee martini in town, or possibly anywhere.

7. Panjiayuan Flea Market

If you'll be in Beijing over the weekend, get up early and make a trip to Panjiayuan, a giant flea market where every imaginable curio, artifact and fake Tang dynasty knock-off is on sale. It used to be called the "dirt market" because peasants would cart in objects they supposedly unearthed themselves, squat in the market's open field and hawk their wares. There are no peasants now, and the market grounds are no longer just an open field, but there are still plenty of merchants selling everything from antiques to paintings. Many of the stalls are open through the week, but the flea market is best early on Saturday or Sunday. You'll find the market southwest of the Panjiayuan Bridge, on the southern part of Third East Ring Road. It's slightly off the beaten path — though only a 15-minute taxi ride from the middle of town — and well worth the trip.

8. Coal Hill Park

Another worthwhile morning destination is Jingshan (Coal Hill) Park, behind the Forbidden City. Not only is it an oasis of flowers and trees, it also boasts a breathtaking view of the Palace from the top of one of Beijing's very few hills, which was constructed from earth that was dug up to make the moat of the Forbidden City. Each morning the park fills with middle-aged and older Chinese who gather in groups to sing the revolutionary songs of their youth, play the traditional two-stringed erhu or practice the slow, graceful movements of tai chi. Everyone is friendly and will try and get you to join them in the tai chi. Do so.

9. Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant

What's a trip to Beijing without eating duck? Avoid the grease-splattered tourist trap at Li Qun and head instead to Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant (southwest of Dongsi Shitiao Bridge) at Nanxincang, the old imperial granary to the northeast of the Forbidden City. Crispier and less fatty than other birds, these are the best Peking ducks in town. Da Dong offers numerous other dishes, most of them very tasty. But don't get greedy. Wait and eat your duck first. Savor it.

10. Reflexology

Your whirlwind tour is bound to leave you footsore so do like the Beijingers, who swear by reflexology (foot massage), which they believe not only relieves aching feet but also cures a whole range of other ills. I'm not sure about the cure part, but the experience is well worth having. There are salons all over town. The Liangzi Foot Body Massage Centres with 30 branches in Beijing are great.