Showpiece capital searching for identity
Like the painted faces of Peking opera, Beijing is an enthralling clash of personalities. Traditional but tech-forward, autocratic yet artistic, it’s a micro-managed megacity marching into the future, while striving to prune and polish the narrative of its turbulent past. And what a past. Ruling over China (on and off) since the days of Kublai Khan, Beijing is a treasure trove of Unesco World Heritage: The Forbidden City, Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven, the Ming Tombs, the Grand Canal. And above it all, draped dreamily across mountains, is the Great Wall of China – more magnificent beside Beijing than anywhere along its course.
Modern architecture has been outmuscling Beijing’s antique middle for decades, but, precariously, the city’s charming old hutong lanes endure. Here is where you’ll find locals gossiping around xiangqi (Chinese chess) boards, discreet boutique hotels tucked behind grey brick walls, and hip cocktail bars in hidden courtyards. And then there’s the food. From the city’s signature Peking duck to lesser-known delights from every nook of the Middle Kingdom, Beijing is a literal melting pot of Chinese gastronomy, presenting unbridled adventure for fearless foodies.
Hot right now . . .
Tom O’Malley, our resident expert, offers his top tips on the hottest places to eat, drink and stay this season.
Trendsetting hotel The Opposite House (The Village, Building 1, No.11 Sanlitun Road; 00 86 10 6417 6688) has now unveiled UNION, a gorgeous lobby bar inspired by the Silk Road trade route. Signature tipples worth a sip include the Genghis Khan martini, given a Mongol twist with a dash of horse milk liqueur.
There’s even more to see in historic Jingshan Park with the 2019 opening of the newly restored Shouhuang Temple. Built in 1749 as a place for emperors to honour their ancestors, it was repurposed in the 1950s into the Beijing Children’s Palace. It’s free entry, but you’ll need your passport.
The Orchid Hotel (65 Baochao Hutong; 00 86 1 8404 4818) has added yet another jewel to its crown with the winter 2019 opening of Bakeshop. Serving homemade bagel and sourdough sandwiches, cinnamon rolls, cookies and locally-roasted coffee, it’s a lovely rooftop hangout with views over the surrounding maze of hutong alleys.
New for 2019, the PuXuan (1 Wangfujing Jie; 00 86 10 5393 6688) is a luxe, low-rise haven in the heart of the city, with views of the Forbidden City rooftops and Jingshan Park from its 100-plus rooms, a fabulous two-floor spa and creative French bistro fare at its Rive Gauche restaurant.
48 hours in . . . Beijing
Beijing breakfasts are best eaten on the hoof: fluffy, pork-filled baozi (steamed buns) and jianbing, the egg crêpe treat trending in London and New York, are sold from little booths and even bicycle carts on Beijing streets.
Suitably sated, seek out Jingshan Park, a former Imperial garden at the heart of the capital. This unnatural mound is a post-dawn playground for local retirees, who blow away the cobwebs with massed ballroom dancing, tai chi, and revolutionary jam sessions – it’s all delightfully unselfconscious. Drag yourself away (if you can) to climb the hill for the million-yuan view: The Forbidden City (Xi Chang’an Jie; 00 86 10 8500 7421), a scarlet sea of palaces, pavilions and halls that astonishes in its scale and feng shui symmetry.
Exit via the south gate and follow the Forbidden City’s moat east to its corner tower. A short stroll north of here leads to TRB Hutong (23 Shatan Beijie; 00 86 10 8400 2232), a modern European restaurant set within the vestiges of a 400-year old Buddhist temple. Lunch menus are extremely good value and the wine list is encyclopaedic.
Roll up your sleeves for an adventure into Beijing’s maze of grey brick hutong alleyways. Beijing-based Bespoke Travel Company (7th Floor, No.10 Jintong Xi Lu; 00 86 151 0167 9082) offers an immersive tour through the tumbledown lanes enclosing Gulou and Zhonglu (the Drum and Bell Towers), peeking into private homes including one belonging to a champion trainer of fighting crickets.
Ask your guide to deposit you at hard-to-find Great Leap Brewing (6 Doujiao Hutong; 00 86 10 6406 0510), Beijing’s original craft beer bar with a lovely hutong yard that was once the library wing of a quadrangle mansion. Enjoy a well-earned pint as the sun dips, before catching a cab to Sheng Yong Xing (5 Xindong Lu; 00 86 10 6464 0968), one of the city’s newest hotspots for Peking duck. The signature birds here are slow-roasted over fruitwood, and you can order the brittle bronze skin topped with caviar for an extra flourish.
Beijing is awash with designer cocktail dens, like newcomer Scandal (Courtyard 4, Gongti Bei Lu; 00 86 10 6508 5150) with its 50-strong gin selection, and neighbouring D Lounge (Courtyard 4, Gongti Bei Lu; 00 86 10 6593 7710), a long-established hangout for Beijing’s fashionistas.
If you’ve still got the juice, the showy clubs lining the west gate of the Worker’s Stadium are a singularly Chinese nightlife experience, with champagne buckets and elaborate fruit bowls adorning almost every table.
Like the emperors of yore, leave the scheming politics of the capital behind and decamp to the Summer Palace (Changping District; 00 86 10 6262 8501) in the city’s northern suburbs. A royal retreat of pagodas, temples and arched bridges flanking Kunming Lake, it’s a sprawling masterpiece of Chinese garden design, and a decent hike to boot.
With your own driver you could conceivably combine the Summer Palace with a jaunt out to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall in the same day, but if you want to take things at a more relaxing pace, cab it across the city past Beijing’s Olympic icons the Bird’s Nest Stadium and Water Cube (to be pressed back into service for the 2022 Winter Olympics) on route to another suburban outlier, the city’s premier art enclave.
Take lunch at Najia Xiaoguan (2 Jiuxianqiao Bei Lu; 00 86 10 5978 9999), a showcase of venison-rich Manchu cookery from beyond the Great Wall, before delving into the world-class art galleries of 798 Art District. Set within a deliciously dystopian former factory complex, the Bauhaus gallery spaces house exhibitions from China’s contemporary art superstars as well as global big hitters.
While you’re there, seek out the comparatively diminutive Mansudae Art Studio (2 Jiuxianqiao Lu; 00 86 10 5978 9317), an official outpost of North Korea’s propaganda art factory, with loaned works that paint a utopian vision of the Hermit Kingdom.
Huo guo (hot pot), a DIY feast where diners cook wafer-thin sliced meat and veggies in a table-top soup cauldron, is a Beijing institution. Ghost Street (Dongzhimen Xilu) is lined with hot point joints serving both the local variety (with lamb and a sesame dipping sauce) and the spicier version from the city of Chongqing; it’s fun to just go without a place in mind, browse, and then make your selection.
Or get with the times and check out the ‘smart’ branch of hot pot chain Haidilao (9 Jinhui Lu; 00 86 10 6501 7449), who made headlines in 2018 for its team of fully robotic waitstaff.
Revert to low-fi after dinner with a digestif tasting flight of baijiu, China’s umami-rich firewater that can taste of pineapple, soy sauce and even blue cheese. Capital Spirits (16 Xinsi Hutong), an alleyway bar run by American baijiu enthusiasts, will turn you into a Chinese booze expert (or get you very drunk trying).
Where to stay . . .
From the bespoke tailored suits on the staff to handpicked object d’art and bound books in the guest rooms, Rosewood Beijing is a class act. Bag an east-facing room for views of Beijing’s iconic CCTV Tower through a wall of glass. As for dining, dig into Peking duck and other rustic northern Chinese fare at Country Kitchen, or opt for a Sichuan hot pot in the hip surrounds at Red Bowl.
Double rooms from CNY 2,000 (£227). Chaoyangmenwai Dajie; 00 86 10 6597 8888
Hotel Eclat’s lavish themed guest rooms range from the modish (Playboy) to the magical (Harry Potter), and you can ogle original Dali and Warhol pieces in the public areas. Twenty of the 100 rooms are ‘lagoon suites’, with their own private pools. There are plenty of great restaurants nearby and the Silk Market is just down the road.
Double rooms from CNY 1,300 (£147). 9 Dongdaqiao Lu; 00 86 10 8561 2888
Beijing’s original ‘dispersed hotel’. The 10 hip rooms and apartments of The Orchid are scattered throughout the hyper-local hutong neighbourhood of Gulou, but you get to return to the hotel’s stylish restaurant for a bounteous breakfast (served until noon) and dumpling making classes.
Double rooms from CNY 805 (£91). 65 Baochao Hutong; 00 86 10 8404 4818
What to bring home . . .
Head to Plastered 8 (60 Wudaoying Hutong; 00 86 10 6157 8517) for T-shirts and hoodies emblazoned with retro Beijing iconography, and whatever recent products have been dreamt up by its eccentric English owner (past treats have included cans of ‘Beijing Air’).
Moutai, a brand of Chinese baijiu, recently became the world’s most valuable spirits company. Although it’s distilled in Guizhou, it’s the official tipple of Chinese state banquets, served to visiting dignitaries in the Great Hall of the People. Buy it at the airport when you leave to ensure you get the genuine article.
When to go . . .
April, May and September are the loveliest months to visit Beijing, bypassing the bone-dry chill of winter and blast furnace summers. October is a fine month too, but the first week, a national holiday, should be avoided. Winter is a season that suits Beijing, whether ice-skating on Houhai Lake or huddling around hot pot cauldrons, though actual snow is rare. Much of the city shuts down for at least a week around Chinese New Year (Jan 25 in 2020).
Know before you go . . .
British Embassy: 11 Guanghua Lu; 00 86 10 5192 4000
Police: Dial 110
ambulance: Dial 120
Currency: Chinese Yuan / renminbi
International dialling code: +86
Time difference: +8 hours
Local laws and etiquette
Tipping isn’t customary. A 10-15 per cent service charge is often added at high-end establishments and international hotels.
Most taxi drivers don’t speak English, so have your destination written down in Chinese characters.
Smoking is banned in bars and restaurants, but still occasionally happens in low-end establishments.
Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Google, WhatsApp and many other essential websites are blocked in China. Considering investing in a VPN (Virtual Private Network) before you go.
Originally from the UK, Tom O’Malley has lived in Beijing for over a decade, writing extensively on his adopted city while consuming all manner of delicious things in the name of lifestyle journalism.
Experience Beijing with The Telegraph
Telegraph Travel’s best hotels and holidays in Beijing, tried, tested and recommended by our Beijing experts.