Beijing has almost as many faces as past names – over a 3,000 period, it has been known variously as Ji, Yanjing, Guangyang, Youzhou, Fanyang, Nanjing, Zhongdu, Dadu and Khanbaliq – and on its march to modernity in the last decade, the Chinese capital bulldozed much of its past, swathes of land given up to international architects to fulfil their modernist fantasies, including the egg-shaped National Centre for the Performing Arts, the ‘Bird’s Nest’ Olympic stadium and the CCTV tower; a giant, twisted, steel-and-glass Arc de Triomphe. But set incongruously amid these Futurist wet dreams and grey, Communist-era blocks, there are temples dating back hundreds of years.
This bi-polar mix of tradition and modernity extends to the Beijingers themselves. You regularly see residents playing mahjong in the streets and, in the city’s numerous parks, you find locals swaying or swinging swords as they practise tai chi among other martial arts. The younger generation, by contrast, is as up-to-date with global trends as any Londoner, and creative types here no longer simply ape the West but have developed their own style. For every copycat designer label market, there’s a boundary-pushing boutique. For every manufactured Mandopop star, there’s a free-spirited rocker or DJ. And despite the high-profile cases of censorship and censure from the government, you’ll find a refreshing amount of free speech from the city’s artists – rebels with a cause.
Beijing, like China, is big all over; the Forbidden City alone covers an area greater than 100 football pitches. But despite their size, the city’s landmarks can feel crowded. To avoid the swarms, timing is key. The Forbidden City is best hit two hours before it closes, but you can always spend your morning on Jingshan Park’s hilltop for a sneak preview of the regal pad below.
For a bizarre piece of imperial history, minus the masses, head to Tianyi Mu’s mausoleum (80 Moshikou Dajie; +86 10 88724148). This Narnia-esque eunuch’s graveyard has an attached museum; there are no English signs but little introduction is needed for the glass-encased eunuch’s corpse, the castration knife and the antique marble dildo.
Most guidebooks tell you to visit Houhai lake in the evening. But by night, the scene is polluted by sounds blasting from the shoreside karaoke bars. Unless you’re Mandopop’s biggest fan, visit in the daytime. Hire a bike to circumnavigate the waters and branch off into the hutongs (traditional alleyways) surrounding the nearby Drum and Bell Towers.
This spring the National Museum of China (16 East Chang’an Avenue, Dongcheng District, Beijing 100006; +86 10 6511 6400) reopened after a three-year, £250 million facelift. Entry is free with your passport via the west entrance on Tiananmen Square, but consider instead going to the north entrance and buying tickets to one of the visiting exhibitions. Even if you don’t see any of them, the £1 entry fee allows you to skip the long queues found elsewhere. Another way to see Tiananmen is to arrive at the dawn flag-raising ceremony on your way back to bed after a big night out. This surreal experience comes highly recommended.
While in Beijing, you’ll probably want to see the Great Wall of China. Avoid the sections nearest Beijing, such as Badaling, where armies of red-hatted tour groups distract from historical memories of invading Mongol warriors, and venture further to wilder stretches such as Jinshanling. Afterwards, soak tired limbs at the Feng Shan Hot Springs Resort (10 Mangshan Road, Changping District, 102200; +86 10 60711188).
Shopping & Style
It can be daunting trying to follow the hipsters to their haunts, but Alice McInerney, Time Out Beijing’s Shopping & Style editor and founder of China-centric fashion portal anywearstyle.com, offers the following tips.
Dong Liang Studio is a boutique devoted to independent Chinese design, where you can namecheck the labels of the future, including Xander Zhou, Ye Qian and Uma Wang (26 Wudaoying Hutong; +86108404 7648). By contrast, Lost & Found looks back with a mishmash of vintage trinkets from the past, and quaint pieces from the present (42 Guozijian Dajie; +86 10 64011855).
At the novel by-appointment-only converted courtyard house Wuhao Curated Shop (35 Mao’er Hutong; +86 18 911355035), a mix of crafts, fashion and furniture changes each season. The tongue-in-cheek Plastered boutique on popular and funky Nanluoguxiang takes Beijing 'in-jokes,' iconic signs and slogans and literally plasters them across t-shirts, hoodies and notebooks.
Fei Space in 798, the brainchild of British stylist Ray P Lee and ceramics designer Lin Jing, is crammed full of covetable and original items from the worlds of fashion, furniture and installation (Building 1, Area B, 4 Jiuxianqiao Lu, 798 art district; +86 10 59789580).
Food & drink
Forget everything your local takeaway ever taught you. Real Chinese food is as diverse as it is delicious, and all the regional variations can be found here in the Chinese capital. Watch Shanxi-style noodles being handmade in front of you at the 12-seater Noodle Bar (The Hidden City, Gongti Bei Lu; +86 10 65011949), or discover China’s answer to the kebab and naan bread at the Xinjiang restaurant Crescent Moon (16 Dongsiliutiao; +86 10 64005281). Taste fragrant, Thai-esque cuisine while chilling out on the mezzanine at Little Yunnan (28 Donghuang Chenggen Beijie; +86 10 64019498), or fill yourself up with hearty Manchurian dumplings at perennial favourite Mr Shi’s (74 Baochao Hutong; +86 10 84050399).
Of course, you can’t come to Beijing and not indulge in Peking duck. At Da Dong (88 Jinbao Jie; +86 10 85221111), a team of chefs carve the mahogany birds tableside with the precision of China’s synchronised swim team. If you want to learn how to cook this classic dish, contact Hias Gourmet, a tour company that organises Peking duck demonstrations with the city’s top chefs, gastro walks and regional Chinese cooking classes.
Baijiu, the local alcohol of choice, is saké’s ugly cousin and is recommended only for those wanting to demonstrate foolish acts of bravado. Better to go for baijiu-laced mixes and more pleasant cocktails on the rooftop bar of The Emperor Hotel (33 Qihelou Street, Dongcheng; +86 10 65265566), which is a particular draw at sunset thanks to its Forbidden City views. Great Leap Brewing (TK; +86 10 57171399) is a charming watering hole in a hutong setting near Houhai lake, with homemade brews ranging from India pale ales to thick stouts.
Oenophiles are best served in Nali Patio on Sanlitun’s Bar Street, where they can pick between the dedicated taverna Enoterra and the bars attached to the complex’s numerous and surprisingly authentic Spanish restaurants. And there’s plenty of non-alcoholic refreshment to be had too. Don’t miss the ceremonial pourings and English explanations at Confucian Teahouse (28 Guozijian Dajie; +86 10 84048539), opposite the Confucius temple.
Nightlife & music
The biggest concentration of nightclubs is around the Workers’ Stadium. Most make Fabric seem like a garden shed, making up in size what they lack in quality. Two exceptions in this area are Lantern (100m north of Workers’ Stadium West Gate; +86 13 501348785), an underground cavern playing every electronic genre you could hope to dance to, and Destination (7 Gongtixilu Road; +86 10 65528180), the one and only destination for Beijing’s gay community. Meanwhile, there’s live world music, jazz and folk at cosy Jianghu bar and the laid-back Vanguard (13 Wudaoying Hutong; +86 10 58443638).
Yugong Yishan (Zhang Zizhong Road 3-2 Dongcheng; +86 10 64042711), a converted historic building with lions guarding the entrance, is a subculture venue par excellence, holding gigs that run the full gamut of Beijing’s nightlife, from bluegrass bands to international DJs, and alternative film screenings. If you’re really interested in the scene, May is the best time to visit, as there are three big festivals. Ten-year-old Midi is for hardcore head-bangers, whereas the eclectic Strawberry is a mass gathering for Chinese hipsters.
Lots of people come to China expecting a repressed, boxed-up society and are surprised when they find art smarting with political undertones and social commentary in 798. China’s version of New York’s SoHo, this collection of factories and warehouses was first occupied by artists who made the cheap, light-filled spaces their studios. Galleries, shops and cafes soon followed. Entry is mostly free and while some of what’s on show is derivative and second-rate, you’ll still find the works of top international and Chinese artists on display at the UCCA (+86 10 64386675), Pace (+86 10 59789781) and Faurschou (+86 10 5978 9316).
This last gallery recently exhibited a piece by Ai Wei Wei that hinted at the government’s responsibility for thousands of deaths during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. 798’s open-air installations, eateries and poster shops make a stroll around here a pleasant way to spend an afternoon, but if you’re serious about art, you’re better off at Caochangdi. The area can be difficult to navigate if you don’t speak Chinese, so consider hiring a taxi for the afternoon, note down gallery numbers in advance – some good bets are Galerie Urs Meile (+86 10 64333393), Pekin Fine Arts (+86 10 51273220) and Three Shadows Photography Centre (+86 10 64322663) – and pass your phone to the driver. Alternatively, Bespoke Beijing (+86 10 65286603) can arrange tours.
Air China, Virgin Atlantic and British Airways operate daily, direct flights from London Heathrow, with prices starting from £555. If your time is limited, see the city quickly with a Beijing Sideways guided motorbike and sidecar tour (+86 13 911034847).
The most atmospheric accommodation is in the hutongs. Try The Orchid, a charming courtyard guesthouse beside the Drum and Bell Tower, with doubles from £60. Blow your budget at The Opposite House. This stunning modernist hotel has all the right touches, including a complimentary mini-bar, award-winning restaurants and modern art installations in the foyer. Doubles from £200.