A bustling beehive laced with ancient history, sensational scenery and majestic architecture, Beijing remains an enticing enigma waiting to be explored at multiple levels.
An exploration of Beijing almost always starts at the palatial heart of China for more than half a millennium - Forbidden City. The humongous complex is the repository of the sheer extravagance of China’s Imperial heritage, showcased in the halls and the royal gardens. For a deeper understanding of China’s cultural past, do not miss the less-visited halls to the sides of the central axis, especially the Royal Library, Imperial bedchambers and the palace of Emperors’ wives. The Forbidden City was declared a World Heritage Site in 1987 and is listed by UNESCO as the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world.
Another beautiful holdover from China’s Imperial period is the Temple of Heaven – a dignified cluster of religious buildings located in the southeastern part of Central Beijing. Set amid serene gardens and surrounded by towering pine forests, the medieval temple complex symbolises the intricate relationship between earth and heaven, a mystic concept that is the cornerstone of ancient Chinese philosophy.
One of the most famous Tibetan Buddhist lamaseries outside Tibet, the Lama Temple was an erstwhile royal residence. The beautifully laid out five buildings remain a major place of worship for locals. A living museum of Tibetan Buddhism, it houses a variety of Buddhist statues, including the 59-ft high Maitreya Buddha, immaculately carved from one precious white sandalwood log, in Wanfu Pavilion.
The most significant square in China, where grand ceremonies and National Day anniversary parades are held, Tiananmen Square remains an emblematic site for Chinese people. Enveloped with many important buildings including top museums, imposing government buildings, and Chairman Mao's Mausoleum, Tiananmen was the site of several key events in Chinese history, such as the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949. Each morning, the flag-raising ceremony is held at sunrise, and the solemn ceremony is mostly open for public viewing.
Adjacent to the northern fringes of Forbidden City, Jingshan Park’s history dates back to the Liaon and Jin dynasties, almost a thousand years ago. The hill in the Jingshan Park is one of the highest points of Beijing, and the steep climb to the elaborate pavilion atop the mound is well worth the effort for the sweeping views of the Forbidden City and Beijing cityscape.
Converted from a 1950s factory compound, 798 Art Zone is a pulsating enclave of art and creativity. With its contemporary art galleries, trendsetter boutiques, creative architecture and arthouse cafes, this innovative enclave with its curated exhibitions and fashion events showcases a different side Beijing.
Ullens Center for Contemporary Art is a must-see highlight, where an exciting ensemble of local talents and global artists host regular exhibitions in a modernist three-story Bauhaus structure.
Nestled below the Simatai Great Wall section, Gubei Water Town impeccably recreates traditional Beijing courtyard style architecture. The traditional houses collectively impart an ancient village ambience; and together with the breathtaking mountain views, quaint waterways and natural mineral hot spring, Gubei Water Town can be a great day trip, barely 2 hours from Beijing. An overnight stay lets you have mesmerising night views of the beautifully-lit and cable-car-accessed Simatai section of the Great Wall.
And for a quintessential Beijing experience, take a leisurely stroll through the iconic Baitasi neighbourhood – a representational region that retains the quaint charm of Beijing’s Hutong alleyways, replete with hanging bird cages and archaic tea shops, and lined with quadrangular houses with traditional courtyards.
At around 120,000 square metres in area, Oriental Plaza is one of the largest commercial complexes in Asia. With a landscaped garden and contemporary architecture, the sprawling three-storied plaza houses a multitude of elite multinational brands such as Trussardi, Costume Uomo, Tommy Hilifiger and Gieves & Hawkes, always in sync with international fashion trends. Homegrown speciality stores and fine-dining venues enthrall and enhance the shopping experience both for locals and visitors.
Opened in 2007, the SKP Mall is a high-end boutique departmental store catering to the well-heeled regulars. International fashion and luxury labels often choose this art-driven shopping destination, whose communal spaces often turn surreal with imaginative installation art to jumpstart their newest product launches. The four floors of SKP has reinvented itself from a mall filled with luxury retail into a concept departmental store that embraces art, technology and fashion with a curated blend of beauty, fashion, and food.
Located at the heart of Guomao district at the core of Beijing’s CBD, China World Shopping Mall remains the gold standard for highbrow consumers. A sparkling, mind-boggling entanglement of iconic brands and boutiques, upscale jewellery houses and an assemblage of upscale culinary outposts, this premier shopping destination has not failed to impress since the Chinese capital’s makeover days began. After a shopping binge, slow sip your craft cocktails on the sun-kissed terrace of Migas Mercado to soak in some fabulous views of the architectural wonder that is CCTV Headquarters.
Restaurants & Bars
Beijing is an aromatic melting pot of China’s regional riches – a diverse blend of far-flung influences and local favourites spanning a wide spectrum, from the classic to the contemporary.
If it’s Chinese cuisine you are looking for, you are spoilt for choice. The perfectly roasted Peking duck, Mongolian spiced lamb roasted on a slowfire, and steam-fried pork potstickers – Country Kitchen presents an array of Northern Chinese specialities and showcases the culinary art of hand-pulled Shanxi noodles. Nestled inside Rosewood Beijing, this iconic outpost has the feel of a traditional Chinese village, but the rustic interior is draped in contemporary aesthetics. After a hearty meal, do not miss their creative desserts.
Located in No. 1 Jade River in the heart of Beijing, The Georg is snuggled in a traditional courtyard of a restored riverside quadrangle house. The fine-dining establishment with a chic-casual vibe combines art, design, and food. The degustation menu features an unmistakable Scandinavian flair in its smoking and curing, while seasonal ingredients and painterly presentations exude exotic easterly textures. The venue is a favourite hotspot of Beijing celebs with its regularly-hosted art talks, exhibitions and live music, curating talent and innovative ideas across different creative industries.
Rooted in tradition but spruced up with contemporary touches, the signature samples of celebrity Masterchef Umberto Bombana brings authentic flavours to discerning diners in Beijing. Located inside Parkview Green FangCaoDi shopping mall, the vibrant, cavernous interiors of Opera Bombana look warmly inviting as you enter through the towering doors. A wide array of freshly baked goodies and Bombana’s signature culinary creations go hand-in-glove with an extensive wine list that features great selections of Piemonte and Tuscan Reds. The Beijing outpost continues with the tradition of impeccable sourcing and simplicity that is the hallmark of Umberto Bombana.
A wondrous symphony of taste and textures, Cai Yi Xuan is Four Seasons Beijing’s Chinese restaurant with an expansive menu of Michelin-starred classic Cantonese cuisine. The handpicked team of chefs, helmed by award-winning Jackson Wu, lets you into the culinary secrets over the lively and interactive meal in the private dining room. Delve into their craft delicacies like Poached Sliced Fish in Seafood Soup, Deep-fried Mantis Shrimps or Fried Lobster coated with salted egg yolk.
Unknown to many, Beijing has an opulent and extravagant nocturnal canvas. Janes+Hooch has been officially recognized as one of Asia’s 50 best bars. A modern take on a vintage dive bar in the heart of hipster Sanlitun district, the place creates a unique blend of vintage charm with contemporary urban culture. Owned by Beijing’s highly-respected cocktail maestro Warren Pang, Janes+Hooch is famous for its perfectly balanced cocktails that are partial towards classic, high-quality ingredients and do not have any particular affinity towards fancy and flashy mixology. A simple, classy decor synthesizes perfectly with the sophisticated, comfortable, expat-friendly vibe.
A hutong alleyway pub located in Dongcheng, Great Leap Brewing is Beijing's first craft brewery and has revolutionised Chinese craft beer, carefully brewed with local Chinese hops and locally produced malt, as well as spices, tea, honey, pepper, coffee, and agricultural products. Winner of multiple domestic and foreign heavyweight craft beer awards, this is a great place to order yet another pour of real ale paired with a lip-smacking range of bar food, including succulent burgers and juicy fries.
Museums & the Arts
The magnificent architectural complex of Palace Museum is housed inside Forbidden City. An expansive maze of halls and courtyards, the Palace Museum was established in 1925 after the last Emperor of China was dethroned and evicted from the palace and it was thrown open to the public. Home to over 1.8 million pieces of art including paintings, ceramics, seals, sculptures, and bronze wares, mostly from the imperial collection of the Ming and Qing dynasties, the museum remains the eternal symbol of ancient China
Located on the eastern flanks of Tiananmen Square, the National Museum of China delves deep into the arts and history of China. With 48 exhibition halls, it is one of the largest museums in the world; housing over 1 million precious and rare artifacts from 1.7 million years ago till the present date. The priceless cultural relics and distinctive archaeological collections include the famed Sanxingdui bronze mask, the medieval Phoenix Crown of the Ming dynasty and 5000-year old fish-pattern pottery basin. The huge and astounding collection attracts millions of visitors, making it the second-most visited museum in the world, after Louvre.
Built in 1442, The Beijing Ancient Observatory is one of China's nationally designated cultural sites. Towering in southwest of Jianguomen Overpass in Dongcheng district, this is one of the world's earliest royal observatories. Its architectural integrity and array of instruments that date from pre-telescopic days is astounding. The ancient artefacts include eight sets of ancient bronze astronomical instruments ranging from standard cartography devices like sextant to the exotic Armillary and Azimuth Theodolite. These instruments are delicate in shape and feature Oriental motifs in their design elements. The accuracy in gradation and measurement had been influenced by Western European astronomy during the Renaissance, bearing testimony to East and West cultural communications and confluences in medieval times.
For a superlative Beijing experience, head over to Anantara Spa by The Great Wall at the Commune by the Great Wall Kempinski. Located on 8 square kilometres of private land in the Shuigan, the treatment rooms of this ultraluxe spa are time-transcending with their beautiful appointments that arecalming and rejuvenating at once, and majestic views of the Great Wall. Featuring an extensive range of body wraps, bath and steam rituals and massage treatments, it is a heady blend of stimulation and relaxation and the ideal place to pamper your body and soul.
Well-preserved to the point of retaining the original, antiquated charm, Mutianyu section of the Great Wall of China, just 75 kilometres from the Chinese capital, makes a perfect trip for experiencing the most famous landmark of this ancient land. Hemmed in with a splendid natural scenery that showcases vibrant spring blossoms, gorgeous autumn colours and the majestic wintry melancholy in different months of the year, the ticketed area of the wall is replete with a cableway up and a walkway down (sledges operate during the snow-covered months for a slide down the stretch). For a bit of adventure, climb up one of the surrounding hills for scintillating vantage views of the Great Wall.
Romanticism marries adventure on a moonlight sail along Shichahai Lake during Beijing Night Boat Tour. The cruise starts at River Romance Dock opposite Lotus Market, where a fleet of traditional Chinese boats await the intrepid and the romantic. Enjoy tea and snacks onboard as the paddle boat, adorned with red lanterns, sails you through the old part of the city allowing glimpses of daily lives of local residents. The chartered cruise can also include a local family visit and dinner.
Beijingers are sporty, outdoor-loving people and are intense on fitness. Tai Chi is an ancient form of martial art, where a series of coordinated body movements in a slow, relaxed manner is China’s favourite fitness workout, particularly in the early morning hours. You can see people practicing this shadow art in any public park in Beijing including the Temple of Heaven Park, the Summer Palace and Jingshan Park. Various Chinese tour companies also offer a tai chi morning workout in one of Beijing's parks where you can master some of the basic moves.
If you are a winter visitor in the Chinese capital when it brims with a mystical splendour with its snow-covered streets and frozen lakes, head over to one of the outdoor, winter-only Ice skating rinks. The frozen Shichahai Lake and Kunming Lake are eternal favourites with the very adept local skaters; and Beihai Park, the oldest Imperial garden in China, morphs into a huge Ice Skating rink in winter – a big draw for travellers with itchy skateboarding feet.
“Ping pong”, dubbed as the national ball game of China, has always been widely popular and remained a major influence in shaping the cultural arc of modern China. Introduced by the British in Shanghai in early 20thcentury, it quickly became a championship sport with state-of-the-art training facilities at affordable prices. The ping pong craze continues with the same vigour and it can be a cultural experience to watch a game in any of the city’s parks with the local crowd, and even try your hand with the racket
Must Buy Souvenir
An ancient Chinese art form, Cloisonné is a symbol of Chinese cultural identity. A traditional enamel art that dates back to the Ming dynasty, differently shaped and coloured pieces are elegantly integrated together with thin metal strips or wire, normally of gold or silver, to carve out these exquisite handicrafts – jewellery, vases and decorative novelties. The base metal of cloisonné art is always copper because it is easily hammered and stretched to shape up into mesmerizingly dainty, unmistakably Oriental objet d’art – a collector’s delight.
From beautiful boutiques - whose interiors are a throwback to the imperial past - to edgy, avant garde outposts; and from tastefully-designed classy lodgings to extravagant places where opulence is the buzzword – Beijing remains at the top of the game with its stylish stable of hotel options.
A flight to Beijing will usually be a long haul, so the quick and convenient Airport Express service can be an efficient way to transport tired travellers into the city. Taking bus rides in Beijing can be immensely fun only if you have a working knowledge of Mandarin, otherwise the metro, with an extensive and intricate network is the best option.
All the major international airlines fly to Beijing.
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