Where to Stay and Eat
Best bang-for-your-buck hotels
The Peninsula has great service and is in a great location, within walking distance of the Forbidden City. It’s an older property that will undergo some renovation in 2015, but will remain open throughout. Rooms can also be as low as $250, including a yummy breakfast for two. In New York you’d pay $500 for the room alone.
Four Seasons offers surprisingly affordable rates for a great five-star experience. You can often find deals at $250 a night in low season.
Restaurant the locals love
Haidilao is a hugely popular local hotpot where you sit around a boiling pot of soup and cook your own vegetables or meats. The food is great, but you really go there to experience the famed Haidilao service, which has been made into a Harvard Business School case study. They will even give you a manicure while you wait in line! You’ll have a hard time spending more than $15 per person.
Peking duck. It sounds so cliché, but it’s good! For the best duck in a lovely setting, go to Jing Yaa TangRestaurant in the Opposite House Hotel. Preorder or you’ll have to wait an hour for your duck. The other dishes at the restaurant—like walnut salad and dandan noodles—are all simple but really tasty.
Meal worth the splurge
Temple Restaurant Beijing serves French cuisine, which might seem like a strange choice in Beijing, but the food is wonderful (the mushroom soup is a must), and it’s located in one of the most beautiful old temples in Beijing. It’s pricey, at $150 per person, but a lovely experience you’ll always remember.
Best spot for a drink
Have a drink in the lounge on the eightieth floor of the China World Summit Hotel. On a clear day, you can see as far as the Western Hills beyond the Forbidden City. It’s also a great place to people-watch. You might even see a Tibetan monk with his entourage in the bar. China never ceases to amaze me.
What to See and Do
Avoid the Badaling section of the Great Wall. It’s the closest to Beijing and a favorite of packaged-tour companies, which means that the constant crowds detract from the Wall’s beauty. It’s well worth your time to travel to Mutianyu (a two-hour drive each way) or Simatai or Jinshanling (a three-hour drive each way) to have a more meaningful and memorable experience.
The Sanlitun Bar area gets a bad rap, because it has a string of bars along one side of the street and is the site of the giant Sanlitun Village shopping mall. Most Western travelers skip it, but I think the Sanlitun Bar area is like the merging of both the old and new Beijing in a few blocks. Just behind the bars is a small neighborhood that’s booming with street-snack vendors, old-style hair salons, and the historic and imposing paramilitary hospital. Walking through this little neighborhood, you get to see the Beijing of the ’80s, while just 200 meters away you’ll find an Apple store. Buy a cup of coffee at Starbucks and you’ll see the cultural phenomenon of young and hip Chinese dressing up to come for a venti. It’s a great place to see firsthand the massive changes that are sweeping China.
Ritan Park is a small park near the residence of the U.S. ambassador that is used as a sort of gym by the people in the neighborhood. Go when it opens at 6 a.m. to see ladies doing fan dances, gentlemen doing tai chi, joggers circling the park, and someone singing Beijing opera at the top of his lungs. It’s particularly beautiful in July and August with the lotus flowers blooming.
Zhihua Temple, which dates from the Song Dynasty (tenth to thirteenth centuries), is located right inside the East Second Ring Road and hidden behind some office towers. It’s very small and lovely, and you can see all of it in under an hour. The carvings inside the main pagoda are first-rate. It’s a great rainy-day activity, as the pagoda is indoors.
Afternoon at Aman Summer Palace Resort. It’s connected to the Summer Palace and beautifully designed in traditional Chinese courtyard style. Rooms run from $500 to $800 a night, but for the price of an afternoon tea you can stroll the exquisite and tranquil traditional grounds and enjoy the height of Beijing elegance.
Have a corner of the Forbidden City’s eastern garden all to yourself while sipping a glass of Champagne and nibbling some grapes in a lovely pavilion. You’ll feel like one of the emperor’s esteemed guests and enjoy a respite from the crowds and walking. This section of the Forbidden City is rarely visited by other tourists. Most people don’t even know it’s there.
A picnic on the Great Wall. We’ll send you with a guide who will carry a picnic lunch from the Kempinski Hotel German Bakery. Spread a blanket on a watchtower away from the crowds and prepare to be amazed by the views.
The Great Wall at sunset, when the mountaintops and winding wall are bathed in a soft golden light.
The park grounds of Ritan Park or Temple of Heaven early in the morning, when locals dance and do tai chi. They don’t mind having their photos taken at all.
BNC boutique, in the basement of Sanlitun North Village, is owned by Hong Huang, a Chinese fashion-magazine celebrity, and showcases local designers. Its selection of China-inspired clothing, jewelry, and knickknacks is tastefully done.
Phoenix Design, just one block away, is a beautiful little store for exquisite handmade porcelain or clay pots and vases. The shop alone is elegant and worth a look. It shares space with a French designer who produces a line of China-inspired children’s clothing that is charming and great for baby showers.
How to spend a Sunday
Go to Olympic Forest Park on Sunday morning for some of the best people-watching in the city. You’ll find a crowd of street singers gathered at the South Gate performing revolutionary tunes from the 1970s and 1980s. This park is Beijing’s distance runners’ mecca, as there is a 10k track around the park. You can join the locals for a jog, if you’re up for it. Then head off to Hotel East’s Feast restaurant for Beijing’s best Sunday brunch buffet, where you’ll likely rub shoulders with several of the city’s celebrities. Best of all, it won’t break the bank.