During Beijing’s march to modernity in the past decade, the Chinese capital bulldozed much of its past. Swathes of land were 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. But set amid these grey, Communist-era blocks, there are temples dating back hundreds of years.
This bipolar mix of tradition and modernity extends to the Beijingers: you see residents playing mahjong in the streets, while the younger generation is as up to date with global trends as any Londoner. And despite the high-profile cases of censorship 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.
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 venues. Visit in the daytime: hire a bike and branch off into the hutongs (traditional alleyways) surrounding the nearby Drum and Bell Towers.
The National Museum of China
(16 East Chang’an Avenue, Dongcheng District, +86 10 6511 6400) has reopened after a Dhs1.4 billion facelift. Entry is free with your passport via the west entrance on Tiananmen Square, but head to the north entrance and buy tickets to one of the exhibitions (the Dhs6 entry fee allows you to skip the long queues). Another way to see Tiananmen is via the dawn flag-raising ceremony, a surreal experience that’s 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 you’ll find armies of tour groups, and venture to wilder stretches such as Jinshanling.
Shopping and style
Dong Liang Studio is a boutique devoted to independent Chinese design, including Xander Zhou, Ye Qian and Uma Wang (26 Wudaoying Hutong; +86108404 7648). By contrast, Lost & Found looks back with 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 Nanluoguxiang takes Beijing ‘in-jokes,’ iconic signs and slogans, and plasters them across T-shirts, hoodies and notebooks.
Forget everything your local takeaway ever taught you. Real Chinese food is as diverse as it is delicious. Watch Shanxi-style noodles being made in front of you at the 12-seater Noodle Bar (The Hidden City, Gongti Bei Lu; +86 10 65011949), or fill yourself up with hearty Manchurian dumplings at 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), chefs carve the birds tableside with the precision of China’s synchronised swim team.
Music and nightlife
The biggest concentration of clubs is around the Workers’ Stadium. Two of the best are Lantern (100m north of Workers’ Stadium West Gate; +86 13 501348785), an underground cavern playing every electronic genre, and Destination (7 Gongtixilu Road; +86 10 65528180). Meanwhile, there’s live world music, jazz and folk at cosy Jianghu bar and the laid-back Vanguard (13 Wudaoying Hutong; +86 10 58443638).
798 Art District – China’s version of New York’s SoHo – is a collection of factories and warehouses first occupied by artists who made the cheap, light-filled spaces their studios. Galleries, shops and cafés soon followed. Entry is mostly free, and the open-air installations, eateries and poster shops make a stroll around here a pleasant way to spend an afternoon.
The most atmospheric accommodation is in the hutongs. Try The Orchid, a charming courtyard guesthouse beside the Drum and Bell Tower, with doubles from Dhs350 (www.theorchidbeijing.com).
Blow your budget at The Opposite House, a stunning modernist hotel with a free mini-bar, award-winning restaurants and modern art installations in the foyer. Doubles from Dhs1,161 (www.theoppositehouse.com).
Need to know
Emirates flies direct from Dubai to Beijing Capital Airport, with return tickets from Dhs2,660 including tax. www.emirates.com.
Flight time: Approximately eight hours.
Time difference: Four hours ahead of the UAE.
Dhs1 = 1.7 Chinese yuan renminbi.