14 Fabulous Things To Do In Beijing

Want to go beyond the basics in Beijing? Check out some of these trendy hotspots and amazing things to do,

1.  Enjoy a banquet on the Great Wall at Jinshanling, complete with white-toqued chef and  server.  While there are surviving sections closer to Beijing like Bedaling, their very convenience has made them overcrowded and less rewarding for visitors looking for the ‘dragon’s back’ of stone walls and towers running across the rugged northern hills.  Jinshanling is a 2-hour drive from the city but is almost empty of visitors.  Local Mongol farmers, ironically the very people the wall was built to keep out, will offer to help you up the steep stone steps that climb straight up from the parking lot.  Imperial Tours owned by Westerners Nancy Kim and Guy Rubin and operating in Beijing can arrange a deluxe tour including a multi-course banquet among scattered rose petals on a turret of the wall.  Listen to the cicadas and drink in the view.  A once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Banquet on the Great Wall

2.  Order a Devil’s Tears cocktail at the Atmosphere Bar on the 80th floor of the tallest building in Beijing (No. 1 Jianguomenwai Avenue).  This special house drink made from huang-jiu, a yellow rice wine, was created by chief bartender Anson.  The Atmosphere is the most spectacular bar in Beijing, offering over 300 cocktails and glass walls stocked with wine bottles.  Nothing beats a nightcap looking out the ceiling-high windows over the rooftops of the Forbidden City.

3.  Shop for an original design jewel box created from porcelain shards saved from the destruction of Mao’s Cultural Revolution at The Shard Box Store in the old hutong district (No. 2 Jiangtai Road, Chaoyang District).  China lost so many treasures during the Cultural Revolution that Hu Song Lin, owner of The Shard Box Shop, made it his mission to save as many shards as possible from the smashed vessels of precious porcelain.  Now he has turned those shards into the lids of exquisite jewelry boxes and pieces of jewelry sold in his shop.  He also carries a range of semi-precious jewelry at reasonable prices.

Should you add Beijing to your round the world trip itinerary?

4. Join the diplomats at Tiandi Yijia, an up-scale restaurant near the Forbidden City (No. 140 Nanchizi Street, Dongcheng District) with inventive Chinese cuisine, a ceiling formed from traditional parasols, whispering waters and whispered secrets.  Just around the corner from Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, Tiandi was once a storehouse for the Ming and Ching Dynasties.  Decorated in the style of the Tang Dynasty, a koi pool runs around the parameters of its interior courtyard.  Try the pork in lettuce leaves, garden asparagus with sesame candy, and grated pickled carrot in translucent turnip cups.  The food is as exquisite as the décor, just right for a diplomatic tête-à-tête.

5.   Discover your personal element along with a relaxing massage or facial at the Chi Spa in the China World Summit Wing (No. 1 Jianguomenwai Avenue).  Located in the Shangri-La Hotel, the Chi Spa is the Rolls Royce of Beijing spas.  When you arrive for your appointment, you will be asked four questions to determine your personal element, fire, water, wood, metal, earth, and your treatment will use special oils that blend with your element.  Signature treatments such as the Jade Stone Massage and the Amber Charm Facial are guaranteed to relax muscles tense from those hours of shopping or climbing the Great Wall.

6. Check out the bargains rack for pearls at Hong Qiao (the Pearl Market, Tian Tan East Road, Chong Wen District), under the smiling photos of the First Ladies of the World.  First ladies of the Bush clan may be able to afford the luscious pearls on display in the myriad glass cases but less well-heeled travelers can find their own souvenirs for under $100 on the bargains rack against the wall on the 4th floor.  Below lie three more floors that carry less pricey jewelry, leather goods, clothing, electronics, handicrafts and a tea kiosk.  You can even enjoy a mani-pedi on the ground floor.  Don’t be afraid to bargain; it’s expected.

7. Join the Sunday morning crowds at the Temple of Heaven Park and watch the domino, cards and chess players or join a dance class or a traditional sword class.  They’re free.  While tourists head straight through the park to visit the Ming Dynasty temple, where the emperor used to pray twice a year for a good harvest, take some time to wander through groups of socializing locals playing games, practicing tai chi and exercising in breathtaking gymnastics.  You’ll see dance classes of all kinds from ballroom to line dancing.  Join in if you feel the urge; all you’ll arouse are giggles.  Then buy a cold drink and watch the calligraphers paint with water and Alice in Wonderland sized brushes on the smooth pavement.  Someone will always be happy to write your name in Chinese characters.

Sunday morning in Temple of Heaven park

8.  Have dinner at the avant-garde Lan Club (4/F Twin Tower, B12 Jianguomen Waidajie), decorated by renown French designer Philippe Starck.  Peking Duck is served on a scholar’s tray    with an inkpot of hoisin sauce and a paintbrush to prepare your pancake full of tender meat.  Or you can crack your own clay wrapped Beggar’s Chicken with a wooden mallet.  In addition to its main dining lounge, the Lan Club has 35 private dining tents, each with its own decorative scheme, an oyster bar, cigar bar and French bistro.  The food is outstanding and the décor is like exploring a museum of modern art.  One of the hottest restaurants in town.

9.  Have your photo taken dressed as the Emperor or Empress of China in the outdoor photo studio at Beijing’s Summer Palace.  Your picture in Ching court costume sitting on a golden    throne will cost 40RMB (about US$7).  Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Summer Palace was a stately pleasure dome decreed by China’s last empress, Cixi, who ruled for 45 years until her death in 1908.  The dragon lady had a huge manmade lake dug in the middle of the landscape and used the dirt to build Longevity Hill.  Topped by a flock of pagodas, the hill towers over the pleasure pavilions.  The longest wooden corridor in the world connects Cixi’s living quarters with a two-story marble boat sitting at the edge of the water.  Wander down and get an ice cream cone and watch the dragon boats sail by.

10.  Order a Vesper Lynd cocktail and imagine you’re James Bond at Apothecary Bar in Sinlutung (Nali Patio 3/F #D302, 81 Sanlitun Beilu, Chaoyang), one of the trendiest new nightspots in the most popular after dark district in town.  Located in a Spanish-Moorish multi-story behind a modern mall and next to a street packed with up-scale bars and low-key sex shops, Apothecary does its own thing.  Mixes like grenadine, bitters and ginger beer, together with the thrice-filtered ice, is made in-house.  The bartenders pour drinks with ceremonial precision and can concoct a cocktail just for you.  Feeling creative?  Invent The Great Wall or the Last Emperor.  If you’re feeling truly adventurous, there’s a tattoo parlor around the corner.

11.  Book a tour to view Ching Dynasty Emperor Chi’en Lung’s private apartments in the Forbidden City and check out nearly US$500-million dollars worth of antique treasures housed in    three cozy domestic pavilions.  Chi’en Lung (1711-1799) was one of China’s great collectors and ruled over an era of Chinese prosperity.  In the vastness of the Forbidden City, the emperor’s modest personal rooms packed with expensive toys contain a throne of yellow silk where he composed poetry.  The apartments give a rare intimate glimpse into the life of one of China’s most illustrious rulers.  Book through your hotel concierge.

Entering the Forbidden City

12.   Take a walking tour of Beijing’s trendy new art district, 798 Art Zone, housed in 50-year-old factory buildings designed by the former East Germans.  Taking their architectural inspiration from the Bauhaus, the buildings are strikingly contemporary.  From the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art through a branch of New York’s prestigious Pace Gallery, the zone is a window on the artistic fusion of east and west.  Trendy shops and cafes have sprung up linking the exhibition areas.  Contact Megan Connolly (info@chartcontemporary.com) to arrange a  viewing.  A great place to wander on Sunday afternoons.

13.  Check out the ceramics at Spin (6 Fangyuan W. Road, Chaoyang).  On a street of brick buildings that looks more US East Coast than central Beijing, designer Gary Wang turns fine    white porcelain clay into works of delicate beauty.  Buy a coffee mug or a nested set of lotus bowls.  They’re reasonably priced and invoke China’s age-old reputation for producing the best ceramics in the world.

14.  Have dinner at the Green T House (No. 6 Gongtixilu Chaoyang) with cutting-edge interior design and a fusion menu that includes some form of tea in every dish.  Through the  intercommed outer white door, you enter a fantasy world of white on white with free form chairs, soaring tree branches and hanging bird cages.  Owned by musician and artist Zhang Jin Jie, the restaurant has a pan-Asian vibe and an airy ambiance.  The serving dishes are art forms and the tea ingredients in the food are subtle.  Try the hong pao chicken with crispy oolong tea leaves and the delicate pancakes with lamb, followed by – what else – a dizzying selections of teas.

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All photos by the author except Atmosphere and Lan Club.

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