Beijing may be a major international hub for business and tourism, but China keeps its capital city unique with a fusion of ancient tradition, Communist re-appropriation and modern comforts. Millions of visitors queue up each year for glances of the Temple of Heaven, walks through the Forbidden City and tours around reconstructed fragments of the Great Wall — after the compulsory tours of jade shops, of course.
Once you’ve had your fill at these requisite tourist stops, why not check out what’s really happening in Beijing?
Explore the 798 Art District
Industry meets avant-garde art in this trendy Beijing neighborhood. Formerly known as the Dashanzi complex, the 798 Art District is made up of uniquely constructed military factories that were part of the Socialist Unification Plan between China and the Soviet Union. Cleverly designed to allow maximum natural light, these decommissioned, Bauhaus-style buildings are perfect for displaying artwork.
Red China has been fused with modernism, making this art district a one-of-a-kind place to visit. Faded Maoist slogans have been given a fresh coat of red paint. Original 1950s machinery has been kept as it was. Contemporary Chinese and international artwork is displayed among the objects.
The district has been reclaimed by the artistic community, so the former factory area is now awash with publishers, design firms, high-end fashion boutiques, trendy cafés and bars.
Dine at Cafe Cha
For an equally traditional and indulgent dining experience, head to Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star Shangri-La Hotel, Beijing’s Café Cha. This eatery serves the city’s best yum cha (“drink tea”), a customary Chinese meal of hot savory snacks served alongside a selection of teas.
Café Cha takes this tradition to another level of luxury by serving fresh lobster each day along with other local seafood, spring rolls, Beijing duck and dumplings. The menu changes frequently, but is always seasonal and delicious.
Wander the Hutongs
Hutongs are traditional Chinese neighborhoods formed of tiny alleys crammed with siheyuan (“courtyard houses”). Some hutongs are ancient, protected as historical monuments, while many others are in poor condition. But those in more affluent areas, such as the hutongs around the Silver Ingot Bridge, make for beautiful photos.
Take a step back in time and explore the historic streets as locals go about their day, chatting and hanging out their laundry. Be aware, though, that not all hutong residents are thrilled at the prospect of being a model for tourist snapshots — before taking a picture, try to ask permission or just be discreet.
Keep your eyes peeled in the Dongcheng district for original communist murals and slogans painted on the walls.
Feast at Red Capital Club
Experience the excess of Chairman Mao’s China with a feast at Red Capital Club. Housed in a historic Dongcheng courtyard house, the restaurant and bar are furnished with original sofas from the Great Hall of The People, authentic Communist memorabilia and an old telephone — pick up the receive to hear recordings of the chairman’s rousing speeches.
Red Capital serves delicious, high-quality Chinese cuisine with a menu that focuses on specialties from the country’s northern region. The opulent life of a Communist party leader can best be experienced by ordering Mao Tse-tung’s favorite dish of succulent pork along with Sichuan-style spicy soups and seasonal vegetables arranged into intricate fan designs.
Wash down all that fine food with a bottle from the extensive list of international wines, all housed in a former bomb shelter.
Shop at The Pearl Market
It’s quite a remarkable sight — millions of pearls in every size, color, shape and price range — at Hongqiao Pearl Market. The emporium has the world’s largest selection of these iridescent sea gems. Unusually large, neon blue pearls are sold along with classic creamy white strands that can be made to measure —even $18 earrings are of fine quality.
While the fourth floor is the place to search for jewelry, there are plenty of other goods for sale, including Chinese silk, quality men’s shoes, knock-off designer handbags and cheap electronics.
Come to the market prepared to haggle and you can knock 60 percent off the original cost. And don’t be afraid to walk away if the price isn’t right.
Stay at the Summer Palace
For a once-in-a-lifetime experience, book your Beijing stay at Four-Star Aman at Summer Palace. Here, you’ll have the chance to loaf around in the original imperial buildings of this former royal residence, including those once used for guests of the Empress Cixi during the Qing Dynasty.
The property is surrounded by some of the most beautiful grounds in the city, including the sprawling, UNESCO-listed gardens.
The rooms surround lush courtyards and are equipped with all the modern comforts. Opt for a stay in a Deluxe Pavilion, furnished with gorgeous Chinese beds, carved wooden screens and an opulent bathroom with a standalone tub — the perfect place for a good night’s sleep after a long day of discovering the real Beijing.