China had its much-ballyhooed “coming out” party — the 2008 Summer Olympics — but things don’t slow down much in China’s frenetic capital. Already, the city is eyeing another Olympics bid (it’s one of two finalists for the 2022 Winter Games) and planning a $13 billion airport that is expected to be among the busiest in the world when it opens in 2019.
And yet compared with China’s other vertical megacities, Beijing is still a traditionalist at heart. The city may have fantastic new sculptural monuments designed by Zaha Hadid and Rem Koolhaas, but to truly understand Beijing, one has to delve into the remaining hutong neighborhoods — traditional alleyways lined with courtyard homes — and smell the sweet potatoes roasting on coal fires in the winter.
1. Beads and Incense | 4 p.m.
In the new Beijing of star-architect towers and gleaming Porsches, the Lama Temple (also known as Yonghe Temple) stands as a reminder of a less material and more spiritual time. Built as a prince’s home in the 17th century, the complex was gradually transformed into a lamasery and is today one of the most active — and colorful — Buddhist temples in the city. Beijingers pray amid gnarled pine trees with burning joss sticks held aloft and shopping bags slung over wrists, while monks offer quiet blessings of beads brought by visitors in hidden corners. Outside the lovely gingko-lined entrance are shops crammed with Buddhist trinkets and incense, the sounds of Tibetan music floating down the street. Admission is 25 renminbi, or about $4 at the rate of 6 renminbi to the dollar.
2. Beijing Brews | 6 p.m.
The traditional hutongs around the Lama Temple are a fantastic place to soak up Beijing street life. Avoid overly gentrified Nanluoguxiang, a crowded strip of T-shirt and snack shops, and head instead to the maze of alleys around quieter Baochao Hutong to the west. Here, locals gather for nightly mah-jongg games and sip beer at dumpling shops beneath gray-tiled rooftops sprouting tufts of grass. Grab a pint yourself in the tree-shaded courtyard at Great Leap Brewing, a pioneer in Beijing’s craft beer scene that makes unique ales like Iron Buddha Blonde, infused with tea from the mountains of Fujian province (40 renminbi). Continue the hutong pub crawl at nearby Slow Boat Brewery Taproom, which was opened a little over two years ago by a pair of Americans and has more than a dozen unpasteurized beers on tap, such as Helmsman’s Honey Ale (40 renminbi) brewed with honey from local bee farms.
3. The Spice Is Right | 8 p.m.
It’s brightly lit and raucous and if you come too late, the indifferent servers may begin stacking chairs around you as you finish your meal. Beijing may have more refined Sichuan restaurants these days, but Chuan Ban has retained a loyal following among locals because of its authentically mouth-numbing food — to be expected of a restaurant run by the Sichuan provincial government. The novel-length menu contains some perplexing dishes like Spicy Duck Lips, but there are safer standouts like mapo doufu (cubes of tofu swimming in crimson chile oil and smothered in ground Sichuan peppercorns; 18 renminbi) and stir-fried shrimp balls heaped with ground pork, preserved vegetables and diced chiles (78 renminbi).
4. Gentle Gentrification | 11 a.m.
While many of Beijing’s hutongs have been demolished over the years, others have been leveled and replaced with prettified versions of their former selves, turning neighborhoods into theme parks. The Dashilar neighborhood, one of the oldest in Beijing, is following a different path, with architects and designers leading a more sustainable gentrification process to try to retain the fabric of the community. One former factory in a 1950s Art Deco building has been gorgeously renovated into a cafe, Spoonful of Sugar, that serves organic coffee from Yunnan province and chocolates infused with fiery Chinese er guo tou liquor. Down the lane, check out the Ubi Gallery for handmade designer jewelry and Chinese ceramics, and the Li+U Workshop for handsome leather bags and wallets, made right there in the store.
5. Fit for a King | 1 p.m.
As the name suggests, Old Beijing Zhajiang Noodle King does one thing really well: zha jiang mian, a hand-pulled wheat noodle dish that’s just as evocative of Beijing as roast duck or hearty dumplings. So popular is this local chain that the lunch rush can feel manic: Waiters dash up and down stairs shouting orders and numbers of guests, while diners crowd around wooden tables slurping bowls of noodles topped with shredded cucumber and radish, bean sprouts and a tangy sauce made with minced pork and fermented soybean paste. It’s not only tasty, but lunch for two will set you back only 36 renminbi.
6. Suburban Cool | 3 p.m.
The sprawling 798 Art District is still the hub of Beijing’s contemporary art scene, although the last decade has brought commercialization in the way of souvenir shops, boutiques and cafes, distracting from the galleries. Head farther afield — literally in the dusty suburbs beyond the Fifth Ring Road — to see experimental art in less-crowded spaces. Designed by the provocative Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, the Three Shadows Photography Art Center, a stark, gray brick and concrete space, is said to be the first gallery in China devoted to photography, exhibiting works that, at times, explore the grittier side of modern Chinese life (free admission). At the new Red Brick Art Museum, near an outlet mall in the countryside, the focus is on video and installation works — think of charred New Zealand milk cartons as a comment on China’s food safety concerns — though the real draw may be the tranquil Chinese garden and angular, modernist red brick building itself (20 renminbi).
7. Duck Dressed Up | 8 p.m.
Duck devotees face a tough choice in Beijing — with so much kao ya (roast duck) to choose from, how to pick the right place? Duck de Chine succeeds in elevating the dish to a higher plane. Set in a renovated factory with exposed beams and elegant red lanterns, this is the kind of place that has Bollinger on ice and a gong to announce the arrival of your bird. There’s even an art to preparing the duck: First, it’s crisped in an oven with date wood to enhance the flavor, then carved tableside and wrapped expertly in a pancake with a swirl of house-made tian mian jiang (sweet bean sauce) and radish, celery and leek slivers. Fortunately, the high production value doesn’t come with steep prices — a whole duck costs just 268 renminbi. Reservations are a must for a table and duck; it takes over an hour to cook.
8. Hutong Hooch | 10 p.m.
Before a government-enforced austerity drive killed all the fun, banquets in China used to be riotous affairs fueled by copious shots of the blinding grain alcohol baijiu. With baijiu producers now seeking new markets, the liquor has moved from the banquet table to the low-lit cocktail bar. At Capital Spirits, a hutong speakeasy with antique wooden furniture and no sign on the door, a mostly young crowd sips shot glasses of the rocket fuel from a menu that varies by strength (from the lighter, rice-based Guilin Sanhua to the 106-proof Maotai Prince) and flavor (the bar infuses its own pomegranate, garlic and Sichuan peppercorn baijius.) An “intro flight” of four types is 40 renminbi. The ultimate challenge is the intimidating Five Snake Liquor (20 renminbi per glass) — a baijiu containing, yes, five dead snakes that’s supposedly good for arthritis and male virility.
9. Parks and Recreation | 8 a.m.
The Forbidden City, the former imperial palace at the center of Beijing, can feel overwhelming with the sheer number of courtyards and rooms, not to mention the pushy tourists. A far more peaceful alternative on the weekend is the imperial family’s former country escape, the Summer Palace (30 renminbi admission). Yes, the park gets its fair share of tour groups and Jazzercising grannies, but it’s easy to ditch the crowds by hiking the pine-shaded hill behind the palace and taking in the view of the lake below. As you wander, follow the sounds of music; you might find a choir of hundreds in their Sunday finest belting out patriotic Communist tunes with a brass band, or a Peking Opera soloist performing in a pagoda for an audience of one.
10. Designer Dumplings | 1 p.m.
The Opposite House hotel, with its green glass facade and soaring atrium draped in steel mesh, exemplifies the bold new architectural aesthetic taking root in Beijing. While staying at the hotel might be pricey (rooms start at 1,850 renminbi per night), the dim sum menu at Jing Yaa Tang restaurant (118 renminbi per person) is a real bargain. Feast on fluffy barbecued pork buns, pan-fried turnip cakes and homemade walnut milk (it tastes like a sweet soup) and then take in the Japanese architect Kego Kuma’s futuristic design in the lobby-cum-gallery space. The showstopper is a 19-foot-tall, 5,000-plus-drawer modern take on a traditional apothecary cabinet — a fitting symbol of how the traditional continues to influence the new in a city with thousands of years of history.
Beijing saw a plethora of new hotels open for the 2008 Summer Olympics, so finding good deals is possible even in the peak travel times in the spring and fall.
The 222-room Fairmont Beijing, opened in 2010, has excellent English-speaking service and is conveniently located a short taxi ride from the Forbidden City, SanlitunCQ and the Temple of Heaven. The top-of-the-line Gold Rooms offer great views from the skybridge on the 20th floor and 24-karat-gold rain showerheads. (8 Yong’an DongliCQ, fairmont.com/beijing; doubles from 1,250 renminbi)
Set in a former factory inside the 798 Arts District, the 30-room Grace Hotel has more of a boutique feel, with a glass of sparkling wine at check-in, rooms with high ceilings and wooden floors, and brightly colored artworks on the walls. (Jiuxianqiao Lu, 2 Hao Yuan, 798 Art District, 706 Hou Jie, No. 1, gracehotels.com; from 792 renminbi).