Must See Sights
Bespoke’s pick of the best for the ultimate trip
This one time home of Beijing’s emperors has enough stories of scheming eunuchs, attempted murders, and romantic exploits to keep you entertained for hours. Not that you’d get any of that from the tedious official narrative. If you only get a Bespoke Tour Guide for one sight, it should be this one.
The Great Wall
China’s most magnificent historical monument lies around 65km north of Beijing and is actually a collection of different walls built over the centuries to protect the country from northern invaders. But to visit it in person – to stand on it – is to truly understand what a feat of engineering it was.
This sprawling Bauhaus factory complex designed by the (East) Germans is one of the only places to catch a glimpse of Mao-era China in all its faded glory – not to mention the best place to see world-class contemporary art, lounge in a hip café or buy unique souvenirs...
The still-functioning Lama Temple is one of the most serene and beautiful spots in Beijing. Monks still go about their daily chores, incense curls in the air and prayer flags flutter from the eaves of each hall. The highlight? An awe-inducing 26m tall statue of Buddha carved out of a single Sandalwood tree.
Referring to the maze of alleyways and courtyards that once covered Beijing, most that remain are in Gulou – an area once inhabited by scholars, wealthy merchants and imperial officials. These days they’re the perfect place to see a slice of ‘old Beijing’ or grab an artisanal coffee from a hip local vendor.
Temple of Heaven
This highly symbolic 15th Century altar (where the emperor would come to pray for good harvests) sits at the center of a vast park filled with centuries-old cypresses. Mornings are the best time to go, when the city’s elderly folk come to dance, sing, do tai chi and socialize.
What To Eat
Six Beijing culinary experiences to get excited about
Few dishes are as artfully prepared or delicious as Beijing’s famous delicacy. Combined with plum sauce, scallion and cucumber, all wrapped in a delicate pancake. Ok gotta go, our mouths are watering...
Whether fried or boiled,
these carefully folded, tasty little pouches are filled with everything from pork and carrot to mushroom and beef. And Beijing has no shortage of places to sample them!
Beijing boasts food from
across the country, including predominantly Muslim Xinjiang Province, where residents are skilled lamb roasters, seasoning mutton skewers with cumin and spices. De-licious.
World-renowned chef Jean Georges described this breakfast pancake (sold from streetside carts before noon) as 'the best breakfast in the world'. Watching it being made is a joy to behold too.
Food With A View
Beijing’s fine dining scene boasts something few other cities do: historic locations to blow your mind. Like French food in the grounds of a 600-year-old temple. Or new Nordic cuisine beside a Kublai Khan-era canal.
The simplest and
most fun meal of all. Mutton, seafood and veg are thrown into a bubbling pot of spicy/mild broth before being dipped in sesame paste and eaten. Often accompanied by a flaky sesame bun.
So much choice! But a handful offer more reasons to stay than most...
The Aman at the Summer Palace
About as close as you’ll come to living like royalty whilst in Beijing, the serene and sprawling Aman resort is as thoughtful and elegant as the imperial pleasure ground it’s adjacent to. Downtown may be an hour away but this is a retreat in every sense of the word.
For authenticity seekers, The Orchid is a must. This hidden gem by the Drum and Bell Towers offers comfortable, hi-spec rooms amidst the hustle and bustle of the surrounding hutongs with their gossiping grannies, noisy peddlers and speeding bicycles. They’ve a wonderful terrace overlooking the rooftops too.
The Opposite House
Ready to have some fun? Located in the heart of Sanlitun, The Opposite House is laid back, tongue in cheek, and has some serious design chops. Brainchild of Kengo Kuma (and with interiors by hip local duo Neri & Hu), the soaring lobby even doubles as an art gallery showcasing contemporary Chinese artists.
On the face of it, yet another five star hotel chain. In reality, far from it. The brainchild of Chinese millennial CEO Sonia Cheng, this gorgeous hotel just, well, ‘gets it’. Best of all? It boasts not one, but three of the city’s best restaurants, two of which offer local Chinese fare. Ask for a room overlooking Rem Koolhaas’s CCTV Tower.
Hit the ground running with our insider’s guide to Beijing’s need-to-know neighborhoods
In many ways a complete contradiction, Sanlitun is at once Beijing’s sleek international, cocktail drinking quarter; but also the city at its most tacky and far-too crowded. If you’re looking to shop, party or people-watch though, this is the place. Always buzzing, and with the most focused collection of Beijing’s best restaurants and bars, it’s where you’ll likely be spending your evenings.
Centered around the ancient Drum and Bell towers, Gulou is Beijing’s ‘old town’. It’s where you’ll be going to see the city’s famous hutongs (old lanes), its independent boutiques and cafes. Where hipsters and cool kids exist side by side with the city’s hardened laobaixing (ordinary people). It’s also where the city’s loveliest secondary sights are located – from the Lama Temple to the lovely Guozijian Street and the lively Houhai Lake - at its best in the mornings.
Home to Tiananmen Square (the Communist Party’s power base) and the Forbidden City (the former imperial power base) – Beijing’s geographical center is the most politically and historically significant part of the entire country. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that this is ‘where it all happens’ in Beijing. Unsurprisingly, the closer you are to the beating heart of a controlling, one-party regime, the less likely you are to be kicking up your heels of an evening or spotting radical artwork in the streets. Instead it’s the domain of the state sanctioned, the five star and the sensible; of undercover police, awe-inducing buildings and serene imperial parks.
Like a different world, Beijing’s Central Business District is an ultra-modern bubble of air-conditioned, designer-clad calm perched at the east end of the city’s central Chang’an Avenue. This is the slick, ‘we mean business’ side of Beijing, where the multinationals have their headquarters and those with money buzz between the lightly perfumed shopping malls and 5-star hotel lobbies. There’s plenty of impressive architecture here too – Rem Koolhas’s quirky CCTV tower being the highlight.
Put simply, 798 is a self-contained, Mao-era munitions factory in the northeast corner of Beijing, with as much historic value as the Forbidden City and as much contemporary art clout as New York’s Meat Packing District. With its truly glorious industrial landscape, Communist Propaganda slogans and plethora of cool cafes and hip boutiques, this area is worth a mention in its own right. Not to be missed.