North China Travel Guide
The capital of the People's Republic of China is one of the world's largest cities with a population of over 14 million. Beijing first became an imperial capital during the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1279–1368), and both the Ming and Qing emperors ruled from the Forbidden City at its heart. Today, an all-pervading spirit of change has added an exciting new dimension to the city.
Expanding in concentric rings from the Forbidden City at its core, the grid-like layout of modern-day Beijing still echoes its Ming dynasty blueprint. Old Beijing survives in its temples, palaces, and old alleyways (hutong) that crisscross the city outside the second ring road, which itself charts the loop of the demolished City Wall. Within this ancient outline are huge avenues, vaulting flyovers, towering skyscrapers, shopping malls, and the vast expanse of Tian'an Men Square. The city that the 13th-century Mongol warlord Genghis Khan once put to the torch is undergoing a new, dramatic facelift, as a result of a culmination of a quarter-century of reform, the pressures of a growing population, and the 2008 Olympics. Beijing is a microcosm of modern China and all its contradictions, a bustling mix of affluent shoppers, trendy youths, beggars, and plain-clothes police. Bars and cafés proliferate, and entertainment options range from traditional Beijing opera and spectacular acrobatics to modern jazz and even raucous punk clubs. And in the capital's many restaurants, China's diverse cuisine can be sampled across its range – from the fierce spices of Sichuan to the dainty morsels of Cantonese dim sum. On the roads, the city's army of bicycles may be under pressure from the huge influx of new cars, but for the time being pedal power is still one of the best ways to get around Beijing.
Beijing's most significant sights and districts are marked on this map. At the core is the Forbidden City, with Tian'an Men Square and Qian Men to the south, and the shopping district of Wangfujing to its east. North of the Forbidden City stand the Drum and Bell Towers and farther northeast is the Buddhist Lama Temple. North of Beihai Park, the Mansion of Prince Gong stands in a historic hutong quarter, the old alleyways that riddle the city. To the south, Tian Tan, known as the Temple of Heaven, is a majestic example of Ming dynasty design. Beijing's environs are also dotted with sites including the magnificent Great Wall and the scenic Ming Tombs.
Sights at a glance
- Ancient Observatory 18
- Chuandixia 40
- Dazhalan & Liulichang 5
- Drum & Bell Towers 11
- Eastern Qing Tombs 35
- Forbidden City 7
- Great Wall of China 34
- Mansion of Prince Gong 10
- Marco Polo Bridge 36
- Ming Tombs 33
- National Olympic Stadium 39
- Peking Man Site 38
- Qian Men 2
- Summer Palace 29
- Tian'an Men Square 1
- Underground City 3
- Yuanming Yuan 30
- Beijing Capital Museum 22
- Beijing Planning Exhibition Hall 4
- Beijing Natural History Museum 20
- National Art Museum of China 16
- Chinese Military History Museum 26
- Southeast Corner Watchtower 19
- Confucius Temple 13
- Cow Street Mosque 23
- Dong Yue Miao 15
- Fayuan Temple 24
- Great Bell Temple 31
- Lama Temple 12
- Miaoying Temple White Dagoba 27
- South Cathedral 6
- Tanzhe Temple 37
- Temple of Heaven 21
- White Clouds Temple 25
- St. Joseph’s Church
A system of ring roads encircles the city center, and the best way to explore this area is by taxi, by subway, or by bicycle (see Local Transport in Cities). The bus service, though extensive, is generally slow and overcrowded. Organized tours are another option for a quick overview of the sights. Most hotels and agencies operate tour buses for visiting sights outside Beijing, although hiring a taxi for the day allows for greater flexibility.
Beijing Street Finder
The map references given for all sights, hotels, restaurants, shopping, and entertainment venues described in this section refer to the following two maps. The page grid superimposed on the schematic map below shows which parts of Beijing's city center are covered in this Street Finder. An index of the street names marked on the maps follows on the opposite page. The key, set out below, indicates the scales of the maps and shows what other features are marked on them, including subway, train, and bus terminals, hospitals, and tourist information centers. Beijing has extended a long way beyond the main city center and the Greater Beijing map on page 80 gives an idea of the area to the north, west, and south of central Beijing. Getting used to the directional system of road naming is vital to getting around easily in cities.
Key to street finder
in the background
Until the fall of the Qing, Jing Shan was linked to the Forbidden City and was restricted to imperial use. The hill’s purpose was to protect the imperial palaces within the Forbidden City from malign northern influences, which brought death and destruction according to classical feng shui. However, it failed to save the last Ming emperor Chongzhen, who hanged himself from a locust tree (huaishu) in the park in 1644, when rebel troops forced their way into Beijing. Another tree, planted after the original tree was cut down, marks the spot in the park’s southeast. The park is dotted with several pavilions and halls, but the highlight of any visit is the superb view of the Forbidden City from the hill’s Wanchun Ting (Wanchun Pavilion).
Beijing’s Courtyard Houses
At first glance, Beijing seems a thoroughly modern city, but a stroll through the city’s alleyways (hutongs) reveals the charm of old Beijing. These hutongs – weaving across much of central Beijing – are where many Beijing residents (Beijingren) still live. Typically running east to west, hutongs are created by the walls of courtyard houses (siheyuan). Formerly the homes of officials and the well-to-do, many were taken over by the state but they are now increasingly privately owned. The hutongs are very easy to find, try the alleyways between the main streets south of Qian Men, or around Hou Hai and Qian Hai. The modernization of Beijing has destroyed many traditional siheyuan, but a few have been converted into hotels, allowing the visitor a closer look at this disappearing world.
Shopping & Entertainment in Beijing
Beijing’s shopping scene has undergone a dramatic change over recent years and slick department stores co-exist with older retail outlets. Its vast array of retail options range from shopping malls and department stores to specialist stores, boutiques, antique and silk markets, and street vendors. The main shopping street Wangfujing Dajie is very popular with Beijingers, but a raft of new malls offer up stiff competition. Regrettably, many of the traditional shops no longer exist with the exception of those on Dazhalan Jie. Beijing also has a lively entertainment scene, with a growing number of pubs, bars, and clubs, and numerous venues for traditional Beijing Opera, theater, and music.
Visitors can buy anything from traditional handicrafts, collectibles, carpets, and silks to electronic goods, furniture, antiques, and designer clothing in Beijing. Many of the stores listed here arrange packaging and shipping as part of their service.
Antiques, crafts & curios
Genuine antiques (gudong) are hard to find. Objects dating between 1939 and 1795 cannot officially be taken out of the country without a certificate, anything older may not be exported at all (see Shops & Markets). The most interesting market for antiques and curios is Panjiayuan Market in the southeast of town. Open all week, for the best deals and pickings, visitors should aim to get there at sunrise during weekends to rummage through the Bodhisattva statues, ceramics, screens, calligraphy, and variety of ornaments. The Beijing Curio City nearby also has a vast collection of ceramics, furniture, jewelry, and Tibetan art on several floors. The large Hong Qiao Market near the Temple of Heaven is good for collectibles, souvenirs, and pearls, especially the section on the third and fourth floors. Be aware, however, that many of the goods on sale here are not original items. Visitors could spend a few hours browsing through Liulichang for its lacquerware, ceramics, paintings, and crafts. Huayi Classical Furniture sells classical antique, restored, and reproduction furniture.
It is advisable to take your own reading material when traveling to China, as the choice of imported and English-language fiction in Beijing is quite limited. But a fine selection of photographic, cultural, and travel books on China can be found. The Foreign Languages Bookshop is conveniently located, but its selection of English-language titles is small. Beijing’s largest bookshop (shudian), the Tushu Dasha, has English-language books on its third and fourth floors, but can get busy and noisy.
Some bars, such as The Bookworm, have English-title book swaps or small lending libraries.
Department stores & shopping malls
Despite fierce competition from new specialized outlets, huge department stores are still popular with the Chinese. Xidan Dajie is known for its concentration of stores. In a frenzy of consumerism, giant new malls have sprung up everywhere (there are a lot around Xi Dan subway station), stocked with a wide range of branded items and clothing. Try The Village in Sanlitun Lu, which is great for named brands, or Shin Kong Place, near Dawang Lu subway, for designer stores.
Carpets & textiles
Beijing’s markets sell a variety of carpets (ditan) from Tibet, Gansu, and Xinjiang, but visitors should bargain hard on all purchases. The Qian Men Carpet Company on Xingfu Dajie has fine handmade carpets from Xinjiang, Mongolia, and Tibet. Other shops worth visiting are Antique Carpets, the carpet stores on Liulichang, the Liangma Antique Market, and the stalls at Panjiayuan Market.
The cramped confines of Silk Street Alley Market have been transformed into the multi-story New Silk Street Alley Market; experienced shoppers say it lacks the character of the old place and visitors should still haggle for good prices. The popular Yuanlong Silk Corporation sells silk fabric and a large selection of ready-made silk garments, and the Beijing Silk Store south of Qian Men has good value silk. For upscale clothes try Na-Li, where it is still fine to haggle. The Yaxiu Clothing Market has four floors of clothes, fabric, and curios.
The arts scene in Beijing received a huge boost with the opening of the futuristic National Center for Performing Arts, better known as The Egg. Entertainment is largely based on the performance arts, such as Beijing Opera and traditional theater. English-language theater is increasingly popular, as are art exhibitions and music concerts. The rock, punk, and jazz live music scene is rapidly expanding.
Cinemas show a limited range of English-language films, as there are only a small number of foreign films admitted each year. Many embassies and bars show movies (either in English or with subtitles). Cherrylane (www.Cherrylanemovies.com.cn) has good movies. All European and Hollywood films are pirated on release, and appear in the markets as DVDs and VCDs of variable quality. Check out the listings in the English-language entertainment magazines found in the expat pubs on Sanlitun Lu, as well as in hotels. The Beijinger has good listings.
Traditional performances of Beijing Opera (jingju) are staged in the splendid Zhengyici Theater, the sole surviving wooden theater in China that was formerly a temple. Shows begin on most nights at 7:30pm. The Huguang Guildhall has a similarly distinguished setting, with daily performances at 7:15pm. During the warmer months, there are evening shows in the marvellous Mansion of Prince Gong at 7:30pm. Visitors who are part of tour groups are usually taken to the Liyuan Theater in the Jianguo Hotel.
The city’s numerous teahouses are excellent venues for the enjoyment of a variety of performances such as traditional Chinese music, storytelling, Chinese opera, acrobatics, and martial arts.
The extraordinary body-bending feats of Chinese acrobats (zaji) can be seen at several places in the capital. Popular performances are held nightly at the Chaoyang Theater at 5:15 and 7:15pm, and the Beijing Acrobat Troupe stages performances at 7pm at the Wan Sheng Theater. Performances are also held at the Universal Theater every night at 7pm. Shows featuring opera and acrobatics take place at the Lao She Teahouse through-out the afternoon and evenings. The Tianqiao Happy Teahouse also stages similar performances every evening at 6:30pm.
Pubs, bars & clubs
The capital city’s expat bar scene has for years concentrated along Sanlitun Lu in Beijing’s Chaoyang district – east of Dong Si Shi Tiao subway station. For a more laid-back experience, try bars around the shore where Hou Hai and Qian Hai lakes meet, such as the stylish World of Suzie Wong, with its Ming Dynasty beds. One of the first, and still considered to be one of the best, the No Name Bar near Hou Hai is well worth a visit. For a more upscale mood, try one of the bars at any of the city’s four- and five-star hotels.