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What you need to know to get a good city overview
The Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square are easily done together and take half a day to a full day depending on how much time you want to spend exploring the Forbidden City. I would recommend starting at Tiananmen Square, which is really just a quick look around and a few photos. If you take a taxi, it won't be able to stop along ChangAn Jie (the main street between Tiananmen and the Forbidden City), so he'll have to let you out on a side street. If you take a taxi to the Forbidden City itself, he may drop you at a side entrance, since they can't stop out front. On the subway, the Tiananmen East and Tiananmen West will drop you at the northern corners of the square, but Tiananmen East is closer (the West stop is actually about a block away).
Tiananmen Square is really just a big open public square. For special events, they may set up some extra decorations (like giant inflatable versions of the Olympic mascots), but usually it's just a vast expanse of concrete. In the center is the Monument to the People's heroes. To the north, across ChangAn Jie, is Tiananmen Gate and the famous giant portrait of Mao. On the west is the Great Hall of the People, where the national congress meets. At the south end is Chairman Mao's mausoleum. On the east is a government history museum and one of the Olympic countdown clocks, ticking off the seconds to the 2008 Games. The east side of the square is also a popular hangout for the "art students" who offer to take you to a special museum or exhibition. We've always politely declined but have heard that this results in an exhibit of overpriced artwork or them asking a fee for being your guide. One of my favorite Beijing stories is walking along Tiananmen East and after turning down an offer to view a "special exhibit," the young man followed us for a while chatting about where we were from, what we were doing in Beijing, etc. At the end, he asked for 20 RMB just for "being our friend!” If I'd have known how many times I'd look back at that and laugh, I might have actually given him the money!
Aside from snapping a few photos, if you're not seriously interested in the Beijing government, the only thing worth considering around the square is Mao's mausoleum. In true communist-leader style, Mao has been preserved and is on display most mornings (8:30-11:00 every day but Monday last I checked). I've seen guidebooks list incorrect hours for this. If nothing else, it's astonishing just to see how many people are going in to pay their respects. Admission is absolutely free, but you have to check your bags and cameras for a small fee at a building across the street to the east. The line to get in varies in length, but it moves quickly, since visitors are not allowed to stop inside. On crowded days (especially weekends) a few unofficial "guides" work the area around the line, and for around 15-20 kuai ("kuai" is the local way of saying "yuan" or RMB) they'll show you where to check your bag and may have an agreement with the guards to let you cut in line a bit. The line wraps around the building to the East (if it's especially short, look for the marked lines on the sidewalk), and depending on the crowd, getting in to see Mr. Mao can take 15-45 minutes. Once inside, you get about 45 seconds to decide whether you think he's a wax replica or not (there are lots of stories and theories about the preservation of Mao's body). Seeing Mao himself isn't one of the most spectacular sights in Beijing, but I think it's one of the most unique! Also worth observing is the level of respect the visiting Chinese show for their ex-leader. Many bow to his statue at the entrance, and more notably, this is the only place I've been in China where a crowd of Chinese stayed quiet.
Continuing on from Tiananmen Square, there are pedestrian subwalks to cross under ChangAn Jie to Tiananmen Gate. Taking photos with the stone lions and the portrait of Mao is one of the major photo ops of China (probably second only to the Great Wall), and there are almost always swarms of people.
As everyone will tell you, the Forbidden City is enormous. It's even deceptively so, since there's very little inside to give you perspective on how wide some of the courtyards are. My opinion is that you really just need to stay on the North-South axis in the middle of the palace compound (Tiananmen Gate is on this axis) and keep heading north. Wandering too far off of this path is bound to get you lost and exhausted. Based on two separate visits, it seems that various areas are open on different days, so there's no comprehensive and detailed map of the side areas. It's not hard to get lost and end up backtracking or wandering blindly through building after building (most of which all look alike)!
The Forbidden City is also known as the Palace Museum, and a few years ago, that meant a collection of dreary paintings/photographs and a few random artifacts in aging display cases. However, the pre-Olympic whirlwind has done its magic, and some of the galleries along the sides of the central courtyards have been transformed into impressive exhibits dedicated to various aspects of Imperial life. The galleries on the Imperial wedding and birthday celebrations are particularly spectacular with fine presentation and beautiful lighting effects. These museum areas are fairly unmarked, so just explore the smaller buildings lining the courtyards. Most of them contain something from military uniforms to musical instruments.
There's an English audioguide available at the entrance, and while I've never tried it, friends have said that it leads you all over the palace. They said they spent around 6 hours and weren't able to finish the entire tour. If you're interested in seeing some of the areas off the beaten path, this may make it more worth it and could help give you a better sense of direction.
One interesting area aside from the central courtyards and throne rooms was the Hall of Jewelry and the Nine-Dragon Screen on the eastern side, although there is an extra 10 RMB entrance fee for this area. The Nine-Dragon Screen is a wall with a large brightly colored ceramic dragon motif. The Hall of Jewelry displays a small collection of art and jewelry created from precious and semi-precious stones. A few pieces are rather impressive, but don't expect the Crown Jewels. According to some of my Chinese friends, many of the grandest imperial treasures were taken to Taiwan to protect them from the Cultural Revolution (and are still there). The surrounding area seems to house a labyrinth of other exhibits, some of which may or may not be open to the public. The most interesting of these that I've found was an exhibit of decorative items like flower arrangements carved and assembled from different colored stones and mountain landscapes carved from giant (up to 6 ft high) pieces of jade. Unfortunately, I couldn't find my way back to this on my last visit and we ended up instead at the Imperial theater and a collection of related artifacts (scripts, costumes, etc). For most visitors, the galleries facing the main courtyards have a good enough sampling of relics and finery.
The Summer Palace is one of the most beautiful sights in Beijing. The main renovation was just completed around September 2006, so the bright colors and detailed paintings are at their finest! While the Forbidden City is impressive for its sheer size, the exquisite decoration at the Summer Palace really reinforces the beauty and detail of Imperial China.
The Summer Palace is pretty far from the center of Beijing, so expect a fairly long cab ride. From the center of town, it will probably take 30-45 minutes unless it's rush hour, in which case it will take significantly longer.
The Palace is actually an enormous garden laid out around a lake with most of the main buildings on Longevity Hill at the north shore. The two most famous features, the Marble Boat and Long Corridor, are both right at the shoreline on the north, as are most of the tour groups! In October, the Long Corridor was still under renovation, although some unrestored parts were open.
The seventeen arch bridge stretches into the middle of the lake from the eastern shore. Although boats may be crossing the lake to shorten this trip, I haven't seen them on any of my visits. On a clear day, you can get a nice view of Longevity Hill and its colorful buildings from across the lake. If you do have an especially clear day in the city, the Summer Palace is a great destination. The newly painted colors are extremely vibrant in the sun, and not only can you see the views across the lake, but you may even be able to see some of the city skyline from parts of the hill. However, a day that clear is very rare, and consider yourself lucky if you can see clearly across the lake!
At the northeast corner of the lake are a number of buildings that include an imperial restaurant, a "Dress Like the Emperor" photo stand, etc. as well as the old opera hall and living quarters. I'm not familiar with these areas and have seen little information about them. The south and west sides of the lake are mostly just park areas. They're not particularly interesting from a tourist perspective, considering the time it takes to walk them, but the path along the causeway can be a pleasant stroll as it crosses a string of bridges that connect the chain of small islands.
In my opinion, the highlight of the Summer Palace is the Cloud Dispelling Hall and the buildings climbing the middle of the south side of Longevity Hill. The entrance to this area is just off the center of the Long Corridor, and requires an extra 10 RMB admission. The extra fee is well worth it as this is the section of buildings has just been restored and is dazzling with its interesting designs and bright colors. Through the windows of some of the lower halls, you can see displays of extravagant gifts Empress Cixi received at her birthday celebrations. Unfortunately, the displays are not well designed, and with no inside lighting, it's difficult to see past the glare on the windows. Midway up the hill, one of the buildings contains a tiny exhibit about the restoration process and displays sample materials from the original structure and from the periodic restorations since. It's sort of interesting to see how the buildings have aged and to get an idea of just how much work they've had to put in to restore it to the current splendor. Near the top of the hill are a few interesting structures including a hall made entirely of solid bronze. These flank the centerpiece Cloud Dispelling Hall that perches at the very top of the hill.
On the northern face of Longevity Hill, facing away from the lake, is a Buddhist temple area. In September, some of this area was closed for restoration work, and many of the parts that are open are fairly rundown. The surrounding area is forest park with paths leading up and down the hill through the tress. Near the north palace gate is Suzhou Street. The center of the back lake forms a small canal, and a collection of small buildings is constructed along its banks to resemble the water towns of southern China. This little area can be viewed from the main bridge, but there's another admission fee to go down and wander at water level. The buildings contain a few stalls selling various kitschy souvenir items. The north gate is allegedly home of a number of illegal taxis, and it's recommended that you catch a cab from one of the other exits (probably the East Gate).
The Great Wall is truly great in its length, although many portions of the wall have eroded, and not all of the sections were actually ever connected together. Thus, the Wall is actually comprised of a number of different areas scattered around the country north of Beijing. The three most popular sites to visit the Wall are Badaling, Mutianyu, and Simatai. Organized trips to each of these areas are fairly common and can probably be arranged through a hotel or travel agent, although depending on the company, you may be taken to a few tourist traps along the way. Many trips also stop at the Ming Tombs, where some of the Ming emperors were buried. I've never been, because everyone I know has said either "It was pretty boring," or "It's okay."
Personally, we prefer to visit the Wall on our own, so that we're not as limited by time constraints and can explore as much or as little as we'd like. Badaling is easily accessible by public bus, but getting to Mutianyu or Simatai on your own usually means hiring a driver or taxi for the day. Both these trips cost 400-450 RMB.
When visiting the Wall, plan to pack a few snacks to eat while you're up there. There are usually a few vendors at (and even on) the Wall itself, selling ice cream, cold drinks, and snacks, but the selection is often rather limited. A small picnic lunch can be a fun, relaxing chance to enjoy the view. Pick up snacks at groceries or convenience stores near your hotel. Sandwiches aren't very popular in China, but there are a number of Subway restaurants around Beijing, and most small groceries sell sliced bread.
"Wear comfortable shoes" pretty much goes without saying!
Badaling is the closest to Beijing and is therefore the most touristy and the most crowded. The wall here is a few interconnected segments, and the surrounding area is well built up with souvenir shops, cafes, and tourist centers. It can be quite crowded, but shouldn't be as bad in the off-season. This section of the wall is fully restored, and the terrain is quite hilly making parts of the wall here quite steep. With multiple paths along the Wall here, I found the area a little confusing, so before wandering off I'd recommend picking up an area map if possible. There are a few different cable cars that can help you climb up to the wall.
The biggest draw of Badaling is certainly its convenience. It's an hour drive from Beijing and can be reached easily by public transportation. For 12 RMB, a tourist-friendly express version of bus 919 leaves regularly from next to the Deshengmen gate and just runs to and from Badaling whenever it's full. The intersection at Deshengmen is a little big, and while wandering around the area asking "Badaling? Badaling?" looking for the bus stop can feel a little silly, 24 RMB roundtrip is miles cheaper than most tour prices. Look around the area for a queue of people and a group of slightly more comfortable-looking buses.
Mutianyu is probably the second most common destination on the Wall, although it's still enormously less crowded than Badaling. Mutianyu is around 2 hours from Beijing. It's basically a single straight stretch of restored wall, although the surrounding area contains many stretches of interconnected unrestored wall. The middle section is relatively flat with steeper segments at each end. This flat section and straightforward layout make Mutianyu a good choice for people with slightly limited mobility, although any Wall hike is bound to be exhausting.
The east end is a slightly hilly climb and stops at the edge of the unrestored section. Although a sign prohibits visitors from continuing on to the unrestored sections, it's not often guarded and some people explore a little further. This may not be a good idea anymore, since a campaign was launched recently to crack down on Wall misbehavior (graffiti and rock stealing). I think Mutianyu is my favorite of the three, because I like seeing the contrast between the fully restored and unrestored sections. Near the east end, you may be able to see stretches of unrestored wall overgrown with grass and shrubs as well as collapsed watchtowers. With the plants growing right out of the middle of the ramparts, I find it fascinating to see how the Great Wall itself is returning to nature.
The west end is a very steep ascent and dead ends where the wall has collapsed partway up the hill. This is the steepest section of the Wall I've been on, and by the end, I was literally climbing the stairs with my hands like a ladder!
The area at the base of Mutianyu has a small community of souvenir vendors who are ready to gouge tourists with crazy prices but are also ready to drop them to rock bottom when you walk away. A gondola is available to ride up to the wall towards the western side, and a ski lift can carry you up to the east. The aging ski lift was a little terrifying, especially with the offer of "insurance" for an extra 1 RMB! A unique and fun feature of Mutianyu is a winding toboggan ride back down from the wall near the ski lift. Based on my past experience with the scary ski lift and the strenuous western climb, I'd recommend taking the gondola up, walking all the way east to see the unrestored wall, and then doubling back to take the toboggan ride down. If you do this first thing in the morning (I believe the Mutianyu Wall opens at 8:30), the stretch of Wall to the west of the gondola will be completely empty and lit up by the morning sun - a dream for travel photography.
Of the three, Simatai is the least visited and the most rugged. It's 3 hours from Beijing and is a single stretch of restored and semi-restored wall. Simatai is known for having the best views, as it's extremely high up, surrounded by gorgeous hills and a lake at the base of the mountains. Parts of the wall here are a little tricky, because it's only partially restored, and I wouldn't suggest it for people with a fear of heights. For the most part, it's a single large slope, rising from the west to the east. Past the eastern end, the Wall rises and falls over a cluster of beautiful camelback mountaintops.
A nice path skirts the lake before leading up to the shorter eastern end of the Wall. It's a bit of a hike, but it allows easy, gradual access to walk up to the wall. Toward the western end, a ski lift rises partway up the mountain. After that, a short vertical railway can carry you a bit further. However, at the end there's still a short, steep hike to make it up onto the wall. From here, the Wall extends a bit farther west. This is the area that's not fully restored, and in some places, only a chain protects you from the steep slope of the mountain. Beyond the end of the visitor stretch the area becomes particularly precarious, and when we visited on a Saturday, a guard was actually stationed here to prohibit the daring (and foolish) from risking further exploration. Following the Wall back west, most of the trek is actually downhill, making the visit a little easier for those willing to pay (in RMB and humility) for the assistance climbing up. For the adventurous, a zip-line will carry you down over the lake from the western end, and a boat ride takes you back to the entrance gate.
Even on a weekend in the summer, there's not a crowd at Simatai, and in the winter, it's possible to be the only people on the wall. Here the souvenir shops are just a few people with tents and folding tables set up in the parking lot during the summer. During the peak season a few local women, despite their age, climb up to the wall each day and follow the visitors offering books and t-shirts. I was put to shame as I sat panting, out of shape, and trying to catch my breath while these older women came bounding up the hill to offer me a fan!
One of my favorite ways to spend a day in Beijing is wandering around the area near Houhai Lake. North (and slightly east) of the Forbidden City, the Houhai area is actually made up of two interconnected lakes - Houhai to the north, and Qianhai to the south. The area is known for its lakeside clubs and cafes, and during the day, it's great for pleasant walks along the lake and around some of the remaining traditional hutong areas.
I particularly like starting up north around the Drum and Bell Towers and heading south. The Drum and Bell Towers are two of the lesser Beijing landmarks and form part of the historic north-south axis that runs through the city, intersecting Tiananmen, the Forbidden City, and soon the new Olympic park. The Bell Tower isn't too interesting inside, but the Drum Tower houses an interesting time-keeping fountain and a set of replica drums (along with one very aged original) that are beaten by a troop of drummers every 30 minutes during the morning and afternoon. This area is also home to swarms of cycle rickshaws offering hutong tours. I haven't done this, so I don't have any advice about whether it's worth it or not. Definitely haggle over the price, and only pay what you think sounds reasonable.
Just south of the Drum Tower is a small side alley off the main road of Dianmen Wai Dajie (look for a crowded, gated alley on the west side of the street). This leads into Yandai Xiejie, a narrow alley lined with craft and souvenir shops. It's an interesting little street with a lot of character and well worth a short visit. Yandai Xiejie ends at the Silver Ingot Bridge, the small bridge that separates Houhai and Qianhai Lakes. This conveniently leads into a nice lakeside stroll. Cross the bridge and head south along the shore of Qianhai Lake. Wandering a little farther west from the lake leads you into one of the fancier hutong areas with some preserved courtyard homes and their picturesque doorways that are popular in Chinese oil paintings. This area is also home to Prince Gong's former residence, a fine courtyard house, known for its gardens (use a tourist map or guidebook if you especially want to find it). Finally, the southeast section of Qianhai Lake is Lotus Lane, a strip of upscale lakeside bars and restaurants that shares its name with the setting of the TinTin comic adventure "The Blue Lotus."
I enjoy this walk because it's relaxing and peaceful, and with the low buildings and surrounding hutongs, it still has some feel of old Beijing. It's a nice escape from the bustle of the modern city, and I feel it's worth seeing some of the hutong areas before they're all bulldozed to build new skyscrapers.
Although I recommend the hutongs and the lake area higher, the next most famous Beijing sight is the Temple of Heaven. The main hall (the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests) is the symbol of Beijing. The Temple of Heaven, "Tiantan," is now a park, but it originally served as the site where the emperor would pray to the gods each year for bountiful harvests. The signs around the park (or a handy Beijing guidebook) explain the extreme ceremony that surrounded this annual event. The halls still stand where the emperor waited out his ritual fasting, changed into his ceremonial robes, and was led in a huge procession to the altar where he spoke to the heavens.
The renovations to the Hall of Good Harvest were completed in spring 2006, and the building is beautiful. The design and detail are similar to the Summer Palace, although the building has a striking feature in its cobalt blue tile roof. Also in the complex is the popular Echo Wall, which is built in perfect symmetry allowing an echo to travel around its perimeter to a listener on the other side of the circular courtyard. Unfortunately, as of September, this area was undergoing its renovations and may not reopen for a while. The other major features of the temple are the multi-tiered altar and the long raised pathway used for the imperial procession.
Despite the beautiful Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, I actually find the most interesting feature of the park to be the Long Corridor near the East Gate. Especially on weekends, dozens of locals gather along this covered walkway to socialize. They play games and gather in large groups to sing songs and play musical instruments. Wandering along through the various groups of singers is a touching and authentic look into local Chinese community life.
If you're interested in visiting a Buddhist temple, this is an excellent choice. It's an active lamasery that was formed in the residence of a past imperial prince. While this means that the architecture isn't completely typical for a Buddhist temple, the grounds are quite large and very picturesque. Expect lots of incense and plenty of statues of buddhas and buddhisatvas. Yonghegong is extremely convenient to the Yonghegong subway stop (just head south from the station).
Wangfujing is kind of the Champs Elysses of Beijing, with a huge section cordoned off as a pedestrian-only area. The street is lined with shopping with a combination of western brands (Nike, Nine West, etc) and tourist souvenir shops (many overpriced). At the south end is Oriental Plaza, an upscale shopping center, and the mall at Sun Dong An Plaza similarly anchors the north end.
Despite the ubiquitous shopping, I believe the real draw of Wangfujing is the snack street. On the west side, near the middle of the pedestrian section is an alley with a prominent and colorful Chinese-style gate. This area contains a small collection of stalls selling traditional Chinese snacks, including the often-photographed, rarely eaten scorpion skewers. On the more reasonably edible side, I recommend trying the lamb meat skewers with spicy cumin powder and the sticks with candy-coated hawthorn fruits, a pleasant blend of sweet sugar and sour fruit.
Even more exciting, around dusk the Donghuamen Night Market opens along the street at the north end of the pedestrian section. This strip of stalls sells just about everything you can imagine putting on a skewer - scorpions, octopus, centipedes, and more traditional fare such as lamb, beef, and chicken. It's an adventure just to walk along and see the options! There are also stalls selling fried noodles, and other traditional snacks.
My first shopping recommendation is Silk Street, because it's a tidy, semi-organized environment with a lot of variety and plenty of English-speaking vendors. It's a well-known outlet for designer fakes, but there are many less IP-infringing options as well. The basement houses a huge collection of shoes, purses, and luggage, and the first and second floors are clothing. The third floor houses silk products of all kinds: ties, scarves, purses, tablecloths, pillow covers, and even tailors who can stitch you a traditional Chinese dress ("qipao" in Mandarin or "cheongsam" in Cantonese) in only a few days!
The fourth floor is my favorite for gift shopping. Half the floor is occupied by a variety of stalls selling all kinds of Chinese souvenirs and crafts. You can find scroll paintings, calligraphy, lacquer ware, tea, fake antiques, Chairman Mao memorabilia, etc. One of my favorites is the traditional Chinese seals that can be custom carved in a few minutes (most have an extensive dictionary of name translations, to help you find a Chinese spelling). Along one side is a long row of stalls selling fake designer sunglasses and watches (the Patek Philippe fakes actually look quite good and seem to work rather well, including the auto-winding mechanism).
The fourth floor is also the floor with the jewelry department, selling bags and bags of just-off pearls for next to nothing. Although I've heard the jade is not to be trusted, the pearls are all authentic. They mostly sell slightly imperfect pearls, which are apparently cheaper than producing synthetic pearls in China. Although they can be difficult to find, I especially like single-pearl pendants. I find that an imperfect pearl that's flat on one side fits better in many pendant settings than those that are perfectly round. A single-pearl pendant will cost around $3-5. Pearl strands cost from $5 to around $40 depending on the size and quality.
The fifth floor houses a number of higher-end jewelry shops with better quality pearls. While these shops will be much more expensive than the stalls on the 4th floor, the prices are still negotiable (though possibly a little less so).
The Pearl Market is even cheaper than Silk Street, although the environment is a little more "thrown together," with goods piled up everywhere on tables. Also, the fish market in the basement can sometimes create a less-than-pleasant shopping experience on parts of the lower floors.
The first floor of the Pearl Market houses a selection of electronics and a random assortment of silk products. The second floor is swarming with purses, shoes, and aggressive vendors, who are absolutely sure you want to buy a fake Louis Vuitton purse from them! The real draw of the Pearl Market is the upper floors, which house a huge assortment of souvenir and knickknack stalls, as well as the biggest collection of pearls I've ever seen. The jewelry section here is awe-inspiring, with giant plastic bags filled with strand after strand of pearl. It really underscores the fact that for every perfect pearl we see in a jewelry shop, there were hundreds of others that didn't make the cut! Naturally, pearls can be had here for even less than at Silk Street. Similarly, the top floor has a collection of more expensive jewelers.
Due to government regulations, all markets in Beijing must have marked prices, so every stall will have price tags somewhere (usually hidden away, but sometimes in plain view). This price is the absolute most that they expect any unsuspecting shopper to pay, and for designer fakes, this price is often even more than the original! The old "don't pay more than 50%" adage is grossly off in this case. For example, a fake designer sweater marked 800 RMB could probably be had for 80 RMB. The best rule of thumb I've found is to guess how much it would be at an "everything-must-go" clearance price in a western store and aim for that. One shopping advantage in the markets is that many stalls carry the same items, so you can feel confident in walking away from a too-high price, knowing that you can probably try again somewhere else. Just make sure you show enough interest before you leave, so they'll take the effort to shout lower prices at you as you walk away!
The Panjiayuan "Dirt Market" is a favorite for antique shopping. Although most of the goods are artificially-aged reproductions, there's a huge selection and a lot of character. Keep in mind that there are government regulations on the export of true Chinese antiques, so if you purchase a very high quality reproduction (especially of art or furniture), you may want to get some kind of certification that it's not a protected relic!
While traditional watercolors and calligraphy can be found at the antique markets, Beijing also houses China's burgeoning modern art scene. The Dashanzi district in northeast Beijing (north of the Lido hotel) is home to a number of galleries hosting the newest Chinese talents. A few galleries that carry more traditional works with a distinctive Chinese flavor are the Wan Fung Gallery, just east of the Forbidden City, and the (much more reasonably priced) Beijing Central Art Gallery (link above). This is a nice gallery with a very friendly and helpful owner, but it has unfortunately moved out to the Shunyi suburb, making it less than convenient!
One of the must-do's in Beijing is to eat Beijing duck! There are quite a few options for this, but here are a few...
I list Da Dong first, because food-wise it's my favorite duck in town. Aside from one bad experience (don't go right before they close), their duck has been consistently good. Moreover, if you ask the waitress to demonstrate how to eat it, she'll show you how to assemble the little fajita-like rolls with the traditional cucumber, onion, and sauce. They also serve a few other options in their set like pickle and garlic. They also offer sugar crystals to dip the crispy pieces of skin. This is worth at least one bite, as it's a surprisingly tasty combination (though certainly unhealthy)! On busy nights, there can be a bit of a wait for a table, but just inside the entrance are usually complimentary wine, soda, and water to drink while you wait. A few tables are available for reservations, but they must be made over 24 hours in advance.
The duck at Liqun isn't as good as that at Da Dong, but the unique location are the real draws here. The restaurant is located inside an authentic hutong southeast of Tiananmen. A taxi won't fit down the narrow hutong alleys, so you'll be dropped off at the edge of the hutong, where cycle rickshaws wait to offer you a ride to the restaurant. If you decide to hitch a ride, be sure the cyclist knows where you're going and that you agree on a reasonable amount. If you prefer the adventure, set off on foot to find your way. It's about a 15-minute walk through the hutong, and the path is marked with small signs. These are sometimes spray-painted directly on the buildings, so keep a good eye out! The restaurant is small and fairly popular, so you might want to try making a reservation.
Quanjude is the great-grandfather of the duck restaurants, and the original location has been operating since the 19th century. It's branched out to many locations around the city, some of which are better than others. The real selling point here is the history and the reputation. While some locations serve excellent duck, others are simply resting on their laurels.
With a huge number and variety of restaurants in Beijing, you can have a culinary tour of China without leaving the capital. We usually introduce visitors to a different cuisine each night. Some possibilities:
Sichuan - the spicy cuisine of the southwestern province can be found all over the city
Hot Pot - the Chinese version of fondue is always a fun experience (and cooking your own food offers comfort to those who worry about whether their meat is fully cooked)
XinJiang - cumin is the signature spice of the dishes from this primarily Muslim northwestern region
Dumplings - various types of dumplings and steamed buns are popular all over the country and a feast can be had just sampling the different options
Vegetarian - practically a cuisine unto itself, the Buddhist vegetarian restaurants have mastered the art of recreating the flavors of meat using vegetarian ingredients
This chain is a perennial ex-pat favorite, serving typical dishes. The food here is quite good, and the menu consists primarily of typical everyday dishes. However, unlike more local restaurants, the food here is a little less oily (and contains no MSG), and much of the staff speak some English! It's a good option for a tasty sampling of common dishes, and they also make a reasonably good Beijing duck.
This is an upscale dumpling restaurant with branches all over the world, including a few places in the US. This isn't surprising, given the quality of the food. The dumplings and steamed buns here are excellent (although some of the other dishes are only so-so)! I especially recommend the shrimp shaomai and the mini dumplings. The shaomai are absolutely delicious, although beware that they come out steaming with a little reservoir of extremely hot (though extremely tasty) liquid inside. The mini dumplings are little bite-size dumplings that come with a soup but are just as fun to eat on their own. Over ten years ago, the New York Times named Din Tai Fung as one of their Top 10 Restaurants in the World, and the restaurant is still extremely proud and widely advertise it!
One of the great ways to relax after a long day of sightseeing is indulging in a traditional Chinese foot or full-body massage. There are massage parlors all over Beijing, but there are three places that I tend to recommend. All of them are a little more upscale, but they're clean, comfortable, and have English-speaking reception staff. Especially for a foot massage, they'll almost always be able to accommodate walk-ins. You can certainly call ahead to book a time, and the staff usually appreciates it. An hour or two is sufficient. We have a habit of calling up the spa and booking body massages for a group of four with about 10-15 minutes notice!
Keep in mind that Chinese massage is a unique type of massage. A friend of ours, who just moved to Beijing recently, was a little disappointed with his first Chinese massage experience. He was expecting an oil massage and was rather surprised (and a little disappointed), when this isn't what he received.
For traditional Chinese full-body massage, you're usually given a loose pajama-style suit to change into. The massage is performed through the fabric of the suit, and often the therapist will use a thin towel or cloth above that. The massage involves quite a bit of pressure, so the fabric doesn't really detract from it. However, the motion is a little less fluid than it would be with an oil massage.
If your heart is set on an oil massage, many of the following locations also offer various oil massages in addition to traditional Chinese massage. Usually the oil massages cost a little more.
This spa is popular among Beijing ex-pats and has a few different locations around town. The Chaoyang location is a few blocks north of the Worker's Stadium, and the International Club location is a few blocks west of the Silk Street market. The Lido location is a bit farther out, near the Holiday Inn Lido hotel. Popular services include a basic 60-minute body massage and a 90-minute foot massage (including a short back and shoulder massage). Some locations also have a cafe that offers premium drinks and food for a small additional cost.
his chain has a few different locations in Beijing, including one downtown near the northeast corner of the Forbidden City and another on south Sanlitun Street, a block or so east of the Worker's Stadium. The details for each of these (including maps) are under the Contacts link on the website. This spa is focused more on relaxation and peacefulness with dark, quiet rooms and no TVs or snack service. The foot massages here (only 60 minutes, compared to other spas' 90-minute offerings) don't include the shoulder and back treatments like others do. However, during the peak evening hours, many spas have a more social atmosphere, and there is a risk of being in a noisy area (people often come as a group, even for the body massage). If you want an especially quiet environment, this might be a better choice. As the spa is a smaller, they do appreciate call-ahead reservations.
While the shows in Shanghai are more theatrical, Beijing hosts its own share of acrobatics shows that are still fun and impressive. The two most popular theaters offering acrobatic performances are Chaoyang Theater and Tianqiao Acrobatic Theatre.
There are a number of dinner theaters offering visitors a small taste of Peking Opera.
Dazhaimen Restaurant - Serves Imperial Cuisine complete with Qing-costumed wait staff, who offer lantern tours of the garden, and an opera performance during dinner. Unfortunately, it's a little out of the way in Haidian district, which is on the west side of town.
Lao She Teahouse - Hosts a variety show with a varying combination of acrobatics, magic, and Peking Opera highlights.
Beijing Night Show - A dinner theater that may focus on dance as well as opera.
Taxis in Beijing are relatively inexpensive, and trips within the city are almost always metered and never require negotiating. Just make sure the driver remembers to turn on the meter, although they usually will. Some drivers in touristy areas (especially near Tiananmen) will offer a fixed price to take you where you're going. Never accept it, because it's usually completely unreasonable.
The rate starts at a fixed amount that covers a certain distance, after which the fare begins to increase by distance. The fare also increases when you're stuck in traffic, since there is a charge for wait time as well. After a long distance (around 20 km), the per-km rate increases, so for a trip across town, you'll find the rate going up faster near the end of the trip. Additionally, after 11pm, the price goes up.
With Beijing traffic, the wait time is often the biggest factor, so expect to pay much more when the traffic is bad. A trip that may cost 20 RMB when there's no traffic can cost well over 30 RMB during rush hour. To save time and money, you may want to avoid traveling too far during rush hour (8:00-9:30 am, 5:00-7:00 pm) if you can (or, as mentioned before, switch to the subway). Traffic downtown (within the 2nd Ring Road) is always crowded and slow during the day, so there's not much of a way to avoid it.
The only time where negotiating may come in is if you choose to hire a taxi for the whole day or for a long trip, in which case be sure to negotiate whether the rate includes tolls, fuel, and waiting time.
The most important thing to know about Beijing taxi drivers is that their English skills are very limited. Plan to have everything written down or ask the doorman at your hotel to translate for you. When you check in at the hotel, be sure to get a card with the hotel name and address on it, so you can show it to a taxi to get back! Something like "Sheraton" in Chinese will sound nothing like "Sheraton" in English, so if you don't have it written down, you may find yourself stranded!
By far, the easiest way to get around is just to keep a few cards around with the locations written in Chinese. Then you can just show them to the driver and be on your way. (See the above link for a set of basic Taxi Cards.)