THE SEAT OF EMPERORS, the showpiece of a revolution, and now—reinvented once again—Beijing is the happening 21st-century capital of the fastest-changing country on earth. What’s new: Snazzy cars have replaced bicycles; suits are designer, not Mao; restaurants are luxe; and the architecture? Mind-blowingly innovative. But some things haven’t changed. The city still has the stately, larger-than-life demeanor that comes from centuries of presiding over the Middle Kingdom, and, along with it, a palpable sense of history.
Author Tina Kanagaratnam Photography Nikolas Koenig
DAY ONE / Wake up in your four-poster bed in the Sun Yat-sen suite at the Raffles Beijing. The gorgeously refurbished 1917 Beaux Arts building combines old-world luxury with 21st-century necessities and a prime location. The former Grand Hotel de Pékin has hosted such luminaries as revolutionary Sun Yat-sen and playwright George Bernard Shaw.
After an elegant breakfast from room service, start out on an early two-block walk to Tiananmen Square to watch the ceremonial raising of the Chinese flag by People’s Liberation Army soldiers. It will be crowded, but enjoy the relative solitude afterward as the sun lights the imposing Stalin era–style buildings that surround the largest public square in the world: the Great Hall of the People, the National Museum of China, the Forbidden City (now called the Palace Museum), and the Mao Zedong Mausoleum—which is where you’re now heading. Join the queue of mostly rural Chinese to pay your respects to the former chairman, who lies embalmed under a crystal dome.
Cross the square to Mao’s famous portrait, hanging below the entrance to the Forbidden City, where he declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. This is the heart of Beijing, literally. The former imperial palace sits on Beijing’s central axis. Wander the 720,000-square-meter (8 million–square-foot) compound, built in 1406, with its 800 yellow-tiled pavilions, 9,000 rooms, and treasures, and imagine the place as it was when it was filled with imperial households of up to 80,000 people.
Your walking tour has earned you lunch at Made in China, a block from the Forbidden City in the Grand Hyatt. A sophisticated, neo-Chinoise environment is the setting for stalls and show kitchens where you can watch northern Chinese specialties being prepared: Peking duck, beggar’s chicken, jiaozi (dumplings), and freshly cut noodles that are among the best in the city.
Exit the building and turn right onto Wangfujing Street, once the home of aristocratic families and shops specializing in products for them: jade, tea, and calligraphy supplies. Now, you’re more likely to find athletic wear and Olympic souvenirs, but look for the venerable Wuyutai Teahouse and the Yongtang’an Pharmacy, which date back hundreds of years.
Shopped out? Walk the two blocks back to your hotel and get ready for a night out. Perched atop the Grand Hotel, the 10th-floor Palace View Bar overlooks the rooftops of the Forbidden City, providing an intimate glimpse of the enchanting site as the sun reddens the sky. But don’t linger too long—the theater awaits.
It’s only a few blocks to the National Centre for the Performing Arts, the stunning new avant-garde theater designed by Paul Andreu, which is just behind the Great Hall of the People. Dubbed “the egg” for its shape, the theater sits in a lake and offers the surreal experience of entering underwater, via a clear tunnel, to a performance of classical or Chinese music, ballet, or folk dance. (Take your pick; they’re all available this month.)
With the performance over, it’s definitely dinnertime, so grab a cab to the Red Capital Club, where you’ve reserved a table in the courtyard. This charming Beijing courtyard house is the last word in Communist chic, decorated with authentic 1950s and ’60s memorabilia. Dine on a menu featuring the favorite dishes of China’s leaders: the melt-in-your-mouth red roasted pork; the fiery Deng Xiao Ping family tofu; delicate, fresh steamed Summer Palace lake fish—all accompanied by a bottle of Red Capital wine, of course.