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 TWO / You’re up with the sun to make the most of a morning on the Great Wall with conservationist and explorer William Lindesay. (The hotel has booked you a driver for the day and packed a hearty breakfast to enjoy once you get there.) Walk along quiet, unrestored, and ruggedly beautiful sections of the Great Wall, first built 2,000 years ago and resuscitated during the Ming Dynasty to keep out barbarian invaders.
Enjoy the sight of the wall, snaking like a giant dragon, as you listen to tales and fascinating facts on a hike through the countryside. With your appetite sharpened by the country air, head for a late lunch at Commune by the Great Wall (you’ve asked Lindesay to end your hike here). This award-winning collection of contemporary villas, built by a pantheon of Asian architects, is set in unspoiled countryside with unparalleled views of the wall. Enjoy a dim sum feast or a hearty, spicy Sichuan meal at the Terrace Lounge, overlooking the terrain you’ve just covered. After coffee and the commune’s justly famous desserts alfresco, meet your driver for the trip back into the city.
On the way, stop by 798 Space, a complex of galleries in the Dashanzi Art District. Chinese contemporary art is booming around the world, and Beijing is its center. Stroll the galleries in this funky, Bauhaus-style former military-electronics complex—better than any museum—and perhaps pick up a piece of contemporary art to take home.
Back at the hotel, wash off the dust of your journey and dress for a night on the town. It’s a short cab ride to the Lao She Teahouse, where life imitates art. The place is named for the 20th-century writer Lao She, who painted a lively picture of life in a Beijing teahouse in his play Cha Guan ( Teahouse). On the second floor, pretty pavilions surround a grassy courtyard, creating a charming setting for tea. Stay for a performance of Chinese opera. If you can’t understand the language, don’t worry; the gorgeous costumes, makeup, and dramatic acting make it a rich experience nonetheless.
Now steeped in old China, make your way to Li Jia Cai (Family Li Cuisine), where you’ve reserved a table. The humble setting, in the proprietors’ home, belies the royal cuisine that is served. There is no standing menu; the dishes come out, one after the other, selected based on season and availability. They might include tender sweet-and-sour pork ribs, whole Mandarin fish from the lake, crabmeat tofu, and candied haw apples— created from recipes smuggled out of the royal kitchens by owner Li Shan Lin’s grandfather, the head of the palace guard. Li, who is in his 80s now, brings each dish out, always spiced with a little story. Li Jia Cai was a favorite of the deposed Chinese royals, who would gather there in the 1980s to reminisce.
Before heading home, stop by Lan for a nightcap at the cocktail bar. Designed by Philippe Starck (expect dripping chandeliers, silk, and marble), this opulent club is over-the-top, as is its clientele. It’s Beijing’s hottest nightspot of the moment and a great place to people-watch as you end your day.