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 THREE / Sleep in today and then enjoy a leisurely breakfast in the exotic setting of the Raffles’ Chinese-inspired East 33 restaurant. The Chinese breakfast, which features steamers of dumplings, soy milk, and the crisp, fried dough sticks called you tiao, is especially delicious.
There’s plenty to do today, so you’ve ordered a car and driver. Your first stop is the Temple of Heaven.
In old Beijing, imperial temples were located at the four cardinal points: the Temple of the Sun, the Temple of the Moon, the Temple of the Earth, and—the only one with surviving buildings—the Temple of Heaven. Enter via the south gate, so you can climb the stairs to the three-tiered Round Altar and the Echo Wall, where a whisper travels clearly along the wall’s curve. The pièce de rèsistance, though, is the gorgeous, round, blue-roofed Hall of Prayer for Good
Harvests, where the emperor prayed for bountiful crops. Remarkably, it is constructed with no nails—just perfectly fitted wooden pieces.
Leave the lush park via the east gate and venture across the street to the Yuanlong Silk Store.
Founded in 1932, this local institution has a fascinating display on silk-making. Browse the silk bedding, fabric, and clothing before heading across to Hongqiao Market, where you’ll find a sprawling “fakes market” (selling knockoffs) on the first and second floors and pearls on the upper floors. China is known for its freshwater pearls, and you’ll find an immense quantity and range of quality here.
Shopping can be exhausting, so bundle yourself (and your bags) into the car and head for a little pampering at The Heavenly Spa on Financial Street. Chinese massage is designed to rebalance your yin and yang, and here, surrounded by candles, incense, and expert therapists, you’ll gain a sense of blissful harmony.
Lunch is two blocks away at the Whampoa Club.
Located in the only remaining courtyard house on a street of newly built financial institutions, Whampoa serves updated Beijing cuisine in a setting that combines tradition and innovation: a ceiling full of birdcages illuminated with bare light bulbs, geometric Chinese screens, and blue and beige upholstery. Savor traditional cabbage rolls, pumpkin pastas, and Whampoa’s fresh, light take on wonton soup.
Re-energized, head for the Drum Tower. Climb the steep stairs of this impressive structure, built in 1420, to see the ancient drums that marked the time. (There’s a demonstration every 30 minutes.) Located on Beijing’s central axis, it offers views of the Forbidden City and the traditional hutong neighborhoods of narrow lanes, many of which are being demolished.
Not far from here is Prince Gong’s Mansion, the home of the last emperor’s father. One of the best-preserved aristocratic homes in Beijing, the mansion’s nine courtyards and beautiful gardens and walkways provide a glimpse into the privileged life of royalty.
Head back to the hotel to change for dinner at Duck de Chine for what may be the best Peking duck in the city. Toast your final evening with bubbly from the restaurant’s champagne bar. Be prepared to eat almost every bit of the duck: There are duck’s feet appetizers, duck soup, and delicious, flame-roasted whole duck. It is carved, with much ceremony, at the table and eaten topped with scallions and hoisin sauce, wrapped in a thin pancake.
This is your last night in Beijing, so head to NanLuoGu Xiang Street for a farewell drink. This hutong is dotted with prettily transformed courtyard houses, popular with Beijing’s young, hip crowd and rich with what the locals call “Beijing flavor.” It’s the perfect spot for contemplating this remarkable city—the perfect end to perfect days.
Tina Kanagaratnam is a longtime China resident and HEMISPHERES
contributor. She is the CEO of AsiaMedia Ltd.
The monsoon season plus summer heat equal dog days in August. In July and August, thunderstorms douse the city with almost two-thirds of its yearly rainfall. There are ample rain-free periods, but rain gear is a must. Typically, six August days are above 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius). Fall is pleasant, and winter is cold and dry. In spring, strong winds can bring dust from the Gobi Desert.
Weather information is provided by The Weather Channel. For more Beijing climatological details, visit weather.com.
Beijing Capital International Airport’s new Terminal 3 is getting rave reviews. The terminal, where United and other Star Alliance carriers are located, eases arrivals and departures, especially valuable during the Olympics. The airport is 25 kilometers (16 miles) from downtown.
By taxi, the trip takes about an hour (RMB80–RMB100, US$11–US$15). The airport shuttle bus, found in front of domestic arrivals, stops near major hotels (RMB16, US$2.30; you’ll still need a taxi from your stop to your hotel).
A Blue Zoo Beijing (blue-zoo.com) Sharks, stingrays, and scuba diving
B Goose ’n’ Duck Ranch (gdclub.net.cn) Swimming, fishing, horseback riding, and paintball in the countryside
C Happy Valley Amusement Park (bj. happyvalley.com.cn/park, in Chinese only) Themed areas with rides, games, and Imax
D Ritan Park (6 Ritan Beilu, Chaoyangmenwai, Chao Yang District) A playground, a carousel, a climbing wall, minigolf, and kite-flying