The ancient celestial capital of Beijing is the embodiment of the traditional Chinese world-view.
In the middle of Beijing lies the Forbidden City, from where the emperor ruled “tianxia” or “all under heaven”. Here was the centre of the world, the Chinese empire and the various Asian vassal and tributary states and, beyond, the wilds where the barbarians lived.
The city today is a sprawling gridlocked traffic jam of concentric ring roads that ripple out from the Forbidden City and the vast Tiananmen Square, where the remains of former dictator Mao Zedong lie in state. His portrait hangs on the Tiananmen Gate.
If you have been to see the mummies of Lenin or Ho Chi Minh in their crystal sarcophagi then there is probably not much point in going to see Mao – the figure in the glass case is almost certainly made of wax and opening hours are not very convenient.
On the other hand, the Forbidden City is essential for all visitors to Beijing. You can enter from either the south, next to Tiananmen Square and head north or enter from the north gate next to Jingshan Park and walk south. The parks and lakes to the north of the Forbidden City are stunning, for those who like to explore and see how locals spend their spare time.
The national museum on the east edge of Tiananmen Square is worth a visit for the “Road of Rejuvenation” – a permanent exhibition that glosses over anything negative that occurred under Communist party rule and focuses on the “national humiliation” imposed on China by foreign nations, particularly the UK and Japan.
A visit to this exhibition provides great insights into how the party bends history in order to build nationalism in modern China.
At the south end of Tiananmen Square stands a tacky Disneyesque replica of the once-vibrant ancient neighbourhood of Qianmen that is not really worth a visit. But tucked around the corner and upstairs is Capital M, an excellent place to get delicious western food and drink in a wonderful atmosphere with a view north out over the square.
For those who feel like exploring an area without hordes of tourists, the former legation quarter for foreign diplomatic missions lies to the east of Tiananmen Square. These leafy streets of old colonial architecture are Beijing’s answer to Shanghai’s French Concession and are filled with astonishing relics and remnants of European incursions into 19th and 20th century China.
The compound that was once the US legation has been renovated and transformed into a cluster of fine dining establishments and is worth a visit for dinner or brunch.
Unfortunately, most of the other legations are used by secretive government agencies that do not allow foreigners to enter.
Beijing is filled with excellent restaurants boasting cuisine from every corner of the empire, but visitors who are short on time and lack the adventurous spirit should head to Made In China at the Grand Hyatt just a couple of blocks east from Tiananmen. This famous establishment serves delicious Peking duck and beggar’s chicken, which need to be ordered in advance. Meals can comprise dishes from all over China, finished off with ice cream flavoured with Chinese grain-liquor or black sesame.
No visit to Beijing is complete without a visit to the Great Wall and every hotel in town can arrange a trip to one of the various access points. The Mutianyu location has smaller crowds and is more picturesque than other closer spots and should still be less than a two-hour drive (including long traffic delays) from central Beijing.
When it comes to nightlife, Beijing is full of options, but again the atrocious traffic, particularly on weekend evenings, often limits what you can do.
The Nanluoguxiang and Drum and Bell Tower areas are filled with interesting little watering holes, including the Great Leap brewery which serves its own home-brewed beer. Try the one infused with honey and Sichuan peppercorns.
The Sanlitun street area is a perennial favourite for its bars and nearby there is a huge selection of thumping nightclubs around the Worker’s Stadium complex.
One last piece of advice for all visitors to the celestial capital: politely but firmly tell anyone who comes up to you and says they want to practice their English or show you an exhibition of their art or drink some tea with you in a nearby teahouse that you are not interested, unless you want to get caught in a traditional Beijing scam.