Beijing

Truly, a city of contrasts: in Beijing you’ll find the chicest restaurant amongst dilapidated Hutongs and a fake DVD shop behind a shiny top end designer mall. It makes for a wonderful mix but it also means you need to know where you’re going, especially as the city is sprawling and the traffic is maddening (it often takes an hour to get somewhere, regardless of the time of day). We’re already assuming that the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and the Great Wall are first on your list so here’s our guide to the best of the rest of Beijing:

Hotels: The Opposite House, The Village, Building 1, No.11 Sanlitun Road, Chaoyang District (www.theoppositehouse.com)

This light, airy hotel designed by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma is conveniently located in the shopping district of Sanlitun. The rooms are large with wooden baths, wetroom showers and the staff are wonderfully helpful. The only low point is the breakfast which is disappointing but the downstairs restuarant Bei serving modern Chinese, more than makes up for it.

Lunch Restaurant: Noodle Bar, Courtyard 4, 1949, Gongti Bei Lu, Chaoyang, 6501 1949, 11am-10pm

Tucked away behind the Pacific Century Mall, past the pile of rubble and through Gallery 49 is this delicious noodle bar with outside seating in the summer and a cozy inside bar for twelve in the winter. The menu is small but the noodles are freshly made right in front of you and you won’t get better in all of Beijing. Note: this is only a quick walk from Sanlitun – if you are at the corner road with Uniqlo to your right, go left and walk to the overpass which you need to cross to the other side of the road. This takes you to the Pacific Century Mall which you walk straight through to the back door.

Lunch Restaurant: Vineyard Cafe, 31 Wudaoying Hutong, Dongcheng, 6402 7961, Tues-Sun (www.vineyardcafe.cn)

Serving salads, pasta and surprisingly good pizzas, this buzzing cafe is a great stop over if you are shopping along the Wudaoying Hutong or visiting nearby shop, Lost and Found.

Evening Restaurant: Duck de Chine, Courtyard 4, 1949, Gongti Bei Lu, Chaoyang, 6501 8881, open daily

In the same enclave as the Noodle Bar, this is our favourite restaurant for classic Peking Duck. There are many restaurants serving duck, notably the high end Da Dong which is popular with locals but which we found lacking in atmosphere and also Made in China at the Grand Hyatt which is fantastic if you have time to spare as the duck takes 45 minutes to prepare. It is worth the wait, though, especially if you can book a table by the open kitchen to see the food prepared with gusto. Our vote, however, goes to Duck de Chine which serves delicious food and although there is a NY vibe – there are open brick walls and the clientele is trendy – this is definitely a China today experience.

Evening restaurant: Dali Courtyard, 67 Xiaojingchang Hutong, Gulou Dong Dajie, 8404-1430

This charming restaurant down the end of a hutong alley is perfect for when the weather is warm as most of the tables are outside in the courtyard. It serves a set menu so all you need to do is tell the waiters what you can’t eat and then sit back to enjoy the food. Don’t expect a gourmet experience but you will find the setting a delight.

Shopping: Couture cashmere, call Xiaoyan Hu on 1352 011 4560 (note, no English spoken)

If you are in Beijing for a week, then get yourself organised and call Mr Hu for an appointment on the first day you arrive. He only speaks Chinese so get somebody to translate (we asked the hotel receptionist) and choose between the many colours of cashmere samples he has to offer. Simply describe, or even better, draw your desired jumper or dress or simplest of all, hand over something you wish to copy and hey presto, 7-10 days later they’ll arrive as if by magic. Prices vary but on average they are about 300-400 RMB per jumper.

Shopping: Lost and Found, 42 Guozijian Jie, 6404 1855, (http://lost-and-found.cn/)

Set up by a British set designer, this wonderful shop sells locally made linen clothes, cards and interiors such as reproductions of midcentury modern Danish chairs. It’s a serene collection and the owner has a beady eye for quality (sadly, not always readily available in this town). Definitely one of the top shops in Beijing and conveniently close to the Wudaoying Hutong around the corner with the Vinyard Cafe and a long stretch of great shops such as Dong Lian Studio and Brand Nü for young Chinese clothes designers. (Note: the entrance to Wudaoying Hutong looks fairly unpreposessing – there are lots of building works but look out for the red scaffolding arch above the entrance).

Shopping areas: Sanlitun

Don’t get put off by the large Western shops at the front of Sanlitun area (or Yashow House to the left of it, an alternative to the silk market for discount ‘designer labels’) for behind it you can find some great independent shops that will give you a real taste of modern China. Nicholas Favard has lived in Bejing for almost 10 years and mixes his European style with jewels found more locally (Sanlitun Bar Street, North 28, www.nicholasfavard.com) and in the basement of Village North (a more upscale mall in Sanlitun next to The Opposite House), you’ll find shops like Chang & Biörck which mixes Asian and Nordic interior styles (www.changbiorck.com) as well as some boutique style dress shops. Further on still from Village North is Phoenix Design (next to Cafe Yo) for beautiful ceramics and children’s clothes and if you are after the perfect qipao, try the spoilt-for-choice Red Phoenix (30 Sanlitun Lu) at the end of the street.

Shopping areas: Nanluogu Xiang

This area has been truly gentrified from its original state and now features many small boutique shops and cafes. It is rather touristy but still well worth a quick visit. If you start at the gate of Nanluogu Xiang, South Entrance, and work your way upwards, you’ll find shops such as Woo (No.110-1 and 111-1) which has great cashmere scarves and Plastered (No.61) which has fun, irreverent t-shirts. For a glimpse of how the hutongs used to be (and how a very few still are), try a Hutong Tour (we found www.thehutong.com really informative, they also have cooking classes and other fun events).

Art: 798, Dashanzi Art District, Gate 4 Jiuxianqiao Lu, Chaoyang

This German-designed ex-factory area has become quite commercial in recent years but it is still a fascinating look at the state of modern Chinese art. First on your list should be the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art and design shop which has great exhibitions and close by is Timezone 8, a great art bookstore and cafe. Other galleries not to miss are the Long March Space, Pace, Galleria Continua and Tang Contemporary Art.

Bar: Yin Bar at the Emperor Hotel, 33 Qihelou Street, Dongcheng, 6526 5566 www.designhotels.com

For a great view over the Forbidden City, make your way to the Yin Bar at top of the Emperor Hotel. Order a cocktail and watch the sun go down over the best sites of Beijing – it is hard to beat.

And the rest: Commune by the Wall (www.comune.com.cn)

If you want to see the Great Wall, we strongly recommend that you avoid the day trips which only take you to the close-by, overcrowded and slightly disappointing parts of the wall. Instead make a two day trip and stay overnight at the Commune by the Wall hotel. Made up of different houses designed by some of China’s top architects, it is ultra modern with a great spa and restaurant where you can eat breakfast with a stunning view of the wall.

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— Francesca
15th November 2011