Beijing is a vibrant jumble of neighborhoods and districts. It's a city that was transformed almost overnight in preparation for the 2008 Olympics, often leveling lively old hutongs (alleyway neighborhoods) to make way for the glittering towers that are fast dwarfing their surroundings. Still, day-to-day life seems to pulse the lifeblood of a Beijing that once was. Hidden behind Beijing's pressing search for modernity is an intriguing historic core. Many of the city's ancient sites were built under the Mongols during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). A number of the capital's imperial palaces, halls of power, mansions, and temples were rebuilt and refurbished during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Despite the ravages of time and the Cultural Revolution, most sites are in good shape, from the Niujie Mosque, with Koranic verse curled around its arches, to Tiananmen Square, the bold brainchild of Mao Zedong.
China's economic boom has fueled a culinary revolution in Beijing, with just about every kind of food now available in the capital. Today you can eat a wide variety of regional cuisines, including unusual specialties from Yunnan, earthy Hakka cooking from southern China, Tibetan yak and tsampa (barley flour), numbingly spicy Sichuan cuisine, and chewy noodles from Shaanxi.
The capital also offers plenty of international cuisines, including French, German, Thai, Japanese, Brazilian, Malaysian, and Italian, among others.
You can spend as little as $5 per person for a decent meal or $100 and up on a lavish banquet. The venues are part of the fun, ranging from swanky restaurants to holes-in-the-wall and refurbished courtyard houses. Reservations are always a good idea so book as far ahead as you can, and reconfirm as soon as you arrive.
People tend to eat around 6 pm and even though the last order is usually taken around 9 pm, some places remain open until the wee morning hours. Tipping can be tricky. Though it isn't required, some of the larger, fancier restaurants will add a 15% service charge to the bill. Be aware before you go out that small and medium venues only take cash payment; more established restaurants usually accept credit cards.
Great local beers and some international brands are available everywhere in Beijing, and many Chinese restaurants now have extensive wine menus.
The hotel scene in Beijing today is defined by a multitude of polished palaces. You can look forward to attentive service, improved amenities—such as conference centers, health clubs, and nightclubs—and, of course, rising prices. "Western-style" comfort, rather than history and character, is the main selling point for Beijing's hotels. Gone forever is the lack of high-quality hotels that distinguished Beijing in the 70s.
If you're looking for something more intimate and historical, check out the traditional courtyard houses that have been converted into small hotels—they offer a quiet alternative to the fancier establishments.
There are a few things you should know before you book. Beijing's busiest seasons are spring and fall, with summer following closely behind. Special rates can be had during the low season, so make sure to ask about deals involving weekends or longer stays. If you are staying more than one night, you can often get some free perks—ask about free laundry service or free airport transfers.
The local rating system does not correspond to those of any other country. What is called a five-star hotel here might only warrant three or four elsewhere. This is especially true of the state-run hotels, which often seem to be rated higher than they deserve. And lastly, children 16 and under can normally share a room with their parents at no extra charge—although there may be a modest fee for adding an extra bed. Ask about this when making your reservation.
No longer Shanghai's staid sister, Beijing is reinventing herself as a party town with just a smattering of the pretensions of her southern sibling. There's now a venue for every breed of boozer, from beer-stained pub to designer cocktail lounge and everything in between. There are also more dance clubs than you can count. An emerging middle class means that you'll find most bars have a mixed crowd and aren't just swamps of expatriates, but there will be spots where one or the other set will dominate.
Bars aside, Beijing has an active, if not international-standard, stage scene. There's not much to see in English, although the opening of the Egg, properly known as the National Center for the Performing Arts, has changed that somewhat. Music and dance transcend language boundaries, and Beijing attracts some fine international composers and ballet troupes for the crowds. For a fun night on the town that you can enjoy no other place in the world, Beijing opera, acrobatics, and kung fu performances remain the best bets.
Large markets and malls in Beijing are generally open from 9 am to 9 pm, though some shops close as early as 7 pm or as late as 10 pm. Weekdays are always less crowded. During rush hour, avoid taking taxis. If a shop looks closed (the lights are out or the owner is resting), don't give up. Many merchants conserve electricity or take catnaps if the store is free of customers. Just knock or offer the greeting "ni hao." More likely than not, the lights will flip on and you'll be invited to come in and take a look. Shops in malls have regular hours and will only be closed on a few occasions throughout the year, like Chinese New Year.
Major credit cards are accepted in pricier venues. Cash is the driving force here, and ATMs abound. Before accepting those Mao-faced Y100 notes, most vendors will hold them up to the light, tug at the corners, and rub their fingers along the surface. Counterfeiting is becoming increasingly more difficult, but no one, including you, wants to be cheated. In some department stores, you must settle your bill at a central payment counter.
Shops frequented by foreigners sometimes have an employee with some fluency in English. But money remains the international language. In many cases, whether or not there is a common language—the shop assistant will still whip out a calculator, look at you to see what they think you'll cough up, then type in a starting price. You're expected to counter with your offer. Punch in your dream price. The clerk will come down Y10 or Y20 and so on and so on. Remember that the terms yuan, kuai, and RMB are often used interchangeably.