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Exploring Beijing, China: The best sights, activities and places to stay

With astounding man-made landmarks, quaint neighbourhoods and heaps of culture, Beijing makes for a great getaway from Singapore. Read on for our pick of the city’s many sights, plus where to stay.

The Forbidden City
The Forbidden City

 

See

China’s capital is a sprawling mega-city of 21 million people and five-and-a-half million cars (not all on the road at the same time, thanks to the “odds and evens” number-plate system). But it’s a city of contrasts: away from the wide boulevards lined with grand, statement buildings, which feel more akin to a European capital, are the narrow, grey hutongs, or traditional neighbourhoods.

Many of these historic warrens are within walking distance of two of Beijing’s best-known sights: the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. The central area that includes these landmarks is one of just a handful that tourists should concentrate on. Others, a taxi ride away, include the shopping and night-life enclave of Sanlitun, the art galleries of quirky 798 district, and the renowned Summer Palace.

Though many hutongs were demolished a decade ago in the rush to modernisation, the 25 that remain standing are protected. One of these is Wudaoying, close to the Forbidden City and home to the Drum Tower, once the city’s time-keeper. While many residents have sold and moved out to high-rise developments, there’s a certain feel to the hutongs that no apartment complex can replicate.

The narrow lanes, high walls and large, forbidding wooden doors conceal quaint courtyards shared by residents, often extended family. Also shared, by tourists and residents alike, are the public toilets. (Warning: the low partitions do not allow much privacy.)

An intriguing custom to follow when passing through the doorway of a home or temple is to avoid standing or stepping on the wooden threshold, known as “the edge of difficulty”. It’s meant to keep out the evil spirits, who have no knees and cannot jump.

A hutong (traditional neighbourhood) in Beijing
A hutong (traditional neighbourhood) in Beijing

 

If you’re travelling with family, the kids will be fascinated to meet some of the personalities who call the hutongs home, but a guide is essential for translation. Retired cricket-trainer (the insect, not the bat-and-ball sport), 64-year-old Mr Liu, welcomes people into his home for insights into the thousand-year-old tradition of cricket-fighting. He proudly shows off the champion status of his crickets, and the accoutrements required for breeding them. There’s even a tiny wedding chamber and, of course, coffins. Hugely popular, the fights are legal, though gambling on them is illegal.

Eating dumplings for lunch and riding a rickshaw through the narrow alleys is a fun way to take in the pace of hutong daily life. Stunning Lama Temple, Houhai Lake and Beihai Park are all easily accessible from Wudaoying, and a boat ride across the lakes of Houhai or Beihai at sunset is highly recommended.

In a half day it’s possible to take in Tiananmen Square after a self-guided visit to the enormous 73-hectare Forbidden City (40 RMB, S$8). Get kitted out with an audio guide (an additional 40 RMB), which kids above eight years will enjoy, and be prepared for walking, walking and more walking. The “city” itself is 750 meters from east to west, and 960 meters from north to south. There are reportedly 9,999 rooms, the moat is 52 metres wide and there are 308 copper pots that were used to hold water for fire-fighting.    Once you’ve finished in the Forbidden City, if it’s a clear day and you’ve still got some stamina, walk directly across the road from the northern exit to the lookout in Jingshan Park. The view over this part of Beijing is stunning and you will understand, seeing the size of the Forbidden City, why your feet are throbbing.

It’s probably sensible to visit Tiananmen Square before all of this (it’s directly across from the southern entry point), but if you’re happy to retrace your steps, or hail a taxi, it’s interesting to see the square at sunset, when the Chinese flag is lowered by soldiers in a patriotic ceremony.

Kerry Hotel Beijing's Club Room
Kerry Hotel Beijing’s Club Room

 

Kid-friendly Hotel Highlight: Kerry Hotel Beijing


Calling All Kids:
Located in the ultra-modern CBD district, littered with corporate offices and the eccentrically designed CCTV Tower (nicknamed “underpants” by locals for obvious reasons), the Kerry Hotel is geared up for families and energetic kids. Unpretentious and ultra-comfortable, this five-star Shangri-La offshoot has a new adventure and sports centre.

Room: Contemporary comfort is probably the best description for the 486 rooms decorated in soothing silver and grey tones with sumptuous furnishings and soft carpet underfoot. Nothing has been forgotten: complimentary mini-bar, BOSE sound dock, Nespresso coffee machine, rain shower, bathroom mirror with built-in television, and a toilet that eerily seems to second guess every (ahem) movement. Guests on Club Floors are entitled to 24-hour access to the 18th-floor Club Lounge with complimentary cocktails and canapés every evening. Breakfast is served there daily, too.

Restaurants: As the first Beijing restaurant with an open kitchen, Kerry’s Kitchen is renowned for its huge buffet breakfasts, easy lunches and a dinner selection of international favourites. To satisfy a craving for the legendary Beijing dish, Peking duck, visit The Horizon where Chef Yuan Chao Ying grills the finest farmed ducks over jujube wood for a crispy, melt-in-the-mouth experience. For night owls, Centro is a popular bar with live music.

Recreation: Within the hotel, Kerry Sports is a state-of-the-art gym with fitness classes and a 35-metre swimming pool. The best bit, as far as kids are concerned, is the Adventure Zone. Children from six months to 12 years will burn off energy on the challenging slides, soft play equipment and high-quality toys.

Rating: This is a brilliant hotel with something for every member of the family, and unbeatable value for a five-star property. Within easy reach of the hotel are the Silk and Sanlitun markets and the embassy district. The Forbidden City is about a 15-minute taxi ride. From S$300 per night.

 

Aman Summer Palace
Aman Summer Palace

 

Luxury Hotel Highlight: Aman Summer Palace


Aman Summer Palace is a tranquil shelter from the bustle of Beijing, though just one wall away from one of the city’s biggest attractions. (Tip: Hotel guests get private access to the Summer Palace through a secret door that links the two properties. Not only do you avoid entrance fees and queues, but you can go before or after official opening times to escape the crowds.)

Location: It is located in northeast Beijing – about 40 minutes by car from the city centre – in a walled compound to the east of the famous Summer Palace. A wall separates the hotel from the former imperial living quarters inside the palace.

Look: Think weeping willows, bamboo-lined stone paths, painted corridors and Chinese courtyards. The hotel blends seamlessly with the imperial architecture of the Summer Palace – as it should: many of the buildings are over 100 years old. There are no lifts, no signs of any kind, no grand ballrooms and no tour groups. It’s a quiet, regal place – a place to reflect after days spent battling legions of tourists at the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, a place where you can expect to dine, swim and stroll in peace.

Luxury: Rooms boast carved Chinese walls, gabled ceilings, fine Chinese porcelain and Bose speakers from which emanate the soft sounds of mandolin strings. Chinese tea, baked goods and complimentary mini-bar drinks are replenished daily. There are only 50 rooms and suites, though guests can still enjoy private Pilates classes (with or without Reformer machines), a grand spa experience, a luxury gym workout and a nightly film in the hotel cinema. Three on-site restaurants offer traditional Chinese (including an absolutely exquisite platter of Peking duck), French and kaiseki-style Japanese fare. Breakfasts are, of course, made to order.

Lasting impressions:  A few things not to miss at Aman Summer Palace: afternoon tea on the terrace of the lotus pond, learning Chinese calligraphy in the Cultural Pavilion, participating in the daily tea ceremony, and enjoying a morning picnic of viennoiseries and smoked salmon on the palace grounds before the gates open to the general public.

China guides by city
Head here for The Great Wall of China
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