T+L’s top picks from China’s frenetic capital, Beijing.
Morning: Wake up at the Opposite House (doubles from $342), in the upscale Sanlitun neighborhood, and head downstairs for a fortifying breakfast of congee and dim sum at its Village Café (breakfast for two $28). Next stop: the Ming-era Imperial Garden, in the Forbidden City, and Tiananmen Square. Don’t go alone, says Zhang, a Beijing resident and author of Socialism Is Great! (Atlas & Co.). “A good guide will bring the history to life.”
Afternoon: For lunch, try Yunnanese cuisine (such as fried prawns with basil leaves) at Dali Courtyard (lunch for two $31), in Dongcheng. Walk it off by wandering the hutong in Houhai.
Evening: Join the art set at Yin (33 Qihelou St.; 86-10/6526-5566; drinks for two $17), the Emperor Hotel’s rooftop bar. A short cab ride away, Capital M (dinner for two $155) serves suckling pig and overlooks Tiananmen.
Morning: Get an early start to catch residents practicing tai chi in the 660-acre park surrounding the 15th-century Temple of Heaven, widely regarded as the best example of Ming dynasty architecture. “The mornings there burst with activity,” Zhang says.
Afternoon: The Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (admission $2), in the 798 Art Zone, stages major exhibitions, though Zhang prefers to visit small, independent galleries like those in emerging Caochangdi Village and Season’s Pier (4 Jiuxianqiao Rd., No. A05; 86-10/5978-4827), which features the paintings of Zhang’s friend, artist Sunlight Fan. Take a short cab ride to Chuan Ban (5 Gongyuan Toutiao, Jianguomennei Dajie; 86-10/6512-2277; lunch for two $15) for fiery dishes such as douhua yu pian, a fish-and-tofu casserole. Before the sun sets, drive an hour to Badaling, an accessible part of the Great Wall. “It’s touristy during the day, but in the late afternoon, it’s half-deserted,” she says.
Evening: Head to Courtyard (dinner for two $124) for dinner in a Ch’ing dynasty courtyard house, before a visit to the nearby Donghuamen night market for a glimpse into the grittier side of Beijing. “You’ll find stalls selling roasted cicadas and fried scorpions—it reminds you that Chinese cuisine is famine cuisine,” Zhang says. “We don’t waste anything.” Beijing may have evolved into a glittering symbol of China’s outsize ambitions, but it’s good to see that pockets of authenticity remain.
The Trip Planner: Guy Rubin, Founder and Managing Partner, Imperial Tours
Rubin, a T+L A-List agent, can set up a private tour of Beijing with Lijia Zhang—or other insiders—as your guide. Itineraries include visits to the Forbidden City and less frequented sections of the Great Wall. Day trips from $875 per person.
Ullens Center for Contemporary Art
This groundbreaking gallery is set in one of the capital’s most intriguing developments—a former state munitions factory turned into an 80,000-square-foot home for contemporary art. Until Belgian art enthusiast and billionaire Guy Ullens came along in 2007, the factory was a somewhat ragtag, bohemian collection of small galleries—but the opening of his spectacular, nonprofit project brought 798 (or Dashanzi, as it sometimes called, after the neighborhood) real heft. Now the multipurpose space (which includes several exhibition halls, a library, and an auditorium for video and film installations and screenings) showcases the best in contemporary Chinese art. Browsing through the galleries is like getting a crash course in China’s modern art movement—a very good idea if you’re considering buying from 798’s other, smaller galleries (like the excellent Red Gate Gallery).
Opposite House, Beijing
The capital’s boutique hotel scene gets a boost with the 99-room Opposite House, in the burgeoning Sanlitun area; it’s the first property from the recently formed Swire Hotels group. The rooms in this emerald cube have deep wooden soaking tubs. Survey the scene at the hotel's chic subterranean lounge, Punk: David LaChapelle and art enfant terrible Ai Weiwei, among others, have been spotted here.
Hidden among the back alleys of Beijing and within the Dongcheng neighborhood, the Dali Courtyard offers a quaint outdoor setting and authentic Yunnanese cuisine. Food from the southern province of Yunnan utilizes the herbs of the region, as well as the mushrooms it’s known for. There is no set menu here; instead, diners pay a set price and are surprised by the chef’s fresh picks from the morning market. Dishes may include ru bing (goat cheese on the grill) or various stir-fried meats and vegetables.
Near the Forbidden City, this restored siheyuan (multi-building structure surrounding a courtyard) is home to one of American lawyer Handel Lee’s creations. Opened in 1997, this dinner-only restaurant specializes in its own brand of fusion, although dishes are mainly Asian or Western. The castle-like gray stone facade contrasts with the interior's white tones and glass. Chef Rey Lim creates starters like charred Rougie foie gras, and main dishes include crispy skin yellowtail. The wine list numbers over 600, and there's an art gallery in the basement.
Founded by Michelle Garnaut of Shanghai’s M on the Bund fame, Capital M serves high-end European cuisine with Beijing’s best views of Qianmen's Zhengyang Gate and Tian’anmen Square. One of the best ways to experience Capital M is through the weekend brunch (Saturdays and Sundays from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.): two courses for RMB 258 or three courses for RMB 298, including a drink (Bloody Mary, mimosa, or champagne cocktail) and bottomless tea or coffee. When the weather is beautiful, be sure to book a table on the north-facing terrace.