Things to do in Beijing: The three-minute travel guide

36 Hours in Beijing

Compared with China's other megacities, Beijing is still a traditionalist at heart, so delve into the shops, galleries and restaurants in the city's old, alleyway-threaded hutong neighbourhoods. Video: New York Times

WHY

Although Beijing becomes ever bigger and more brash, and is convulsed with the same energetic and fascinating transformations as any other Chinese city, it remains a centre of culture and education, and preserves some of the world's premier historical sights. For 500 years it was (and is) China's political power centre. Explore its big-name attractions, then seek out its quieter corners and its thriving contemporary arts, architecture, dining and nightlife scenes, too.

VISIT

The Forbidden City (dpm.org.cn) was the seat of Chinese power for half a millennium until 1911 and needs a half day to explore. Other imperial-era must-sees are the Summer Palace (summerpalace-china.com), a 726-acre complex of 2000-odd palaces, temples and whimsical follies, and the outsized Temple of Heaven (tiantanpark.com). An intimate alternative is 300-year-old Yonghe Temple (yonghegong.cn), the largest lamasery in China, featuring sumptuous Tibetan-influenced architecture, Buddhist art and decorative calligraphy and stone carvings.

EAT

Continue your imperial theme at gaudy, gold-leaf Fangshan Restaurant, which sits on a lake island in must-stroll Beihai Park, and serves multi-course Qing Dynasty-inspired banquets. It's fun if touristy, and the food is tasty. For a contemporary take on Beijing duck, served with champagne, head to Duck de Chine (elite-concepts.com), part of a hip courtyard mansion of art galleries and bars. Black Sesame Kitchen (blacksesamekitchen.com) has convivial Tuesday and Friday night communal dining over a 10-course set menu.

LOOK

Beijing has some extraordinary architecture, nowhere better showcased than at Beijing Olympic Park, with its famous "Bird's Nest" National Stadium (n-s.cn) and bubble-like National Aquatics Centre (water-cube.com), which now houses a water amusement park. The 2008 Olympics precinct remains popular with locals for evening strolls. For more of contemporary Beijing, check out 798 Art District (798district.com), the most avant-garde arts zone in the country, where galleries, studios and design companies now compete with trendy restaurants and nightclubs.

MUST

Beijing's Back Lakes district, with its lakeshore promenades, walled alleys and imperial-era courtyard houses, is perfect for strolling, bar hopping and visiting sights such as 18th-century Prince Gong's Mansion (pavilions and gardens) and the Former Residence of Song Qingling (1950s communist chic). Finish eastwards at South Luogu Lane, a rare Yuan Dynasty leftover laid out in 1267 and lovely in the evening, when red lanterns glimmer and student bars fill up.

SLEEP

The uber-glamorous Sofitel Wanda Beijing (sofitel.com) has a perfumed lobby sparkling with crystal, very comfortable rooms and a decor that blends subtle French and Tang Dynasty motifs. It has two excellent Chinese restaurants, and several others including one serving top-end French fare. A good mid-range, low-key alternative is Novotel Beijing Peace Hotel (novotel.com), in a hard-to-beat location surrounded by shops and eateries near Tiananmen Square. It has family rooms and play areas for children.

TIP

Allow an extra day in Beijing for an excursion to the Ming Tombs (mingtombs.com) and Great Wall, most easily visited at Badaling 80 kilometres north-west. For a less crowded experience, consider more distant sections at Mutainyu or Simatai.

Brian Johnston has visited Beijing numerous times at his own expense.

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