Essential guide to Beijing

Steve McKenna offers tips on how to navigate China's huge, dynamic capital.

STAY

Budget

Despite China's economic boom, cheap digs are still easy to come by, not least among Beijing's ever-expanding hostel scene. Clean, cosy communal areas and friendly English-speaking staff characterise the year-old Heyuan International Youth Hostel, where dorm beds are 65 yuan and doubles 220 yuan (1 Zhi Qiang Bei Yuan, Haidian, 6227 7138, www.hihostels.com). Sporting some sublime old Chinese architecture, the rustic Emperor Guesthouse has private rooms from 120 yuan (11 Ying Tao Xiejie, Xuanwu, 6317 6288, www.emperorguesthouse.com). A pleasant, peaceful escape from Beijing's hustle and bustle, Sleepy Inn offers doubles for 298 yuan (103 Deshengmen Nei Da Jie, Xicheng, 6406 9954, www.sleepyinn.com.cn).

Mid-range

Buddhist carvings adorn the walls of Hutongren, a charming guesthouse tucked down one of the hutongs (alleys) that form much of Beijing; doubles are 484 yuan (71 Xiaoju'er Hutong, Dongcheng, 8402 5238). You'll find some of the city's loveliest courtyards behind the red gate of the Double Happiness Courtyard Hotel; doubles priced from 690 yuan (37 Dong Si Si Tiao, Dongcheng, 6400 7762, www.doublehappinesshotel.com). Another attractive, atmospheric spot is the Courtyard 7 hotel (7 Qiangulouyuan Hutong, Dongcheng, 6406 0777, www.courtyard7.com). Rates start at 700 yuan.

Luxe

The Regent is one of the slickest faces of 21st-century Beijing, its rooms and suites fused with classic and modern touches; web deals from 1240 yuan (99 Jinbao Jie, Dongcheng, 8522 1888, www.regenthotels.com/hotels/ribjn). Boutique design choices are sprouting across the capital; the rooms and loft-style suites of Hotel G meld 1960s retro chic with mod-cons such as plasma TVs and iPod docking stations; from 1045 yuan (7 Gongtixilu, Chaoyang, 6552 3600, www.hotel-g.com). Another top-notch newbie, the Fairmont Beijing is flush with gold-tinted decor, toilets with heated seats and comfy beds; doubles from 1088 yuan (8 Yong An Dong Li, Chaoyang, 8511 7777, www.fairmont.com/beijing).

Lash out

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Crafted by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, Opposite House is a stylish choice in Beijing's new Sanlitun village development; studios priced from 1794 yuan (11 Sanlitun Jie, Chaoyang, 6417 6688, www.theoppositehouse.com). Set in a restored colonial hotel that once hosted luminaries such as Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, Raffles Beijing has 171 top-notch rooms and suites; from 1588 yuan (33 Dong Chang An Jie, Dongcheng, 6526 3388, www.raffles.com). The lavish, five-star Peninsula is a veritable old-stager that is still the talk of the town; deluxe rooms from 3150 yuan (8 Goldfish Lane, Wangfujing, 8516 2888, www.peninsula.com/Beijing).

SHOP + PLAY

To market

Cultural Revolution curios sit next to life-size terracotta warriors, Chairman Mao pendants and thousands of other odds and sods at Panjiayuan, the most famous of Beijing's feast of flea markets. Brace yourself for crowds and hard-bargaining traders, especially at weekends (Panjiayuan Donglu, Chaoyang, 8.30am-6.30pm weekdays, 4.30am-6.30pm Sat-Sun). Those eyeing pearls and jewellery should head to Hongqiao Market (36 Tiantan Donglu, Chongwen, 8.30am-7pm daily). In the same building, you'll find fake designer bags, jeans, silk dresses, T-shirts, watches, mobiles and sunglasses and, in the basement, scorpions and snake meat. Infused with a bygone vibe, the stalls and shops of Liulichang are stocked with calligraphy scrolls, ink stones, landscape paintings, birdcages and dusty old books (9am-late daily, Liulichang Xijie, Xuanwu).

Buy up

Beijing's army of nouveau riche citizens has sparked a spate of shiny new malls, with Wangfujing's Oriental Plaza a honeypot for top luxury brands, as well as a swathe of fine restaurants and a fabulous food court (1 Dongchangan Jie, www.orientalplaza.com). Smaller in scale but similarly teeming with fashionistas is the swanky Sanlitun Village (Sanlitun Lu, Chaoyang, www.sanlitunvillage.com). In stark contrast, Bannerman Tang's Toys and Handicrafts is a classic old boutique run by a crafts master whose family started making toys in the 17th century. Clay figurines, opera masks and wooden puppets are produced here using age-old techniques (38 Guozijian, Dongcheng, 8404 7179).

Live music

Purveyors of acid house, blues, jazz, reggae and trip-hop lure revellers to the 700-capacity Yugonyishan, one of Beijing's liveliest music spots (3-2 Zhang Zizhong Jie, Dongcheng, 8402 8477, www.yugongyishan.com). Sanlitun Bar Street is lined with karaoke and cover-band joints, while super-cool Mao Livehouse plays everything from old-school punk to metal in a restored old movie theatre (111 Gulou Dongdajie, Dongcheng, 6402 5080, www.maolive.com). For a more refined evening, the National Centre for the Performing Arts hosts regular performances of classical Chinese music, opera and ballet in a stunning titanium-and-glass setting, nicknamed the Egg (2 West Chang'an Avenue, Xicheng, 6655 0000, www.chncpa.org).

Nightclubs

Little more than a decade ago, Beijing's clubbing scene was non-existent; now the city is threatening to catch up with its brash sibling Shanghai. Mix is a long-time favourite, attracting top overseas DJs (inside Workers Stadium North Gate, Chaoyang, 6530 2889). Large, loud and audacious, neighbouring Vics woos the crowds with dance, hip-hop and soul tunes (5293 0333, www.vics.com.cn). China Doll has dance floors and a terrace, wonderful for those wishing to cool off with a beer (5F, 33 Sanlitun Beijie, Chaoyang, 5136 5871/2).

SEE + DO

Icons

The undisputed heartbeat of Beijing, Tiananmen Square is the world's largest public square, a vast concrete mass fringed with notable sights, such as the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall, which holds the embalmed body of the great leader (mausoleum open Tuesday-Sunday, 8am-noon). From here, amble to the even bigger Forbidden City where tourists marvel at its ancient wooden buildings and palatial complexes (Dongcheng, www.dpm.org.cn, open daily, 8.30am-4.30pm, admission 40-60 yuan). Of all the outlandish pieces of modern architecture in Beijing, the National Stadium — built for the 2008 Olympics — is a must-see (www.n-s.cn/en).

Culture

Despite long being the hub of China's communist apparatchiks, Beijing is rife with beautiful religious buildings. A place of pilgrimage for Tibetan Buddhism, the Lama Temple (28 Yonghegong Dajie, Dongcheng, 6404 4499, open daily 9am-5pm, admission 25 yuan) is blessed with lavishly decorated rooftops, arches and frescoes; while Cow Street Mosque dates back to the 10th century and has recently been given a facelift (88 Niu Jie, Xuanwu, 6353 2564, open daily 8am-4pm). Beijing's blossoming contemporary art scene is at its liveliest in the Dashanzi/798 Art Zone (4 Jiuxianqiao Lu, Chaoyang, www.798space.com), though the galleries of Caochangdi claim to be more cutting-edge. Three Shadows is highly rated (155 Caochangdi, Chaoyang, 6432 2663, www.threeshadows.cn).

Footwork

For a city with such an appalling reputation for heaving traffic and pollution, it's surprisingly easy to get away from it all. A stroll through the largely car-free web of hutongs offers an eye-catching insight into the fusion of tradition and modernity in Chinese society. The grounds of the Temple of Heaven are wonderful for strolling (Tiantan Donglu, Chongwen, open daily 6am-10pm, 10-15 yuan). On the north-western tip of the city, the Summer Palace is home to the scenic Kunming Lake, which can be circled on foot (daily 6.30am-6pm, 20-30 yuan).

Follow the leader

There's an estimated 9 million bicycles in Beijing. Why not hop on one and join a guided cycling tour? Bike Beijing covers a variety of routes, including the Imperial Tour, which takes in the city's grand cultural sights. Another favourite is the Hutong Tour, where you wind through centuries-old alleys and stop for breathers at picturesque old courtyards. Tours are 400 yuan a person (see www.bikebeijing.com). If you'd prefer to stay on your feet and explore the city, the China Culture Centre (www.chinaculturecenter.org) runs a selection of highly rated guided back-street walking tours.

EAT + DRINK

Cafe culture

Cappuccinos and skinny lattes have so ingrained themselves into the Beijing landscape that you'll struggle to walk 10 paces without sniffing ground coffee. Multinational chains are ubiquitous but there are also independent treasures such as Bookworm, renowned for its excellent caffeine hits, cosy ambience and impressive library (4 Sanlitun Nanjie, Chaoyang, 6586 9507, www.beijingbookworm.com). Ideal for lazy brunches, hutong-dwelling Vineyard Cafe gets rave reviews from expats (31 Wudaoying Hutong, Dongcheng, 6402 7961, www.vineyardcafe.cn). Teashop scams are legendary in China; dodgy establishments give you a pot of jasmine — then a bill for 1000 yuan. The Confucius Teahouse, opposite the Confucius Temple, has a varied menu and an honest reputation (28 Guozijian Jie, Dongcheng, 8404 8539).

Snack attack

Resisting the temptation to snack is nigh on impossible in Beijing, such is the prevalence of bakeries and tiny booths selling goods such as steamed dumplings. Food stalls and vendors also hog many thoroughfares, including Wangfujing Snack Street. Exceedingly popular among tourists, you'll find dishes here from across China, including Muslim Uighur lamb kebabs and sweet and sour Cantonese treats. Close by, the legendary Donghuamen Night Market offers hundreds of enticing dishes, including barbecued squid, chicken hearts, deep-fried grasshopper and an array of sugary cakes and biscuits.

Top tables

Finding a really good roast duck, the capital's signature dish, can be tough, but Da Dong receives consistently good reviews. Its servings (pictured) tend to be crispy on the outside, and deliciously lean and succulent on the inside (22 Dongsishitiao, Dongcheng, 5169 0328). For outstanding Chinese dishes under glittering chandeliers, try up-market Tiandi Yijia (140 Nanchizi Dajie, Dongcheng, 8511 5556). Dali Courtyard is a charming al fresco eatery that specialises in spicy fare from the far-flung Yunnan region (67 Xiaojingchang Hutong, Dongcheng, 8404 1430). Upscale cosmopolitan cuisine is en vogue in Beijing; the pick is Maison Boulud, housed in a former US embassy building (23 Qianmen Dong Dajie, Dongcheng, 6559 9200, www.danielnyc.com/maisonboulud.html).

By the glass

Cheap whisky dives, ale houses and Mediterranean wine bars rub shoulders in Sanlitun, a lively area thronging with expats and English-speaking Chinese. A standout, Q-Bar has earned a rep for well-crafted cocktails (top floor of Eastern Inn Hotel, 6 Baijiazhuang Lu, Chaoyang, 6595 9239, www.qbarbeijing.com). On balmy evenings, sip away on the rooftop bars along the shores of Houhai, Xihai and Qianhai lakes. For martinis and the best 360-degree views of the city, head to China Bar, on the 65th floor of the Park Hyatt hotel (2 Jianguomenwai Lu, Chaoyang, 8567 1234, beijing.park.hyatt.com).

Hot tip

Avoid Beijing's comprehensive Metro in peak hours. It's awfully busy. For a glimpse into China's new high-speed rail fetish, take the bullet train from the sparkling new Beijing South station to the port city of Tianjin. The 120-kilometre journey takes 30 minutes and costs 56 yuan.

Getting there

Qantas (www.qantas.com) flies Sydney to Beijing via Hong Kong; Air China (www.airchina.com) flies direct.

Visas & currency

Australians need a visa for China. Three-month, single-entry ones, available for $40, can be applied for at sydney.chineseconsulate.org/eng/. China uses the yuan (also called the renminbi). $1 = 6 yuan.

Calling Beijing

China's country code is +86 and (0) 10 for Beijing. To phone Beijing from abroad, add +8610 to the numbers listed.

More information

The official Beijing tourist site is english.visitbeijing.com.cn.