I write about China travel and food for Travel & Leisure, CNNGo, The Beijinger, The Insider's Guide to Beijing, City Weekend and more. As the restaurant critic on Beijing’s longest running lifestyle magazine, I’ve consumed more Peking duck than one man should in a lifetime, and sampled a state banquet prepared under the watchful eye of Chairman Mao’s last surviving personal chef. My trusty fei ge (Flying Pigeon) is the two-wheeled transport of choice for the bespoke heritage and food tours I conduct through Beijing’s endlessly fascinating hutong neighbourhoods. A committed Chinese tea junkie and Great Wall explorer, on the smoggiest of days you’ll find me and my flask of oolong high up on some ramshackle stretch of stone in Beijing’s northern mountains.
Where I always grab a coffee: In a city where bai kai shui (plain boiled water) is the locals’ choice, good coffee is a rare commodity, but I’m a big fan of the espresso at Café Zarah, a German-run hang-out a mile east of the Drum Tower on trendy Gulou Dong Dajie.
My favourite dining spot: Mama Zhang’s (张妈妈), a tiny Sichuan joint in Fensiting Hutong off Andingmen Nei, does the best huiguo rou (twice-cooked pork belly) in town, and I can rarely resist their spicy home-cured sausage or a big bowl of mouth-numbing dandan noodles. The beer (all-important for quenching the fire) comes in little wooden cups, and the bill never tops 30 RMB a head.
Best place for people watching: The park that surrounds the Temple of Heaven is like an open-air cultural theatre, where jolly clusters of retirees sing revolutionary songs, perform tai chi or ballroom dance in couples, often, evocatively, to no music. The sense of kinship is as palpable as it is endearing, but you’ll need to come early – before 9am – to catch the best of it.
Where to be seen: Punk, in the glass-and-steel depths of Beijing’s trendiest hotel, is well ahead of the turntable pack with its too-hip-to-care clientele, a music policy that favours mash-ups over mainstream, and no cover charge - though the cocktails, good as they are, don’t come cheap.
Most breathtaking view: Gazing out from the Wanchun Pagoda that tops Jingshan Park, the old conceit of Beijing as the centre of the universe doesn’t seem all that far-fetched. Endless acres of asphalt and steel are broken up by Imperial lakes, parks and temples, whilst to the south, behind its citadel walls, the scale and symmetry of the Forbidden City is laid bare in exquisite glory. (A clear day helps, of course.)
My favourite stroll: The dusty, grey brick hutongs in and around the ancient Drum and Bell Towers make up one of the best preserved traditional neighbourhoods in the city, where you’ll spy the locals (often in their pyjamas) playing chess, cards or gossiping under the shade of date trees. Be sure to pass through before the wrecking ball does – this area is under threat from developers.
The best spot for peace and quiet: No single visit to Yuanmingyuan, the old Summer Palace, is ever the same. Paths have a habit of leading to new, quiet corners, past lakes, willow trees and scattered ruins, with few other visitors in site – at least on weekdays. It’s a bittersweet peace though, when you consider that before the British and French laid it to waste, these serene gardens once housed the grandest palace in Asia.
Where I’d go on a date: If money was no object, I’d get a terrace table, a bottle of champagne and “M’s Truly Grand Dessert Platter” at Capital M on the southern fringe of Tiananmen Square. Bubbly and brulee overlooking the stately halls and towers that surround the world’s most iconic public space – who could resist?
Don’t leave without … hiking the wild wall. Skip the well-worn tourist stretch at Badaling and find your way to Jiankou, a rambling run of battlements that sits atop razor-tooth mountains far from the shutter-happy hordes.