As recently as the mid 90s, Beijing had no real bar culture to speak of. The Hard Rock Cafe was about the only joint in town where a mixed drink didn’t mean tea leaves and hot water. But like everything else here, things changed. Fast. Today, while Beijing remains a city of early-risers, it’s the equal to anywhere in Asia for a night on the tiles.
The city’s premier boozing neighbourhood is the embassy district of Sanlitun, home to every tier of venue from Irish pubs to wine bars to bijou Japanese cocktail dens. From here it’s a short stagger west to the mega-clubs, bars and KTV (karaoke) parlours that skirt the Workers' Stadium.
For more civilised libations, the bohemian hutong bars and cafés in and around Nanluogu Xiang are increasingly popular with both locals and ex-pats. Nearby, the lakes of Houhai and Qianhai are flanked by dozens of neon-clad establishments (and the odd “lady bar”) where groups of young Chinese go to throw dice and drink technicolour cocktails.
Far-flung Wudaokou, where Beijing’s best universities are located, is the go-to spot for cheap Tsingtao, tacky nightclubs and a friendly student vibe. D-22, one of Beijing’s best rock clubs, is definitely worth the taxi fare.
A cosy drink or three
If you can find them, Dongcheng District’s intimate hutong bars make for an atmospheric drink or three. Seek out beautiful Bed Bar with its “alleyway chic” interior, petite Amilal for its selection of single malts and occasional live Mongolian folk music, and Great Leap Brewing, a tumble-down alleyway pub selling microbrewed craft beer – the closest thing you’ll find to proper real ale in China. Drum & Bell Bar’s expansive roof terrace packs them in during summer for bargain draft lager and postcard views out over the Drum & Bell Towers.
Live and dangerous
With self-expression and swagger at levels unthinkable a decade or so ago, Beijing’s indie scene is positively brimming with rock mojo. Whether it’s Inner Mongolian metal or one of Beijing’s home-grown reggae bands (yes indeed), clubs like Mao Livehouse, Yugong Yishan, 2Kolegas and D-22 showcase the best of local talent (plus the occasional import) most nights of the week. On occasion, punk bands will get together for a Sex Pistols tribute night – surely a cultural crossover not to miss. To see a list of upcoming gigs and venues, check out www.beijinggigguide.com.
All night long
Dolled-up boys and girls fill the dance floors in their thousands at big ticket nightclubs like Vics, Mix and Coco Banana outside the Workers' Stadium. The music policy is mainstream US hip-hop or Euro-trance, but the drink of choice - Chivas Regal whisky with iced green tea - is less generic. For more eclectic beats, The House, run by Chinese DJ collective Acupuncture, spins edgier techno and house and attracts a hipper, older crowd of locals and foreigners.
From gimlets to dirty martinis, Beijing is becoming a magnet for top-class mixology, with prices still some way off New York or Tokyo. Keep it simple with an Old Fashioned at the speakeasy-styled Apothecary in Sanlitun, or plump for some Japanese precision at tiny Ichikura or the effortlessly elegant D-Lounge. Both Q Bar and George's are cut from the same cloth, with a range of excellent martinis, a gorgeous terrace on the former, and a groovy, minimalist interior in the latter.
Some of the swankiest nights out can be had in Beijing’s five-star hotels, though no one bar rules the roost for long. Centro at the Shangri-La used to be the place to be seen before the Park Hyatt’s Xiu stole the limelight with its glam terrace, thumping house band and ladies nights. Most recently, it’s Shangri-La’s Atmosphere, on the 80th floor of Beijing’s newest skyscraper, that's quite literally flying the highest.
In the warmer months, make like a local and park your behind on a tiny plastic chair at one of Beijing’s many outdoor barbecue joints, recognisable by the Chinese character for skewer (串) picked out in red neon. The combination of cold Tsingtao beer, cumin-spiced lamb skewers and chicken wings is a Beijing institution, not to mention dirt cheap. If you’re lucky (well, unlucky perhaps) you’ll be harangued into a “ganbei” with some tipsy Beijingers, which usually involves downing a glass of baijiu, a sorghum-based spirit with a peculiar chemical taste.