China’s pre-Olympics scramble to turn Beijing into a glossy metropolis may have been dogged by controversy but left the city with a wealth of new hotels and restaurants
In the run-up to the Beijing Olympics, all the big international hotel groups announced they were opening properties in the city. Some materialised, others didn’t. Of those that did, the most hotly anticipated was the Aman at Summer Palace. Housed in a cluster of historic dwellings next to the East Gate of this extraordinary landscaped estate, the compound was originally used by those awaiting an audience with Empress Dowager Cixi. Today, it is an impressive addition to the Aman Resorts portfolio, pays homage to traditional Chinese design and has four great restaurants and a nine-treatment-room spa.
Another recent opening to cause a stir is the modern, glass-clad Opposite House in the new Sanlitun Village development. Designed by renowned Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, it features 99 huge guest ‘studios’ and a stainless-steel-lined swimming pool.
Shangri-La, which has four hotels in the city, added a vast new wing to its long established Shangri-La Hotel Beijing. The Valley Wing houses bedrooms and the sanctuary-like Chi Spa, which is modelled on a Buddhist temple.
For respite from frenetic city life and a wholly original hotel experience, there’s the Commune by the Great Wall Kempinski, which sits in the shadow of the Great Wall, a little over an hour’s drive from central Beijing. Set within beautiful rugged countryside, it includes a series of extraordinary four-bedroom villas designed by 12 different architects.
Beijing also now a culinary scene to match. Fans of quintessential Chinese food should book a table at Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant (Dongsishitiaolu, Donchang). It’s not difficult to guess the speciality, and they do it so well. For something more gourmet - crab risotto with avocado ice-cream, for example - try the hip, decadent Blu Lobster at the Shangri-La Hotel.
Probably the city’s hippest new development, a minute’s walk from Tiananmen Square, is the Legation Quarter, the old embassy district, built in 1903. The complex has been built to house an impressive portfolio of high-end restaurants, galleries and boutiques. Highlights to date include a branch of New York chef Daniel Boulud’s Maison Boulud and the Beijing Center for the Arts. Owner Handel Lee is promising to open an underground repertory theatre there soon.
While Beijing is home to all the big luxury fashion brands (found in shopping malls such as Oriental Plaza, the Kerry Centre Mall and China World Shopping Mall), for a really authentic Beijing experience, head to the sprawling Panjiayuan Flea Market (Panjiayuan Qiao, Chaoyang). Open from dawn to 3pm on Saturdays and Sundays, it sells everything from pearls and puppets to Communist memorabilia and shoes, to a mixed throng of locals and tourists. Other gems include the Ritan Office Building Market (15a Guangua Lu) for little boutiques selling designer and vintage clothing. Try Ruby Cashmere Shop for new and worn cashmere at rock bottom prices.
Beijing isn’t called the cultural capital of China for nothing – there’s an overwhelming amount to see and do. Beijing’s poor historic neighbourhoods, networks of tiny alleyways known as hutongs, are under constant threat from commercial developers. Mass clearances of many of them in the run-up to the Olympics were only halted after international outcry. The Houhai area, also known as the Black Lakes, still has several original hutongs. They are best explored on foot, so you can stop off in a little café for dumplings and poke around in the little antique shops.
To avoid the crowds, visit the Forbidden City early in the morning and explore some of its 9,999 imperial rooms. From there, head south to Tiananmen Square, home to Chairman Mao’s mausoleum and site of the notorious pro-democracy student protest back in 1989 and numerous other historic demonstrations. If the weather’s fine, take a picnic to the lovely grounds of the Summer Palace on Lake Kunming, the city’s imperial playground. And the Olympics may be over but the extraordinary Bird’s Nest stadium designed by Herzog & de Meuron remains and is definitely worth a fly by.
Just an hour’s drive from Beijing is Badaling, the closest, so most touristy section of the Great Wall. For something a little quieter, head to a more secluded section, Simatai, two and a half hours from the city. No trip to Beijing is complete without a visit to the Dashanzi Art District, an entire neighbourhood of Communist-era warehouses and factories built in the Bauhaus style, that became home to a burgeoning avant-garde art scene in the late 1990s. Today it houses artists' studios, art galleries, bars, restaurants, book publishers and boutiques. While it is much more commercialised and its founders would say it has lost its edge, like so many aspects of Beijing, it is no less intriguing to the first-time visitor.