Experience Beijing

The air is dirty, the traffic is horrendous, and almost nobody speaks more than a word or two of English—so what makes Beijing one of the world's top destinations?

Old and new live together. The flat skyline of Beijing, punctuated only by imposing ceremonial towers and the massive gates of the city wall, is lost forever. But still, standing on Coal Hill and looking south across the Forbidden City—or listening to the strange echo of your voice atop an ancient altar at the Temple of Heaven—you can't help but feel the weight of thousands of years of history. It was here that Marco Polo supposedly dined with Kublai Khan and his Mongol hordes; that Ming and Qing emperors ruled over China from the largest and richest city in the world; and that Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People's Republic in 1949. Much of Beijing's charm comes from the juxtaposition of old and new. When you're riding a taxi along the Third Ring Road it may seem that the high-rise apartments and postmodern office complexes stretch on forever. They do, almost, but tucked in among the glass and steel are elaborate temples exuding wafts of incense, and tiny alleyways where old folks still gather in their pajamas every evening to play cards and drink warm beer. Savoring these small moments is the key to appreciating today's Beijing.

There are interesting things to eat. If you really love General Tso's chicken back at your local Chinese take-out place, you may want to skip Beijing altogether. Many a returned visitor has complained of being unable to enjoy the bland stuff back home after experiencing the myriad flavors and textures of China's regional cuisines. From the mouth-numbing spices of Sichuan, to the delicate presentation of an imperial banquet, or the cumin-sprinkled kebabs of China's Muslim west, Beijing has it all. If you're looking for the ultimate in authenticity, dine at a restaurant attached to one of the city's provincial representative offices, where the chefs and ingredients are imported to satisfy the taste buds of bureaucrats working far from home. The crispy skin and tender flesh of the capital's signature dish, Peking duck, is on everyone's must-eat list. But don't worry if you tire of eating Chinese food three times a day. As Beijing has grown rich in recent years, Western and fusion cuisine offerings have improved greatly, with everything from French to Middle Eastern to Texas-style barbecue now available. If you're looking for a special—although somewhat expensive—night out, try Temple Restaurant Beijing, where East meets West in the grounds of a 600-year-old temple, now a dining destination for contemporary European cuisine.

This is a global city. Prestige projects such as the National Center for the Performing Arts ("The Egg"), the new CCTV building, and a massive subway expansion are clearly aimed at showing the world that China is playing with the big boys. The Chinese are fiercely patriotic, and antiforeign demonstrations occasionally break out when the country's collective pride is insulted. The official version of Chinese history taught in schools emphasizes the nation's suffering at the hands of foreign colonial powers during the 19th and 20th centuries, and the subsequent Communist "liberation." Still, you'll find most Beijingers infinitely polite and generally curious about your life back home. People here aren't quite sure what to make of their new surroundings, and they're as interested in finding out about you as you are about them. So strike up a conversation (with your hands if necessary), but be sure to go easy on the politics.

Beijing is a happening destination. Newcomers could be forgiven for seeing bustling Shanghai as China's go-to place. But anyone who has spent a little time in the capital swears that it's the soul of the country. People from all over China, and the world, are drawn here by the many opportunities the city offers, the cultural fervor, and the chance to reinvent themselves. There’s an unusual freedom here that has made Beijing the creative center of the country, and this attracts the creative elite from all around the world. Art galleries have sprung up in hotels, courtyard houses, shut-down factories, and even an ancient watchtower. This is where serious Chinese musicians must come to make it or break it, and even no-nonsense businessmen see Beijing as a mecca because they believe the challenges—and rewards—are greater here.

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