Beijing City Guide, Singapore Airlines / by Thomas O'Malley

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For Singapore Airlines, a concise Beijing City Guide with with hotel, restaurant and itinerary recommendations.

Despite its breathless march to superpower status, Beijing, bordered by Great Wall and with the Forbidden City at its heart, is a capital bound to its past. Like all great cities it’s a place of contradictions; where three million taxi drivers tune in to swashbuckling period dramas on Beijing Traffic Radio, where communist party power is absolute yet the works of contemporary artists like Ai Weiwei provoke the status quo. And despite the new highways and high rises, Beijing remains home to hundreds of miles of hutong alleyways, grid-like residential architecture with its origins in Kublai Khan’s Yuan Dynasty. In recent years, these lanes have given rise to the city’s most exciting new restaurants, bars and boutique hotels, a process of gentrification that just might help ensure their survival. Like belle époque Paris or New York in the 1920s, Beijing is a city having its ‘moment’. Teetering on the brink of a global power shift (but still remarkably affordable), make sure you can look back and say, “I was there”.

When in Beijing, don’t forget to…

  • Rise early to see the locals exercising, performing tai chi and singing revolutionary songs in Jingshan Park. Then clamber up the slope to Wangchun Pavilion and gaze out over the Forbidden City, an amber sea of arching rooftops and pavilions stretching into the haze toward Tiananmen Square.
  • Get lost in the alleyways of Dongcheng District, and discover some of Beijing’s best-preserved hutongs. Along tree-shaded lanes, fruit sellers, knife-sharpeners and coal merchants still hawk their wares from roving bicycle carts. And these days you’re just as likely to chance upon hip boutiques and hidden cocktail bars.
  • Walk the wild watchtowers at Jiankou, a crumbling stretch of Great Wall in remote mountainous countryside. Climb through woodland to Zhengbeilou, a tower popular with amateur photographers for its epic views. From there it’s a two hour hike downhill to the tourist-friendly restored stretch at Mutianyu.
  • Discover the best of Chinese contemporary art at the 798 Art District. A former munitions factory complex, China’s up-and-coming art superstars colonized its disused Bauhaus-style warehouses in the 1990s. Today it’s a bustling enclave of world-class galleries, installations, shops and cafes.
  • Discover your inner sage with a visit to the serene Confucius Temple. Wander between banks of four meter-tall stone stele inscribed with the names of scholars from centuries past, or park up on a bench to contemplate the Analects, the collected wisdom of Confucius which has influenced Chinese thought for millennia.
The Opposite House
The Opposite House

Hotels

The Opposite House This five-storey box of emerald-tinted glass, the work of Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, is hands-down the hippest address in the city. Hotel staff are ‘Guest Experience Officers’ and the 99 minimalist rooms eschew marble and carpets for stark white walls and wooden bathtubs. Guest rooms encircle an impressive atrium hung with ‘drapes’ of woven steel, with contemporary art installations on rotation. Jing Yaa Tang, designed by London-based restaurant impresario Alan Yau, is the new ‘in’ place to eat Peking duck.

Insider Tip: Mesh Bar on the ground floor is one of the most gay-friendly hangouts in the city.

The Temple Hotel The Temple Hotel occupies the grounds of Zhizusi, a beautifully restored Buddhist temple complex all but forgotten about until a few years ago. Eight rooms are shared between former monks quarters and a prayer hall (all with cosy under floor heating), and newer annexes built in the 70s when Zhizusi served as a television factory. A haven for art lovers, the hotel is strewn with contemporary painting, sculpture and custom-designed furniture. Best of all, it’s a five-minute walk through the hutongs to the northern moat of the Forbidden City.

Insider Tip: For extra privacy, one of the duplex rooms has its own entrance to the alleyway behind the temple complex – request when booking.

The Orchid A boutique sanctuary in the hutongs, The Orchid is billed as a ‘hostel for grown-ups’. This means communal breakfasts, dumpling classes and occasional wine tastings on the terrace, but you can always retire to the comfy surrounds of one of ten simple guest rooms, furnished with goose-down beds, rainforest showers and Apple TVs, some with cute private gardens and terrace space. The owners are fully clued-up on their thriving hutong neighbourhood, providing killer tips on local restaurants to aid your culinary explorations.

Insider Tip: Canadian co-owner Joel is a former tea exporter and occasionally takes guests on excellent tours of Beijing’s tea district.

Raffles Beijing Beijing’s only true ‘Grand Dame’, the 100-year old ‘Grand Hotel de Pekin’ has emerged relative unscathed after China’s turbulent 20th century. Taken over by Raffles in 2005, the chandelier-strewn lobby still oozes old-world charm, and some guest rooms boast impressive four-poster beds and retro patterned wallpaper. Beside the lobby, the centrepiece of the elegant Writer’s Bar is a wooden dance floor dating back to the 1920s, upon which Mao Zedong was known to take a turn at PLA banquets.

Insider Tip: The original rooms are in Block B, the best with views over famous Chang An Avenue. Block E is a newer edition at the back for business travellers.

China World Summit Wing Occupying the top 14 floors of Beijing’s tallest building, the Summit Wing, part of Singapore’s Shangri-La group, chooses understated style over showy luxury. From the leather-armchair strewn Residents Lobby to the expansive guest rooms mixing hard woods, feather pillows and stunning views (smog permitting), it is, as billed, a sanctuary in the clouds. Atmosphere Bar and Grill 79 are both excellent options for drinking and dining respectively, and the 25-metre infinity pool on the 78th floor might just be the highlight of your trip.

Insider Tip: Request a west-facing room for views of the Forbidden City’s rooftops on a clear day.

Temple Restaurant Beijing
Temple Restaurant Beijing

Restaurants

Temple Restaurant Beijing Sharing the same historic setting as the Temple Hotel, ‘TRB’ is the brainchild of former Maison Boulud GM Ignace Lecleir. Modern European tasting menus pay close heed to seasonality, and the wine list is one of the best in town. Complimentary plates of addictive ‘cheese puffs’ and homemade marshmallows make eating here informal and fun, and you can walk off your indulgence afterwards with a stroll around the beautiful temple grounds, dotted with sculptures by Chinese artist Wang Shugang.

Insider Tip: Visit on Sunday at sunset to catch the public viewing of Gathered Sky, a permanent light installation by acclaimed American artist James Turrell (tickets 150 RMB).

Duck de Chine Roasted for 65 minutes over 30-year old date tree wood, the Peking duck here boasts a crisp, lacquered skin more sweet and aromatic than any other. An on-site Bollinger Champagne bar (the perfect pairing, apparently) occupies part of the loft-like, industrial space, and chefs in sleek black robes carve birds tableside to the chime of a gong. The house-made hoisin, topped with sesame, peanut paste and fried garlic, puts this duck out of sight.

Insider Tip: The ‘duck liver on toast’ is a must-order appetizer - silkier and lighter than foie gras but no less delicious.

Capital M The sister restaurant to Shanghai’s game-changing M on the Bund, Capital M combines casually elegant fine-dining with unrivalled views of Tiananmen Square. The food is straightforward and likable, from the signature suckling pig to ‘M’s famous pavlova’ (a nod to owner Michelle Garnaut’s Australian roots). Embossed tableware, Nepalese rugs and open fireplaces add to the sense of occasion, and the shaded terrace is perfect for sunny brunches or evening cocktails in the warmer months.

Insider Tip: The afternoon tea from 3pm on Saturday and Sunday is the most beautifully presented in town, with a triple-tiered dessert platter and a wide choice of brews and infusions.

Brian McKenna @ The Courtyard Revived under the stewardship of British chef Brian McKenna, The Courtyard is one of the most romantic restaurants in town thanks to its perch overhanging the Forbidden City’s moat. A designer makeover from the team behind W New York provides a suitably stylish setting to sample the 888 RMB tasting menu, a molecular style march of kitchen trickery and an unhealthy amount of foie-gras, that finishes with a delightful chocolate riff on China’s Terracotta Warriors.

Insider Tip: A hat tip to Heston Blumenthal, the ‘garden salad’ here consists of edible soil, rocks and plants and comes with a miniature rake and spade for cutlery.

Haidilao This raucously stylish Sichuan chain serves some of the best hot pot in Beijing. The perfect winter warmer, diners cook strips of thinly sliced lamb and beef, plus fresh veggies, ‘shrooms, tofu, noodles and more, by dunking them in a cauldron of spicy (or non-spicy) soup. The service at Haidilao goes the extra mile with free drinks refills and snacks, and even a complimentary manicure and fruit plate for diners waiting to be seated.

Insider Tip: Order the gongfu mian and the restaurant will summon dancing noodle-twirlers to perform theatrically at your table.

Click here to read the full Beijing City Guide.