With a history that stretches back to three millennia rolled out along with sprawling futuristic infrastructure, Beijing is the capital China deserves. The Forbidden City palace complex, which functioned as the heart of the Ming and Qing dynasties, the Tiananmen Square plaza, the façade of the Great Wall of China and the Temple of Heaven are only some of the feathers in its extravagant cap.
Enveloped by the port city of Tianjin, Beijing is not only a social, cultural and historical boiling pot, but also a major transportation and commercial centre. Beijing is home to myriad kind of international and national diasporas, and finding places to stay in Beijing’s mammoth neighbourhoods can be a harrowing task, especially for those who have just stepped into its folds. But being the cultural centre it is, expect a traditional Chinese welcome, with an open spirit and perhaps a red carpet.
Established during the Ming dynasty in the fifteenth century, Wangfujing has developed itself more or less around its famous Wangfujing street market. The market, bustling and bubbling with commercial activities for more than seven centuries, is a mercantile paradise. With haute couture brands, boutiques and traditional stored lined up along the one mile long avenue, Wangfujing is Beijing’s most centrally located neighbourhood. Strolling amidst the crisscross streets of this neighbourhood will land you in shops that seem right out of a children’s book. Quaint souvenir shops and shacks stocking old gramophones and record players, bookstores offering free green tea and photo studios to capture a candid Polaroid, Wangfujing will never disappoint you, because it’s too busy pleasing.
Living options include everything from cosy studios to apartments, with the Oriental Street mall just steps away from your door. For those with an insatiable midnight craving, the Wangfujing Snack Street remains open well into the night, providing dim sums, noodles and much more. This isn’t all, the Xinhua Bookstore accommodates ten stories of books; classics, postmodern and Chinese literature all stored in rosewood shelves, opening up more than fifteen thousand different worlds if the Wangfujing isn’t enough.
Sanlitun might not be decked up in the glistening history of China’s many grand dynasties, but it’s the hip, trendy, á la mode cynosure of Beijing, and that’s hard to deny. Before the 2008 Olympics, Sanlitun was just another bar district of Beijing, a little lost, a little messy. But after its major clean-up, it has been transformed into a centre of art, with museums and galleries abound. Coffee shops and book cafés have sprouted up in its alleys, and high end restaurants attract a new millennial generation to its nucleus.
For the perfect shopping trip on a weekend, Taikoo Li, a plaza with nineteen buildings lined with all the brands one could imagine, becomes the one stop destination. The plaza has the biggest Adidas showroom in the world, along with restaurants offering halal delicacies and Peking duck. Sanlitun has many dining and take out options, and thus has a considerable student population. Although those looking for a sophisticated night out won’t have to walk far, for the Nali Patio, build in the Spanish hacienda style serves tasteful Mediterranean bonne bouche. Bookworms can unwind at the conveniently named The Bookworm, a art themed book café adding a whiff of musty book smell to this over the top neighbourhood.
798 District (Lido)
This neighbourhood was built by the Germans in the 1950’s for their military. Doesn’t sound too appealing, right? Not so much. After the 1950’s, as soon as the militärische moved out, Avanté Garde artists, graffiti artists and musicians moved into this erstwhile industrial complex, and made it the art district it is today. Not one wall is left blank in the 798 district, now a centre of vanguard art galleries and chic food and drink options. Living in and around the many alternatives provided by the District can be a dream for all lovers of aesthetics, as every nook and cranny is splattered with portraits, abstract art or frescoes, with the smell of air paint lingering in the air. The Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art is a must go if you stay in the locale, with international works always on display.
Beijing boasts of some of its best nightlife through the 798 district, with breweries like the Ram Brewpub offering the capital’s famous craft beers. If you stay in this neighbourhood, it’s impossible not to stock to your house with quirky knick knacks being sold in the district’s small souvenir shops like Water Stone or Fei Space.
The locality also offers a taste of up and coming Gen Z festivals like the Beijing Design Festival and the Queer Film Festival, which uses underground locations of the area to showcase LGBTQ friendly films from across the world, giving you chance to socialize and fraternize and be a part of a great social revolution by China’s youth.
Heart of Beijing’s central business district, the neighbourhood of Guomao not only qualifies as one of the prime and most expensive destinations of Beijing, but is also the home of Chinese World Trade Centre. The neighbourhood is marked by an intersection between the Third Ring Road and the Jianguomen Outer Street. Looking at its towering skyline, it is difficult to believe that the pre-World War Guomao was a pastureland and hunting ground for the Ming dynasty kings.
A home of foreign expatriates and immigrants from around the world, Guomao has many living and boarding options for those who choose this rococo neighbourhood to stay in Beijing. Along with this, it offers its residents a glorious nightlife, state of the art theatres, galleries, restaurants and shopping malls. The Silk Street Market offers a multi-brand indoor shopping experience, essentially Beijing, with its exquisite collection of silks, world class electronics and a multi screen movie theatre.
Guomao is the place to stay for those who want to stay in close vicinity from central Beijing, considering that the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square are just a walk away from the fringes of this neighbourhood.
In the north-western part of Beijing lies the Haidian district, and at its centre is Wudoakou. This region is primarily known for its proximity to universities in Beijing, and thus has a noticeably large student population. Living in Wudoakou means being sandwiched between the old and the new, quite simply, and in a good way. With its boisterous nightlife, and craft beer pubs like Barsips, karaoke clubs, and restaurants with the best of cuisines from around the world like Khan Baba and All Kill, Wudoakou might seem like a party destination on the surface. But wedged in its cracks are ancient wonders like the Summer Palace, an estate dating back to the Qing dynasty. Unlike most of Beijing’s tourist hotspots, usually filled to the brim with tourists and their cameras, the summer home and hunting grounds of the Qing dynasty rulers is peaceful and serene. If you feel a little out of place in this urban jungle, the Summer Palace is the ideal way to head back to nature.
Wudoakou gives you the best weekend experience. Imagine this.. the day spent in an international exhibition at the Tsinghua University Art Museum, the evening gorging on the abundant Korean cuisine, followed by a cocktails or beer at Sensation, and if the night calls for some adventure, karaoke clubs like the Lion KTV are there at your doorstep. With its action packed life, Wudoakou gives you so much to remember, and takes very less in return, being one of the most economical places you can find in Beijing’s puzzling localities.
The last and most important of the traditional Qing hutong neighbourhoods, Gulou is famously named for the Drum Towers at its kernel. The drums of these famous towers rang through the neighbourhood to announce time till the early parts of the Qing dynasty, and though they sit silent now, they are still popular with the tourists. The main street of Gulou stretches north of these towers, and for those who stay here, it’s the sanctum sanctorum of shopping, with a special part of the market dedicated to vintage silk clothes. Gulou is known as the neighbourhood which never sleeps, with clubs, pubs and bars populating it’s seemingly orthodox streets.
Gulou becomes a paradise for skaters in winters, and those who stay here can arm themselves with their blades and head to the Huhai Lake, which freezes over in the peak of the season, and is filled with enthusiastic skaters from all over Beijing.
While the Lama Temple adds a touch of seventeenth century Buddhist architecture to the south of the neighbourhood, the Susu Restaurant, a 140 year old redone backyard café is the primary highlight of the southern periphery. Gulou is full of Pandora boxes of civilization waiting to be opened, and if you are in the mood for some riddles, head to the cross work of this locality.
Huashi literally translates to 'flower market', an apt name considering that it is built on the structure of an erstwhile colonial era fresh flower market, and still has sparkly dashes of flower shops lighting up its corners. Huashi is situated in the calmer southern part of the capital, and running along its alleys will make you a witness to the untainted cultural beauty of the neighbourhood. Most of Beijing’s inner streets seem to have moved very slowly through its otherwise blistering development, holding remnants of pre colonial era China, and Huashi is all that and much more. In a country where Buddhism is one of the dominant religions, Huashi had always been a notable Hui Muslim quarter, as is seen by the Huashi Hui Mosque, a prominent cultural and architectural attraction at the axis of the locality. Huashi is predominantly a residential area, and although it seems quiet to those looking for a little hubbub, the buzzing air of the Xiaoshikou Market is always teeming with shoppers.
If you stay in Huashi, the amiable spring climate of the city will allow you to walk towards the Temple of Heaven, an architectural and historical structure with immense spiritual significance. The compounds of the Temple of Heaven are lush green, and make for one rejuvenating visit. A walk amongst the traditional Chinese style wooden buildings and parks can be a enlightenment session for those seeking a glimpse into ancient Chinese culture.
With green parks and quiet retreats, Huashi is a historical piece of China delivered to you in muffled undertones, quite like the chants at the Temple nearby.
Perched amidst green pastures, Huilonguan is a suburban neighbourhood 33 kilometres away from Beijing’s central business district. This locality is the fastest growing destination when it comes to real estate in Beijing, and it’s easy to understand why. In just under thirty minutes, Beijing’s brilliant subway system can transport you from the heart of the CBD to the neighbourhood, and further away to the Xindi Market, which sells anything and everything you ask for.
Huilonguan's Dong Dajie, an eight lane highway, functions as the locality’s fulcrum, giving you an access to myriad urban commodities and services. Artisanal cheese is another thing you will find in Huilonguan, with decades old shops like Fromager de Pekin offering quality service to bakery connoisseurs.