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Important things happen in Beijing. You can feel this everywhere in the city of nearly 20 million people and the capital of China.
There are the majestic imperial buildings, perfectly preserved in their gold and blood red, sharing the same sidewalk with Soviet masterpieces designed to intimidate.
In the years before and after the Beijing 2008 Olympics, modern wonders of glass and chrome have appeared. It all makes Beijing’s cityscape a study in superlatives; the grand scale of the city planning a campaign for headlines.
And yet, there’s a Beijing that’s growing organically on a human scale, particularly within the narrow hutongs, tiny alleys that separate traditional courtyard homes. Unique restaurants, music venues and boutiques are opening in these fast-gentrifying neighborhoods. You’re never short of options when planning what to do in Beijing.
This adds up to a city of drama and juxtaposition. Visitors return home with pictures of epic monuments and cute alleyway cats resting with elderly people in faded Mao suits.
Here’s where to start and what to do in Beijing:
Did we mention the comp mini-bar? Few hotels capture the bustling energy of cosmopolitan Beijing like the Kerry Hotel.
Style and service runs through the veins of the downtown hotel. Bright, airy rooms are equipped with space age bathroom equipment.
The list of amenities feels like what you’d get at a luxury resort.
Guests get complimentary fitness classes at the gym, complete with running track and sports courts. Kids can romp on the slides and ball pit at the Adventure Zone playroom.
There’s a deli, as well as a deluxe Peking duck restaurant. Every night, award-winning bar Centro is packed with Beijing’s glitterati kicking back over fashionable cocktails and live jazz.
The Aman at Summer Palace
The Aman knows imperial luxury. The resort is a period Qing Dynasty structure of crisscrossing courtyards, halls and suites, unfolding symmetrically like a miniature Forbidden City.
Attached to the Summer Palace, where the Empress Dowager intended to retire, Aman is Beijing’s most expensive hotel.
There’s all the comforts “Aman junkies” take for granted: huge bathrooms, period furnishings, a packed program of tours and cultural events and fine dining at Naoki Restaurant, which serves Japanese kaiseki cuisine. Some distance from the city center, this one is designed for escape, not exploration.
The Opposite House
The Opposite House is the city’s hippest address.
The work of Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, this 99-room boutique hotel shows off modern Beijing’s commitment to design and style.
White rooms accented with natural materials have a breezy, yoga studio aesthetic. Even the bathtub is wooden.
Below ground, a stainless steel pool looks like something from Doctor Evil’s lair, sans piranhas.
Mesh, the hotel’s lounge, pulls in pretty people, while restaurant Jing Yaa Tang specializes in Peking duck.
Not just a place to stay, The Opposite House is also what to do in Beijing.
Langham Place Beijing Airport
The Langham Place Beijing Capital Airport turns the airport hotel on its head.
Although just a minute away from the international airport, this 372-roomer succeeds in being more than a place to pass out during a layover.
With contemporary Chinese art filling the hotel, Langham Place has a cheeky, creative atmosphere. Appropriate, considering the hotel is just 20 minutes’ drive from Beijing’s 798 Art District.
If you have only a couple hours to spare between flights, it’s worth hopping aboard one of the Langham’s pink shuttle buses to get to the hotel and try the excellent dim sum at Ming Court.
On the outskirts of Mutianyu village, this eco-conscious boutique retreat rests in the shadow of Beijing’s second most visited stretch of the Great Wall.
A former glazed-tile factory, it’s gone through a full makeover.
Floor-to-ceiling windows with Great Wall views have been installed in all guest rooms at ground level, but curtains are absent (so expect to rise with the sun or use the eye shades provided).
Breakfast (included) features local bacon, freshly baked pastries and jams made with fruit from surrounding orchards.
A newly opened spa with pool, an outdoor Jacuzzi, sauna and treatment room has all wellness needs taken care of.
A laid-back hotel in one of the city’s most vibrant hutong neighborhoods, The Orchid offers a relaxing way to experience local life in old Beijing. From a trio of roof terraces you can catch sight of the famed Drum and Bell Towers looming over tiled rooftops.
Outside the front door is Baochao Hutong.
Here, visitors can find typical sights and sounds of Beijingers going about their day in the cramped, crumbling courtyard houses.
The neighborhood is filled with good cheap eats, from street-side kebab stands to Yunan delicacies. The lobby bar has a well-curated wine list and potent locally brewed beer. All rooms have an Apple TV set, goose down beds and jars of high-grade tea.
Peking Yard (北平小院国际青年旅舍)
This upmarket hostel caters to the needs of today’s “flashpacker” tribe.
Housed in a handsome building in the middle of an old Beijing neighborhood, Peking Yard is all potted flowers and cozy modern furnishings with plenty of Western comforts.
If you’re wondering what to do in Beijing, fellow guests here will likely be excited to share their ideas.
With pool table, Belgian beer, pizza and burgers, the lobby bar is the place to meet other travelers and compare Great Wall adventures.
There’s a quiet garden in the back and a sun terrace with lounge chairs, a welcome sight after a day of sightseeing.
Made In China
It’s traditional Chinese food in a modern five-star setting at Made In China.
The smart-casual dining hall is filled with enticing sounds and smells from an open kitchen where diners can watch all manner of Chinese food being prepared.
Beggar’s chicken and noodle dishes are favorites among regulars, but it’s the Peking duck that has an obsessive following.
Foodies have long debated whether the duck here is better than that at Beijing’s near-undisputed best, Da Dong Roast Duck (below).
Advance notice necessary for ordering the Peking duck at Made In China.
Temple Restaurant Beijing
For many, a meal in a Ming-era temple is the exemplary Beijing luxury experience.
Diners navigate a traditional narrow alley to find the restaurant.
They walk past contemporary Chinese art installations and the towering temple hall, restored (but not renovated) so the compound retains as much of its original grandeur as possible.
The dining room was once the city’s first television factory, and its wide spaces and angular walls now hold a minimalist seating area touched with abstract art.
Menus are contemporary European with an Asian flair, with items like rice flake crusted lobster, suckling pig and gravlax salmon prepared at the table.
Desserts, from an Earl Grey tea parfait to crème fraiche cheesecake with lemongrass ice cream are impressive.
A lunch deal and weekend brunch are available.
Transit offers a modern take on spicy Sichuan.
The restaurant puts an elegant touch on classic dishes, improving them with top-shelf ingredients and clever methods without tossing out any of the food’s authenticity.
Unlike other Sichuanese holes in the wall, dishes are more than chops of meat swimming in questionable oil.
Rather, excellent renditions of appetizers like chicken and prickly-numbing mapo tofu have delicately layered flavors.
Traditional dishes are cheekily enhanced, as when fatty cuts of pork are infused with cognac and pu’er tea or strips of chicken drizzled with a grapefruit vinaigrette and creamy avocado.
The high prices may be better suited for expense accounts than a casual meal, but if the old axiom that you get what you pay for is true anywhere, it’s here.
Housed in a historic building on the centuries-old Qianmen Dajie, Capital M is somber on the outside but inviting on the inside.
The atmosphere is moneyed bohemian – inside are a Van Gogh-esque mural, fresh flowers and views of Qianmen, the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square.
The menu is inspired by local produce, with an emphasis on modern European cooking and elements from as far as North Africa.
Classics from the original M on the Fringe restaurant in Hong Kong and Shanghai’s M on the Bund can be found here, such as crispy suckling pig, salt-encased leg of lamb and the pavlova.
Wines are taken seriously at Capital M.
Their own label has been supplied by the same South Australian vineyard for over 20 years.
Da Dong Roast Duck
The king of Peking duck, Da Dong made its name with slices of flavorful, lean-yet-succulent duck meat topped with crisp golden skin.
But you can’t eat duck every night.
What keeps Da Dong fans coming back is the high standard of all other dishes on its Bible-thick menu.
Bamboo shoots with pickles, and chestnuts stir fried with cabbage are some of the popular home-style dishes.
Banquet dishes such as sea cucumber also impress.
But Da Dong succumbs to the pitfalls of fame, with staff displaying attitude on busy nights and annoyingly hard-to-get reservations.
Avoiding overcrowded weekends is a good strategy.
Even so, for visitors planning what to do in Beijing, this one puts the “experience” in dining.
The best part about eating at hot pot restaurant Haidilao is waiting in the line.
Tea, fruit plates, Wi-Fi, board games and even manicures are provided for customers while they endure a wait that can stretch as long as 90 minutes.
Enthusiastic staff keep waiting diners upbeat.
The hot pot meal itself embraces a staggering choice of vegetables, meat and seafood that diners cook themselves in a bubbling pot of broth placed in the middle of the table.
Ranging from super-spicy to plain, the hot pot broth imbues layers of flavor into the fresh produce, which can then be dipped in your own custom sauce.
If you order the hand-pulled noodles you’ll get a tableside noodle dance.
Beijingers have a thing for fiery Sichuan food and Chuanban is their favorite place to get it.
The restaurant was opened by the Sichuan Provincial Office in Beijing, so the authenticity of the food is assured.
You can challenge your spice threshold with shuiju yu, tender morsels of fish in a chili-laced broth; or mapo doufu, the famous minced pork and tofu dish.
Everything is dotted with Sichuanese peppercorns, a spice that causes a numbing sensation on the tongue.
Chuanban is a state-run restaurant, meaning it’s casual, perennially too busy and has notoriously uncaring staff. But the incredible food is worth the indignities.
Reservations not accepted. Best to arrive before 6 p.m. or after 8 p.m.
Chuanban, 5 Gongyuan Toutiao, Jianguomennei Dajie, Dongcheng District 东城区建国门内大街公园头条5号; +86 10 6512 2277 ext. 6101
Donghuamen night market
A freak show of a food market takes place near Wangfujing each night.
The Donghuamen night market consists of dozens of stalls lined up in a neat row, each selling a variety of Beijing snacks.
Sure, there’s the tame candied fruit, lamb kebabs and stuffed buns, but the other end of the spectrum is rather more challenging.
Scorpions, centipedes, starfish, cicadas and snake skin can all be fried and eaten on a stick. A bowl of stodgy gray beef offal – a Beijing favorite – will help it all go down.
More than just a meal, this one is at the top of many “what to do in Beijing” lists.
Artisanal cocktails are the thing at Apothecary, a sleek bar that gets so ridiculously crowded on weekends it has to turn people away.
Everything is homemade, from the bitters to syrups.
You can test bartenders’ skills at making an old fashioned and other classics, or challenge yourself with the bar’s original Bazillionaire, a wicked twist on the Millionaire cocktail that adds absinthe and rye to the mix.
For the munchies, it’s hard to beat the fried chicken sandwich with sweet potato fries, or the charcuterie platter.
Slow Boat Brewing Taproom
Here’s one thing: Slow Boat has the most beers on tap of any bar in Beijing. Here’s another: they brew them all themselves.
Riding the craft beer boom, the tiny taproom hidden deep among traditional alleyways was started by two Americans who missed the taste of beer back home.
This is where local beer nerds meet up over a pint, sitting at long tables in the rustic hutong atmosphere.
Brews are chalked up with their alcohol content and bitterness units, with offerings anywhere from light pale ales to dark, malty stouts. The bar regularly experiments with new styles, like a potent imperial vanilla stout or an IPA with laced with hints of mango.
Many show up just to eat. Burgers slathered with homemade hot-sauce ai