Take time out from your busy schedule to discover bustling Beijing, from Peking opera to the Forbidden City. By Daniel McCrohan.
Housed in a collection of disused factories, 798 Art District has been transformed in recent years from its gritty, salt-of-the-earth roots into a clutch of slick, big-name galleries showcasing the works of established artists from China and overseas. Cafés dot the tree-lined lanes that connect the galleries, making for a pleasant way to spend a lazy afternoon. For something more edgy, ask your driver to take you three kilometres north-east to the less commercial galleries of Caochangdi, where artist-activist Ai Weiwei has a studio.
Though you’ll probably need to put aside a full day, no visit to China is complete without seeing the Great Wall. Many top-end hotels offer chauffeur-driven trips to remote sections of the famous bastion – take advantage if you can. Otherwise, Bespoke Beijing runs guided tours led by highly insightful locals.
Home to 24 consecutive emperors over 500 years, Beijing’s Forbidden City is the largest surviving palace complex in the world and shouldn’t be missed. Its vast size makes it tough to tackle, though, so consider joining a tour conducted by someone who really knows their stuff. Cultural exchange centre The Hutong organises exceptional three-hour tours guided by writer and historian Jeremiah Jenne. You won’t find better.
If you only have time to go to one place for souvenirs, make it Panjiayuan, a sprawling open-air flea market four kilometres south of the CBD. It’s easily the best venue in Beijing for traditional arts and crafts and keepsakes. You might even be able to strike a bargain on a genuine antique. It’s open every day but the stalls are most lively and numerous on the weekend.
The city’s signature cultural show, Peking opera, can be an impenetrable mystery for foreign audiences but Lao She Tea House puts on a more accessible taster show for the uninitiated. Sip tea while you watch an informal, engaging performance that includes Peking opera, Shaolin kung-fu, shadow puppetry and Sichuan bian lian (face-changing).