The Forbidden City Revealed
In the center of historic Beijing lies the PALACE MUSEUM—the 20th-century name given to the ancient magnificence that is the Forbidden City. Twenty-four emperors and their courts lived in these 800 buildings over the course of five centuries, until the end of the Qing dynasty in 1911. Retreating nationalists carted the bulk of its treasures to Taiwan, so what you see today is mostly a shell. Still, the landscape of vermilion roofs, ocher walls, carved stones, and massive bronzes is breathtaking (although we could do without the Starbucks on the premises). Most structures are closed to the public—you can only peer inside. One exception is the main entrance gate, Wu Men, where Mao established his government on October 1, 1949, declaring, "The Chinese people have stood up!" Abercrombie & Kent (800-544-7016) and Imperial Tours (888-888-1970), however, have access to otherwise off-limits sites, such as the emperor Qian Long's retirement lodge. Solo travelers can rent the informative and campy audio guide narrated by Roger Moore: "Now look up at the coffered ceiling. Isn't it fabulous?"
Dining à la King
Inside a modest and slightly ramshackle house near Houhai, Beijing's central lake, is the capital's most outstanding imperial cuisine. Here, FAMILY LI CUISINE carries on a grand tradition begun by its owners' ancestor, who was a food taster for the Empress Dowager during China's last dynasty. Mr. Li came to intimately know each dish, protecting the recipes throughout the 20th century; they survived even when Red Guards ransacked his son's home during the Cultural Revolution. Lucky us. The sweet-and-sour pork ribs, stewed prawns, and lemony fried pork on a bed of dried seaweed are all spectacular. Reserve in advance for a set menu, which is served at one of five tables. $ Dinner, $50-$400. At 11 Yang Fang Hutong; 86-10/6618-0107.
Founded by a trio of young visionaries, CHANG & BIORCK fuses Scandinavian design with Chinese craftsmanship and aesthetics. This Beijing showroom stocks a range of housewares, including enamelware by Grete Prytz Kittelsen and textiles by Gunilla Lagerhem Ullberg. On the Chinese side, there are unique silk-covered boxes and Ming-style lamps with silk shades ($175). $ At Sun City, 18 Xinzhong St., Bldg. 3, No. 410; 86-10/8447-2735; www.changbiorck.com.
The 21st-Century Qipao
At his tiny shop, LIU XINGXING uses silk from Hunan Province to make his lovely dresses in up-to-date cuts with modern graphic embroidery. Besides stocking an array of ready-to-wear pieces, he can also fill bespoke orders in about a week, depending on adornments. Liu designs women's pants and men's scholar shirts as well. $ From $40 to $1,250. At Ritan Office Bldg., No. 1019, 15A Guanghua Rd.; 86-10/6766-2520.
Singing for Supper
In a restored courtyard home near Houhai Lake, MEI MANSION creates dishes using the private recipes of the country's celebrated opera singer, Mei Lanfang. The fixed menus vary in number of courses and degrees of extravagance; when making a reservation, specify your choice. Upon arrival each guest finds a menu in hand-done calligraphy. Our $25 selection was a beautifully presented six-course feast of spicy boiled beef, sweet-and-sour shrimp, braised pork, and pickled vegetables. Dinners are served in small private dining rooms with windows opening out to bamboo-ringed courtyards bathed in lantern light. Black-and-white photos of Mei—a man especially known for playing female roles—hang throughout, and recordings of his performances play softly in the background. Dinner, $50-$350. At 24 Da Xiangfeng Alley; 86-10/6612-6847.
Foot Rubs and Sun Salutations
No doubt weary of Beijing's glamourless massage studios, the smart set has now lit upon BODHI ($ 17 Gongti Bei Rd.; 86-10/6417-9595; www.bodhi.com.cn). In addition to excellent reflexology ($25), the stylish spa offers Thai massage, divine aromatherapy massage, and manicures and pedicures. YOGA YARD ($ Yong He Jia Yuan, Bldg. 4, No. 108; 86-10/5102-6108; www.yogayard.com) offers a different sort of relaxation: daily classes in the discipline, conducted in English inside a bright loftlike studio.
When it was an outdoor bazaar, the crowded Silk Alley possessed a certain charm. But now that it's been replaced with SILK STREET, it's just not the same. The new "street" is actually a four-story mall where the vendors—thanks to mandatory English classes—greet you with "Hello! Look here!" and other, more pushy admonishments.
Sleeping With Mao
American Laurence Brahm's RED CAPITAL RESIDENCE sits unlabeled in a Qing dynasty courtyard home, in an old hutong neighborhood, restored by the same craftsmen who renovated the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace. Behind the red wooden doors is a kind of sophisticated theme park dedicated to modern Chinese history (with a few Ming and Qing references thrown in for good measure). There are the Concubine Suites, which border Chairman Mao's Suite, and a Cultural Revolution-era opera in the bar. In the small, sunny courtyard is a trapdoor leading to a subterranean wine bar, originally a bomb shelter. And would anyone like some Stalin Is Our Friend caviar? The hotel even sends guests on nighttime tours of the city in the Red Flag limousine that once belonged to Madame Mao. And three blocks north in the RED CAPITAL CLUB restaurant, where the dishes are based on the favorite foods of government leaders, you sit in the apparatchiks' actual seats—the fifties furniture was taken from politburo offices. One caveat: This is no wireless, center-of-town hotel. $190. Dinner, $50. At 9 Dongsi Liu Tiao; 86-10/ 8401-8886; www.redcapitalclub.com.cn.
Anything but humble, the hip and innovative MY HUMBLE HOUSE serves modern Chinese cuisine unlike any you'll find in the capital. The kitchen repurposes ingredients typical of European cooking for dishes such as cod drizzled with Italian balsamic vinegar, presented on a bed of egg whites and garnished with sweet-and-sour bamboo. On our visit, the dessert combination of green-tea ice cream, chocolate mousse, and rum was particularly imaginative. "The taste is predominantly Chinese," owner Andrew Tjioe says, "but the look, global." Dinner, $75. At 1 Chang'an Dong Blvd.; 86-10/8518-8811.
A new class of young designers in Beijing has begun to emerge, most notably in the new boutique building Tongli (43 Sanlitun Houjie). The two main draws at this three-story hub in Sanlitun—besides Aperitivo, the unmemorable café on the ground floor—are the clothing shop BABEL (No. 209; 86-10/8561-6233) and THINGS OF THE JING (No. 221; 86-10/6417-2271), where Gabrielle Harris, a Beijinger from Britain, turns Chinese iconography into elegant silver necklaces and pins ranging from $25 to $325. At the former, we especially fell for the chic, brightly colored sweaters ($65-$250) by Alain Julienne, a silk and cashmere buyer for Gaultier and Galliano.
On the narrow street of Liulichang, southwest of Tiananmen Square, are three little-known museums that perfectly capture the capital's past. At 14 East, the SONGTANGZHAI MUSEUM displays a fascinating collection of wood and stone ornaments rescued from destroyed buildings. The BEIJING SHADOW PLAY TROUPE, at 29 East, performs a selection of nine short plays, continuing an art form that started here five centuries ago (86-10/6303-6667). There are separate performances for kids; afterward, the participants get to put on a show with puppets they make themselves (and then take home). The troupe also has a workshop where you can watch artisans create intricate, colorful paper cuttings that you can buy. At 57 West, the CULTURAL HERITAGE BOOKSTORE showcases the fruits of the civilization that invented paper and printing. The English-labeled exhibits feature scrolls and texts, some nearly a thousand years old.
Only in the skyrocketing economy of Beijing would one of the chicest restaurants in town be set in a stadium dedicated to the workers. Judging by the patrons at LE QUAI, in a popular area east of the city center, today's laborers are artists and real-estate developers. The stylish crowd flocks to this 200-year-old home, relocated from Anhui Province, to sit beneath old timber beams on a terrace beside a canal. The mostly seafood menu is prepared in the manner of southern coastal China (think whole fish in a pungent brown sauce). The service—brusque but adequate—is a purely local product. Dinner, $50. On the grounds of Workers' Stadium, South Side; 86-10/6551-1636.
In a city known for its duck, LI QUN is the emperor of fowl. The setting may be less than imperial—a sign out front welcomes tourists in English, the entrance is lined with tacky photos of domestic movie stars, and the whole place hasn't been painted since Mao's time. Yet the Qianmen-district hutong is the capital's beloved greasy chopstick. Locals and visitors alike roll up their sleeves and tuck into all manner of duck: succulent duck roasted over fruitwood, duck-bone soup, salted duck liver, duck webs with mustard sauce, five variations of bowel and gizzard and four of the heart, and a handful of tongue. When you call for reservations, ask to have your bird started 45 minutes before your arrival. Dinner, $25. At 11 Beixiangfeng, Zhengyi Rd.; 86-10/6705-5578.
Chinese Cinema in English
Every Friday CHERRY LANE MOVIES shows Chinese films—both classic and modern—with English subtitles. The American owner, Michael Premont, also regularly books producers and directors to give prescreening talks. The evenings provide fascinating insight into the country's cinema and contemporary culture. At Kent Center, An Jia Lou, off Liangmaqiao Rd.; 86-10/6430-1398; www.cherrylanemovies.com.cn.
Where the Young Things Are
Beijing's youth culture—the artists and intellectuals shaking up this otherwise staid capital—revolves around the ultracool courtyard bars now taking root in the city's old hutong neighborhoods. PASSBY BAR ($ 108 Nanluoguxiang Hutong; 86-10/8403-8004) is the scene's epicenter, with a large lending library and frequent lectures by Chinese writers. Pizza and pasta are the mainstays, but you're not really here for the food anyway. The point of coming is to drink a Qing Dao beer outdoors and observe the next generation of the country's tastemakers. On weekends the crowd migrates through the surrounding lanes to BED ($ 17 Zhangwang Hutong; 86-10/8400-1554), a hot spot with visiting deejays near the Bell and Drum Towers.
A Classic Revisited
Sitting right on the moat at the Forbidden City's east gate, THE COURTYARD, opened by Chinese American entrepreneur Handel Lee in 1997, gets you as close as possible to the capital's historic heart. But the austere all-white dining room is, in fact, on the vanguard of haute cuisine with dishes such as soft-shell crab and green papaya salad. Sure, the decor leans more to California than China, but the restored hutong locale never lets you forget where you are. Ask manager Helga Fasching for a bay-window table—the view is fit for an emperor. Dinner, $100. At 95 Donghuamen Rd.; 86-10/6526-8883.
Searching for Buddha
The city's largest Buddhist temple, TANZHE SI, is crouched along a mountainside 30 miles west of downtown. This still-vital sanctuary is older than Beijing itself, dating back some 1,600 years, to the Jin dynasty; even the 1,000-year-old gingko tree in the courtyard is more ancient than the capital. Though the temple does attract visitors, it's mostly a serene reserve of cypress-shaded contemplation and tradition—a welcome contrast to Beijing's breakneck modernity.
Chinese movie stars and other hip (and thin) Beijingers flock to THE RED PHOENIX, designer Gui Lin's emporium in Sanlitun. The billowy, silky skirts and blouses are sexy and modern, taking just enough style cues from traditional chinoiserie. Among our favorites are the cropped jackets in brightly colored, embroidered satin and beaded shawls with silk appliqués. $ From $250 to $2,500. At Sanlitun Bei Rd., Bldg. 30, First Fl.; 86-10/6416-4423.
The St. Regis Sits Pretty
Few big hotels top the ST. REGIS for personal attention: Check-in starts with an introduction to your butler (as it does at the St. Regis in Shanghai), a tie-and-tails aide who unpacks your bags, presses your shirts, shines your shoes, delivers newspapers and coffee each morning, and is on standby 24 hours a day. Just to plumb the depths of this service, we checked off the "red rose on pillow" box on the preferences card, only to find a yellow lily. Apologies were profuse: Nothing even comes close to this sort of devotion anywhere else in the capital. Almost beside the point—almost—are the plush and airy rooms with windows that open and humidifiers that take the sting out of Beijing's dry air. Some of the rooms overlook the leafy, if uninteresting, embassy district. The downstairs spa, which bubbles with water from the hotel's own natural spring, has a 25-meter pool; on the roof is a driving and putting range. From $270 to $5,500. At 21 Guo Men Wai Da Rd.; 800-598-1863; www.stregis.com.
The Lakes District, which most locals refer to as Houhai, is the nightlife hub that sprawls across the lanes connecting three leafy, willow-lined lakes: Qianhai, Houhai, and Xihai. Frankly, exploring the area can be daunting, if only because parts of it have morphed into pulsing neon stretches of American beer signs and Eagles cover bands. But there are pockets of Houhai still untouched by the hordes.
SOUTH SILK ROAD is the only place worth stopping by on Lotus Lane, a new strip of look-alike bars. It feels like Old Beijing and has great views of the water. The dining room specializes in cuisine from the southwest Yunnan Province.
Remarkably undiscovered by Houhai revelers, NO. 15 QIANHAI BEIYAN, the bar attached to Xiao Wang's Home Restaurant, features lovely terraces. Just north of Lotus Lane, the restaurant is a favorite among guests of the state, which may explain why the place is a well-kept secret.
NO-NAME bar on the north side of the Silver Ingot Bridge, which spans the canal linking Qianhai and Houhai lakes, has for years been one of Beijing's prime spots for cocktails. Owner Bai Feng regularly draws a glamorous, artistic crowd, both native and expat.
The south shore of Houhai marks the least traveled section of the Lakes District—this is where locals dance, play chess, fish, even swim. The hidden terrace of JI XIAN TANG provides a pristine view of it all.
Also beside Houhai sits FAMILY FU TEA HOUSE. The tableside ceremony at this great Beijing teahouse is a reminder of why you came to China in the first place. Modeled after a Qing-era home, the pavilion is filled with antique furniture and often stages live classical Chinese music.
FU FAMILY TEA HOUSE $ Desheng St., Houhai Park; 86-10/6616-0725
JI XIAN TANG $ 32 Houhai Non Yan; 86-10/6618-3502
NO. 15 QIANHAI BEIYAN $ 86-10/6617-5558
NO-NAME $ Silver Ingot Bridge, North Side; 86-10/6401-8541
SOUTH SILK ROAD $ 12 Lotus Ln.; 86-10/6615-5515
In 1969, Mao ordered the digging of bomb shelters capable of holding 300,000 people. They still exist beneath the city's oldest section of hutong—which won't be there for long. The area will soon be razed to make way for, yes, a shopping mall. Open daily 8 a.m.-6 p.m. At W. Damochang Rd.
Glass with Class
China's answer to Lalique, LIULIGONGFANG is the creation of two Taiwanese movie veterans—actress Loretta Hui-Shan Yang and director Chang Yi—who left the industry to study pate-de-verre glassmaking, which dates back to the Western Han dynasty (206 B.C.-25 A.D.). The duo draws inspiration from such classical forms as Buddhist sculpture and imperial bronzes to craft iridescent goblets, figurines ($50-$150), and jewelry ($100-$400). With outposts in Beijing and Shanghai, Liuligongfang (liuli means glass; gongfang means workshop) has earned a following beyond China, too: London's Victoria and Albert Museum owns pieces, and Liuligongfang tokens were in the goody bags at a recent Oscars ceremony. At Youyi Shopping City, 52 Liangmaqiao Rd.; 86-10/8448-3517; www.liuli.com.
Go Fly a Kite
Windy Beijing has always been a mecca for kite fliers; for decades the imperial family had its own kite designers. HA YIQI is the only living descendant of one such artisan, and he still plies his trade, using bamboo and silk to create extraordinary little kites (to visit his workshop, call Imperial Tours, 888-888-1970). The city's other great kitemaker, 90-year-old Liu Huiren, sells his hand-painted silk goldfish and dragons at THREE STONES KITE (29 Di'anmen Xi Rd.; 86-10/8404-4505; www.cnkites.com).
At the Oriental Plaza (86-10/6505-0809) and the Kerry Center (86-10/8529-9458).
—YANG ERCHE NAMU, AUTHOR OF LEAVING MOTHER LAKE: A GIRLHOOD AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD
A Bounty of Bolts
Open since 1830, the cramped and musty BEIJING SILK SHOP is, at first glance, a place we would avoid. But it's actually the city's best place to buy silk. The ground floor is stacked high with bolt upon bolt of what must be every color, pattern, and grade of silk in China. And unlike at other markets, where polyester and rayon are regularly passed off as silk, this store sells the real thing. On-site tailors can make cheongsams and Mandarin jackets in about a week. At 5 Zhubaoshi; 86-10/6301-6658.
Marco Polo Was Here
Watched over by a white hilltop pagoda, BEIHAI PARK is where locals take shade, go boating, and ice-skate during winter. Dating from the 11th century, the park so impressed Marco Polo that he described it in his Travels. Enter from the relatively uncrowded north gate, across from Qianhai Lake. It leads to a particularly beautiful section holding the gargantuan Nine Dragon wall. Open daily 6:30 a.m.-8 p.m.
Pearls, Pearls, Pearls
A hovel of electronics stalls and souvenir stands, Hongqiao Market doesn't look like much. On the fourth and fifth levels, though, is a pearl hunter's jackpot. And the baubles you're here to buy are at FANGHUA PEARLS AND JEWELRY, shop No. 4318, on the fourth floor (there's also one in the Grand Hyatt Beijing). The pearls—loose, on strands, made into finished pieces—are exceptional, and the staff is patient and helpful, explaining size, shape, color, luster, and blemishes. You can design your own pieces, too, choosing from the wide assortment of freshwater, seawater, white, black, and mabe pearls. On the same floor, Fanghua also has a shop specializing in jade and other gems. Across from the Temple of Heaven; 86-10/6718-1616; www.fanghua.com.
The China of Your Dreams
THE CHINA CLUB BEIJING, the mainland outpost of David Tang's Hong Kong institution, bears little resemblance to its slinky, chinoiserie-swathed sister. Instead, this grand mansion located just west of Tiananmen Square is a chimera of imperial China—perhaps not quite like the home of the Qing dynasty prince who once lived here, but certainly the way you imagined it was. Open only to members, who pay from $7,000 to $15,000 to gain entry for life, the antiques-filled halls and rooms manage to feel authentic but not old, sleek but not phony. The vermilion-trimmed restaurant, which serves spectacular qiehe'r (stuffed eggplant) and other contemporary Chinese dishes, looks out onto the club's four courtyards. Among the hotel and spa staff are some of the dedicated women who once served Mao himself. Getting a dinner reservation at the China Club without membership is technically by invitation only. The concierges at the Grand Hyatt and the Palace hotels, however, can get you in. Dinner, $120. At 51 Xi Rong Xian Ln.; 86-10/6603-8855.
From Sushi to Strip Steaks
While Beijing may not have the cosmopolitan flavor found in Shanghai, it is a world capital. More than 40,000 foreigners live in the city—and they've brought their cuisine with them.
The best of the foreign bunch is BRASSERIE FLO, a crisp, mod Parisian-style restaurant that has raw oysters flown in to Beijing every Friday via Air France. Dinner, $80. At Rainbow Plaza, 16 Sanhuan Bei Rd.; 86-10/6595-5135.
The kitchen at NUAGE turns out superb Vietnamese food; the tables on the roof overlook one of Beijing's loveliest lakes. Dinner, $30. At 22 Qianhai Lake East Bank; 86-10/6401-9581.
HATSUNE regularly wins the "Best Japanese" award from local magazines. The inventive rolls alone—crab-and-eel topped with bonito flakes, for example—are worth the visit. Dinner, $40. At Guanghua Dong Rd.; 86-10/6581-3939.
TRAKTIRR, a bare-bones room near the Russian Embassy, serves some of the most authentic Russian food in Beijing—or just about anywhere. $ Dinner, $40. At Meijingu Hotel, 1A Xiyangguan Hutong; 86-10/6403-4835. TRAKTIRR, a bare-bones room near the Russian Embassy, serves some of the most authentic Russian food in Beijing—or just about anywhere. $ Dinner, $40. At Meijingu Hotel, 1A Xiyangguan Hutong; 86-10/6403-4835.
The ASTOR GRILL's meat-and-potatoes menu is a rarity in Beijing. Not to say that this St. Regis restaurant is anything but ultraluxe: perfect steaks, a long wine list, and a cache of Cohibas at the cigar bar. Dinner, $100. At 21 Jianguomenwai Rd.; 86-10/6460-6688.
Hyatt High Up
From the north-facing rooms on the 15th to 18th floors of the GRAND HYATT, you can take in the Forbidden City and its neighbor, the beautiful tiled-roof Xiehe Medical College. Known as the Grand Club, these upper floors provide guests with access to a separate dining room, a business center, and the club's incomparable ringleader, Sarah Zhang. What also sets the Grand Hyatt apart is the superb spa and pool, a lagoon set among palms and waterfalls beneath a trompe l'oeil nighttime sky. If the hotel has one strike against it, it's that the location—prime though it is—means getting caught regularly in snarled traffic. A tip: Don't book a room with southern exposure, as it overlooks a drab modern section of the city. From $370 to $4,155. At Chang'an Dong Blvd.; 86-10/8518-1234; www.hyatt.com.
Smart Cocktails and Stellar Views
Okay, the forbidden city is a knockout, but after a couple of hours of sightseeing, wouldn't you rather just gaze across the whole thing with a martini in hand? The PALACE VIEW BAR on the roof of the GRAND HOTEL BEIJING serves terrific drinks—during cocktail hour only—and also offers the capital's one true bird's-eye view of the FC. (The best drinks, though, can be found at CENTRO BAR & LOUNGE, in the Kerry Center Hotel, and at the Grand Hyatt's REDMOON bar, which mixes martinis in a louche velvet lounge.)
On to shopping: The first stop is KATHRIN VON RECHENBERG'S appointment-only studio, for lovely feminine dresses ($1,250) made of rare tea silk from Guangdon. If a rug happens to be on your list, Mr. Chun has 7,000 of them—old, new, and costing up to $185,000—at XU'S ANTIQUE CARPETS.
Almost as much as the city's movers and shakers love to obsess about art—Beijing is a nuclear hotbed of contemporary art, didn't you know?—they live to dine out. For Sichuan with style, head to the dapper SOURCE in a renovated hutong, or to TRANSIT. And for a taste of the high-flying international scene, there's the cool and airy Japanese newcomer RBL. The restaurant's chefs arrived straight from Megu in New York. Welcome to Beijing, the youngest old city on the planet.
CENTRO BAR & LOUNGE 1 Guanghua Rd.; 86-10/6561-8833
REDMOON The Grand Hyatt Beijing, 1 Chang'an Dong Blvd.; 86-10/8518-1234
RBL Dinner, $70. 53 Dong An Men Rd.; 86-10/6522-1389
SOURCE Dinner, $25. 14 Banchang Hutong; 86-10/6400-3736
TRANSIT Dinner, $25. 1 Xingfu Yichun; 86-10/6417-6765
KATHRIN VON RECHENBERG $ By appointment only; 14 Zuojianhuangdongli; 86-10/6463-1788
XU'S ANTIQUE CARPETS 404 Lujiaying Village; 86-10/8769-3331; www.xccrugs.com
PALACE VIEW BAR 35 Chang'an Dong Blvd.; 86-10/6513-7788
Never mind that XIANGMAN LOU started in Shanghai. This popular joint serves the only dumplings in Beijing worth braving a crowd for—it's packed every day and night. Though little English is spoken here, it doesn't matter: Everyone, including Beijingers, orders by simply walking past sample dishes and pointing. Needless to say, this is not haute dim sum, but it's traditional cooking at its finest. Look for su zheng jiao (buns stuffed with pea sprouts), pidan shourou zhou (thousand-year-old egg-and-pork porridge), shengjian bao (fried pork-stuffed buns), and, of course, xiao long bao (soup dumplings). Lunch, $15. At 34 Dongsi Shitiao; 86-10/6403-1368.
In 798 Space, the art mecca in Dashanzi (home to many of Beijing's serious galleries), the elegant design showroom DARA stocks a well-edited collection of striking furniture and objects that blend Asian and Western styles. Our favorites include the lacquered bowls and boxes (around $60), lamps with seductive glass shades ($125-$250), zenlike ceramics ($8-$450), and a stash of throws and cushions in mod fabrics. The upstairs café—done in exposed brick, with plump armchairs—is among the handful of chic places to alight between stops in the neighborhood. Most important, the shop ships so you don't have to carry. At 2 Jiuxiangqiao Rd.; 86-10/6432-5217.
Empire On the Water
First built in 1750, THE SUMMER PALACE was once the emperors' playground. (Today it's the locals who go boating and ice-skating here on Kunming Lake.) The western shore is relatively unmobbed, but the park's best-kept secret is the water taxis that run from the lake down the Chang River. They leave from the south gate; the northern route is particularly scenic, as it passes the Purple Bamboo Park, Longevity Temple, Ziyu Bay, and National Library and ends at the Beijing Exhibition Center. In Ritan Park, open daily (hours vary seasonally). Water taxi, daily, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; 86-10/8836-3576.
In a studio normally closed to the public—the impeccable guides at Imperial Tours can take you—jewelry designer MEI HAO carries on the old tradition of Chinese knotting. Using jade, coral, yak bone, and agate, she creates simple, moderately priced pieces as well as elaborate necklaces that run into the hundreds. 888-888-1970; www.imperialtours.net
Coming Clean on the Dirt Market
With more than 3,000 vendors selling antiques, obvious fakes, and very convincing knockoffs, PANJIAYUAN MARKET (previously known as the dirt market) is the largest of its kind in China. Every weekend—forget weekdays—up to 50,000 visitors file through this open-air pavilion, poring over the antique carvings, shadow puppets, furniture, clocks, vases, rugs, books, and Cultural Revolution kitsch. Is any of it real? Even Chinese collectors have to squint to determine an item's authenticity—and certainly shopping here requires a suspension of disbelief. But real gems do turn up, like the framed black-and-white art photos at Da Kang (No. A40) and the occasional ancestor portrait for less than $1,000. Near Third Ring Rd.
Opera Three Ways
Until Paul Andreu's National Theater opens, the only venues for Beijing opera are the old standbys. The LIYUAN THEATER, in the Jianguo Hotel ($ 175 Yong'an Rd.; 86-10/8315-7297), is rather tourist-trampled, but the sample scenes from beloved operas accompanied by a live orchestra are certainly authentic. More important, lyrics appear in English on LED screens. Still, the performances pale in comparison to those at the excellent HUGUANG GUILD HALL ($ 3 Hufangqiao Rd.; 86-10/6351-8284), which is in a refurbished Qing dynasty building. It also has a small museum dedicated to legendary performer Mei Lanfang. ZHENGYICI THEATER ($ 220 Xiheyan Rd.; 86-10/8315-1650) is the best of the lot at striking the right balance of tradition and modern interpretation. The splendid wooden hall, originally a Ming temple, was converted to a theater in 1712. Come early to explore and stay for the scenes from famous works, performed nightly with an introduction in English before each act.
The One-Table Restaurant
In her quaint 300-year-old home on Pipe Street, an ancient alley, Beijing television producer Zhang Qun—who began by cooking for friends—serves one lunch and one dinner at just one table, basing her menu around the seafood-heavy cuisine of Suzhou, her hometown (the yellow wine is imported from there). Among her specialties are the extraordinary fish-and-bamboo shoot stew and black chicken. Though Zhang speaks limited English, the menu is set so ordering isn't required. Dinner, $60. At 5 Yandai Xie Rd.; 86-10/ 8404-6662.
Beijingers do not live by duck alone. Cuisine from all parts of China make up the offerings at the city's regular haunts. Since most places don't provide menus in English, arrange to go with a guide or have your concierge plan the meal beforehand. HAN CANG ($ dinner, $25; Qianhai Nanyan; 86-10/6404-2259) specializes in the mild, seafood-based Hakka cuisine from southeast China. Nearby, BA-GUO-BU-YI ($ dinner, $75; 89-3 Di'anmen Dong Rd.; 86-10/6400-8888) prepares fantastic Sichuan dishes in a feudal-style wooden interior. For dishes from China's Turkic region, such as la tiaozi (hand-pulled noodles), XINJIANG RED ROSE ($ dinner, $20; 7 Xingfu Yicun Alley; 86-10/6415-5741) fills tables nightly. The more understated XINJIANG RESTAURANT ($ W. Mao'er Hutong) serves the capital's most authentic western Chinese food.
Beijing's Second Palace
The PENINSULA PALACE's location—right in the center of town, one block off the shopping mecca of Wangfujing Street—is the first reason the hotel is at the top of our list. The 500 rooms are done in plush Asian chic: in beige, yes, but elevated above blandness by royal-purple throws, Chinese textiles, big desks, and DVD players. (Ask for a Beijing Suite or the enormous, fantastically appointed Peninsula Suite, where Jacques Chirac has stayed.) From many of the rooms you see mostly high-rises, but that's a minor concern given the extraordinary service. Need a table, tour, or translator? Chief concierge Echo Zhu takes care of it all. She'll also arrange for you to participate in any of the Palace's superb cultural outings, such as a ride through the hutong neighborhood on a rickshaw accompanied by a local history professor. From $340 to $4,500. At 8 Goldfish Ln.; 86-10/8516-2888; 866-382-8388; www.peninsula.com.
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