Hong Kong’s gleaming skyscrapers, Shanghai’s colonial-era heritage buildings and Beijing’s hundred-year-old narrow hutong alleys. Travelling through China often feels like travelling through time, and the journey from one century to the next can usually be done by turning around the corner.
From authentic bakeries to upscale fish restaurants and forbidden cities flanked by modern art, here’s how to experience China’s ancient traditions alongside modern adventures.
Imperial gardens and humble hutongs
Gear up for your visit to Beijing’s classic sights with a morning stroll in Beihai Park, a former imperial garden, where ornamented pavilions and a giant white Buddha guard over the lakes. Walk from the park past the picturesque Drum and Bell Towers and into the hutongs, a cluster of one-storey homes and narrow alleys dating back several hundred years. The alleys are crowded with kids running between low houses, elderly people selling vegetables from wheelbarrows and, increasingly, coffee bars, cocktail dens, designer boutiques and small restaurants. Stop at the ivy-clad Voyage Coffee for a dose of caffeine and lunch at the peaceful Dali Courtyard, a charming outdoor restaurant.
The Forbidden City
Leaving the vast Tiananmen Square behind to walk into the imperial palace complex of the Forbidden City feels like entering a different world. It’s the largest palace complex in the world and consists of an endless number of peaceful courtyards, gilded gates, grand pagodas and ancient buildings housing over 8700 rooms. Make your way to the viewing spot in Jingshan Park when you’re done, just opposite the exit of the Forbidden City, to see the tiled terracotta roofs you’ve just walked under from a different angle.
Afternoon tea at The Peninsula
Take a break from the charmingly chaotic street life of Beijing with afternoon tea at The Peninsula Beijing. It’s one of the city’s longest-running luxury hotels, and every afternoon the grand lobby hosts a live band while dozens of tea-goers sip tea from fine China porcelain cups, eat scones with clotted cream, and admire the artwork and pearly-white marble surrounding them. The line is not as long as in Hong Kong, where people queue up for hours in advance, but it’s still a good idea to make a reservation or arrive early. After tea, hotel guests can enquire in the reception about some of the many activities the hotel can arrange for you through The Peninsula Academy, such as a kite-making class on Tiananmen Square, a rickshaw ride through the hutongs or a helicopter ride over the Great Wall of China.
798 Art District
Once you’re recharged, head to 798 Art District, an area consisting of antiquated military factories from the Mao era, which are now home to a number of contemporary art galleries. The factories were built with the help of East Germany, and perhaps that’s why they – and the galleries they house – have a whiff of Berlin air about them; think industrial-chic settings, cutting-edge art installations and hip cafes to chill at in-between the gallery hopping.
Peking duck and expat bars in Sanlitun
Locals have heated arguments about where the best duck can be found, and one of the upscale options is Duck de Chine, an exclusive restaurant in the wining-and-dining complex 1949 Hidden City. The presentation is slightly kitsch – a gong sounds when the duck is served – but the decor and the duck are worth it. Roll the crisp slices of duck, plum sauce, leek, radish and cucumber in a thin pancake and dig in. Continue your night at one of Sanlitun’s many bars; sip red wine and peruse the stuffed bookcases at The Bookworm or head to Botany, a trendy apartment bar serving martinis with black truffle and other concoctions.