Beijing: Capital ideas

By Karen Loftus
Beijing is the definitive center for China's government, business and media and is home to many of the country's iconic tourist spots.

But China's capital still offers an edge and irreverent spins.

Beijing Great Wall CoupleThe Great Wall is big on everyone's bucket list, but it is also a window into the lush landscape that exists just beyond the bustle of city center.

An hour's drive from Beijing is the wall's busy Badaling section and Kempinski's Commune by the Great Wall hotel (www.communebythegreatwall.com), where 12 Asian architects were put to the test to design their dream homes. The multibuilding complex today is a boutique hotel, restaurant and spa. This inspired spot makes sense for a stop in the section, as their traditional lunch in the sleek surroundings is a must, cocktails and spa are an indulgence and the serenity on site is priceless.

If staying at the Commune, wake up to Beijing's famous mist hugging the Great Wall outside your window. After a private shuttle to the wall's most famous restored section, retreat back to the hotel for a picnic on an unrestored section of the wall, arranged by the Commune.

Travel another 30 to 45 minutes to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, one of the best-preserved parts with a dense placement of watchtowers: 22 within 1.4 miles. It is a great place for pictures and views and far less touristy. The cable car taken up to the wall alone sets the tone for the otherworldly experience. Follow with lunch at the nearby rustic Mutianyu School House, which offers fresh and local country cooking, glass-making and art classes.

Beijing Tiananmen SquareOnce back in city center, tackle local haggling at Yashow Market. The multifloor complex is a great place to pick up trinkets, scarves and local clothes. Situated in the Sanlitun section of the city, the trendy area is filled with big-name brands such as Balenciaga, Lanvin and McQueen. By night it's chockablock with bars and food stalls frequented by expats.

Grab a cocktail and a glimpse at the art installation at the nearby, Japanese-designed Opposite House boutique hotel. Then it's Peking duck at the Kerry Hotel's Chinese restaurant Horizon, in the heart of Beijing's financial center (www.shangri-la.com/beijing/kerry). The duck is served classically, with a few twists, including sugar dips. Grab a classic cocktail or a signature sip at Kerry's Centro; it's where Bond would drink if in Beijing. An iconic spot for locals, you can tipple or take in local bands and the sexy ambience.

Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, which was off limits to the public for 500 years, are clearly can't-misses, but be prepared to share the experience amongst many. After the tour and iconic shots, take a closer look at Beijing's recent history with lunch at a hutong family courtyard, arranged by tour operator Bespoke Beijing. A quick rickshaw ride through narrow, old alleyways and an authentic meal shared with a family provides local color and culture.

Be sure to pop in to Beijing's 798 Art District. Originally built as a factory by German Bauhaus-inspired architects, the contemporary art district today is also a new lifestyle district for the city filled with shops, restaurants, cafes, bars, bookstores and galleries.

Beijing 798 Art DistrictVisit the Ullens Center, a museum dedicated to the collection of Chinese contemporary art. Local art tours are available through Chart Contemporary (www.chartcontemporary.com), where various levels of interest are available, from curious to committed and fanatic in the 798 District and in the edgier, newer art region of Cao Changdi.

Dinner at hot-pot spot Hai Di Lao is a local treat. Hot pot — where diners cook bite-size pieces of meat and vegetables at the table in a simmering pot of stock, much like fondue — is a popular trend in Beijing. Enjoy the traditional sauce bars where your attendance alone is applauded by locals, as are your spicier choices.

Toast your good travel taste at Apothecary Bar, Beijing's bar pharmacist. They serve fresh, natural ingredients and utilize tinctures, infusions, macerations, syrups and tonics. Expect ingredients like Sichuan peppercorn and kaffir lime bitters in their signature spins on classics.

Bespoke Beijing offers custom, off-the-beaten-path tours from fashion finds to hutong visits to cocktails bars. For more information, visit www.bespoke-beijing.com.
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