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Detours with locals. Travel tips you can trust.
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A vendor makes jianbing in her shop.
A vendor makes jianbing in her shop.
CITY GUIDE

A local’s guide to Beijing

A vendor makes jianbing in her shop.
A vendor makes jianbing in her shop.
  • By Yifan Zhang
  • Photos by Yan Cong
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Beijing is an unruly beast with ancient pride, memorable wounds and plenty of business plans to get on with. In the past four decades, millions of people poured in from every provincial town and village of China, injecting the once-uniform capital with their local spices, accents and attitudes. As an immigrant megacity, Beijing is now a hot pot of diverse Chinese regional cultures. It has replaced long-treasured Peking Opera tunes with start-up meetups and art gallery openings. It has also upgraded electronic surveillance and infamously invented social-credit scoring.

This city is a sampler of the breadth of Chinese civilization, as well as a taster of the techno-authoritarian-luxury way of life we Beijingers seem to have drifted toward in recent years. Visiting is not going to be relaxing. But if you keep an open mind, it will be eye-opening.

Meet Yifan Zhang

Yifan moved from London to Beijing in 2011 and hosts a weekly cultural review podcast, Culture Potato, with his friends.

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IN THE ACTION
Sanlitun
Sanlitun is still the default neighborhood for social life in Beijing. You can find boutique hotels as well as quirky Airbnbs. Older hotels in the area have had major renovations in recent years, and prices have gone up, too. There are plenty of shopping, dining and nightlife options where English-speaking staff are available. It also has the highest concentration of wang-hong (or Internet-famous) establishments where young Beijingers go to take AI-enhanced selfies. If you see crowds streaming out of metro stations on either end of Gongti Beilu, it’s time to cheer for a soccer match in the Workers’ Stadium. Find this neighborhood.
LOW-KEY
Liangmaqiao
Liangmaqiao is a diplomatic and office area by day that by night turns into a central yet family-friendly neighborhood. There is a brand new shopping center by the northeastern exit of the metro station. You will find all the major hotel chains here. The avenues Maizidian Jie, Nongzhanguan Beilu and Lucky Street offer the best glimpse into the local lifestyle and dining options at all price points. Don’t be surprised by the quality and quantity of Japanese bars and restaurants here; it is practically Beijing’s Little Tokyo. Chaoyang Park (also called Sun Park), the largest green space in central Beijing, is within jogging distance. Find this neighborhood.
Neighborhoods

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Eat

BREAKFAST
A jianbing stand
Jianbing (fried pancakes) and hot soy milk is the most popular grab-and-go breakfast in Beijing. They’re almost exclusively sold by food trolleys near metro stations and disappear before 9 a.m. You can spot them by the pizza-size pancake hot plate and aluminum soy milk samovar. Da Hua Jianbing, inside a grocery shop and mapped below, is notable for its double-egg-bacon-and-cheese version and opens at 6.
BTW: Vendors won’t speak English, but you can point to order. Typical options are an extra egg (jia dan), crunchy crackers (baocui), cilantro (xiangcai) and hot sauce (jia la). Choose the dark brown pancake mix for the wholemeal deluxe version.
21 Beijianzi Alley, Beijing, China
BREAKFAST
There Will Be Bread
Run by a female travel writer, this tiny local cafe is nerdy about its bread and pastries. Some people stay here for hours to wait for fresh-out-of-the-oven pretzel balls and cinnamon rolls. The cafe is also a meeting place for local creatives; if you’re lucky, you will be serenaded by a customer-organized brass band.
BTW: They don’t sell sandwiches, but people do buy hams from the butcher next door to make their own.
55-5i Xingfucun Middle Road, Chaoyang District, Beijing, China
LUNCH
Muji Diner
For security reasons as well as for elegance, the buildings around Tiananmen Square have a height restriction. This makes the rooftop Muji Diner a rare place to take in the view over an affordable, healthy lunch. There are plenty of vegetarian options at this diner, which sits atop China’s first Muji Hotel (a foray into lodging for the minimalist housewares brand founded in 1980). The accommodation can only be booked through their website and is in extremely high demand.
BTW: Try the deep-fried lotus root balls, which are stuffed with shrimp.
4F, MUJI Hotel, Meishi Road, Xicheng District, Beijing, China
LUNCH
Qing Yi Cao Yuan
A meat lover’s heaven. Mongolian hot pot arrived in Beijing with Kublai Khan’s army and has remained a local favorite for more than 800 years. This Mongolian hot-pot joint is not near any tourist spot, and is almost deliberately not Instagrammable, but it might just be the best place to dip hand-cut mutton into a bubbling clear broth. There is no English menu, so you’ll need a translation app handy.
BTW: If you’re short on time, order their signature mutton noodle (Yangrou Cuanmian). Their noodles are handmade and their chile sauce is fresh-sizzled.
G22, Shunmai Jinzuan International Business Center, Bakeyang West St, Chaoyang District, Beijing, China
DINNER
Lao Chuan Ban
As Sichuan cuisine wins over foodies across the world, in China, it has firmly settled in as the most popular eat-out choice. One explanation: The numbing peppercorns it’s famous for trigger your brain to release joy juice (endorphins), so office workers enjoy a brief respite from their PowerPoint problems over mapo tofu. If you are not visiting Sichuan on your China trip, you must visit this old Chuan Ban restaurant on the ground floor of the province’s liaison office in the Jianguomen area. Be prepared to queue unless you arrive before 6 p.m. This is the gold standard in town for good ol’ spicy food.
BTW: Check out Fuchsia Dunlop’s “The Food of Sichuan” from your local library and note everything you want to try before coming here.
5 Gongyuan 1st Alley, Chaoyangmen, Dongcheng, Beijing, China
DINNER
Da Dong Roast Duck
Confucius says: When in Peking, eat duck. In less than 10 years, Da Dong has unseated numerous grandes dames of the roast-duck houses to become the go-to place for Peking duck (the rumor is that the ducks nowadays are actually of British import). On last count, there are more than a dozen Da Dong locations in town. The Nanxincang branch’s is between Dongsi and Sanlitun, and probably more convenient for people using this guide. Reserve ahead.
BTW: To be a purist, your first bite should be just a piece of duck skin tossed in the sugar dish provided. For the full experience, close your eyes as it nears your mouth.
1-2F Nanxincang Commercial Building, 22 Dongsi Shitiao, Dongcheng District, Beijing, China
LATE-NIGHT
Jin Ding Xuan
Chinese people tend to have dinner at 6 p.m. so it’s not easy to eat after 9. Jin Ding Xuan is open 24/7 and serves food from all regions of China but is known for its cheerful Cantonese dim sum at a great bargain. It occupies three floors and has a traditional lanterned Chinese facade. Expect to meet young people, especially getting a bite after clubbing or after having watched European soccer matches on TV.
BTW: Order a suanmei tang, or sour plum drink, with your food. It is the Beijing way.
77 Hepingli West Street, Dongcheng District, Beijing, China
LATE-NIGHT
Yan whiskey bar
Yan is the name for old Beijing — and this speakeasy, to the south of Tiananmen Square in a renovated courtyard. It’s meticulously designed, impeccably stocked and known by very few people, including the neighbors. The owners built it as a private members-only club but changed their mind. Although the setting is Chinese, the drinks are Scottish-American and the service is, some would say, Japanese-style (that is to say discreet, knowledgeable and proud). The staff speak English.
BTW: You will probably recognize the number “2” on their otherwise illuminated Chinese door sign. Ring the bell before 2 a.m. and wait to be let in. They don’t have a cocktail menu. Describe what you want, and they will make it.
2 Yanjia Hutong, Xicheng District, Beijing, China
(Washington Post/iStock)
LOCALS THINK YOU SHOULD KNOW
  1. Make sure you have a good roaming Internet package when you visit. International SIM cards are not locked by “The Great Firewall,” but local ones are.
  2. China is almost cashless, but that does not include Visa cards. Download the Alipay app; you can prepay your e-wallet from your debit or credit cards.
  3. Beijing is one of the earliest grid cities in the world. People think and speak in cardinal directions, not with lefts and rights.
(Washington Post/iStock)

Do

Walking tour of fusion architecture
Start from the Beijing Exhibition Center mapped below, a few minutes’ walk northeast of the Beijing Zoo metro station. This is the best example of Soviet-Chinese architecture. As you go around the center’s perimeter, check out Moscow Restaurant, on the west side, for culinary nostalgia. Even if you are morally against zoos, Beijing’s is unexpectedly delightful for its early-20th-century Euro-Chinese architecture. The calligraphic sign on the Baroque-Chinese main gate is the 1950s version of a deep fake: The engraving, modeled purportedly on originals written by Mao, is in fact lifted from Mao’s other handwritten records. Exit through one of the northern gates of the zoo to visit the Temple of Five Pagodas. The Indochinese style is a 15th-century homage to the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya, in India.
BTW: Lovers of art history should look for the Beijing Stone Art Museum within the grounds of the Temple of Five Pagodas. Here you can trace stylistic influences in Chinese art all the way back to Alexander the Great’s campaigns in Asia.
135 Xizhimen Outer Street, Xicheng District, Beijing, China
Beihai Park
First built in the 12th century, this is one of the oldest surviving royal parks in the world. The iconic giant white pagoda is a mid-17th-century addition. It is featured in so many Communist-era films, it used to be packed with tourists, but nowadays it’s more popular with local silver-haired speed-walkers and lovebirds in school uniforms. You can rent a pedal boat and have a picnic in the lake or go ice-skating when it’s frozen. The Fang Shan restaurant inside offers Manchurian royal-banquet-style food, and staff are still dressed in period costumes.
BTW: The park opens at 6:30 a.m. for morning exercises. The last entry is 8:30 p.m. for 9 p.m. exit.
1 Wenjin Street, Xicheng District, Beijing, China
Hutongs of Yangmeizhu Xiejie
This street is a showcase of ongoing gentrification, where longtime residents live side by side, somewhat uneasily, with boutiques and architects’ studios. You have to buzz in for certain shops, and some are easily missed because they are above street level. The western end is the start of Liulichang, a traditional Chinese art dealer/stationer area. If you turn north onto Yanshou Street, you can still experience the unadulterated and less genteel hutong life of South Beijing. (“Hutong” is a narrow alleyway in a traditional Beijing residential quarter, but the term also describes a devotion to tradition and down-to-earthness.)
BTW: Where possible, always choose bubble tea over coffee.
Yangmezhu Xiejie, Xicheng District, Beijing, China
Sunset over the Forbidden City
Jingshan Park, across the road from the north exit of the Forbidden City, offers one of the most memorable views anywhere in the world. It is dominated by a small man-made hill; about 20 minutes of leisurely step-climbing takes you to the top. Go before sunset to enjoy a panoramic view of Beijing. This is probably the only place where you can see the highly secretive central government compound, to the west of the Forbidden City.
BTW: Tourist entrances are on either side of the park, not the southern end that faces the Forbidden City.
44 Jingshan West Road, Xicheng District, Beijing, China
Zhihua Temple
Beijing used to have hundreds of small temples all over the city, but few survived the turbulent 19th and 20th centuries. Zhihua Temple is one example of a family ancestral temple that came under royal patronage in the Ming Dynasty, was almost destroyed after the Boxer Rebellion and then forgotten, and in recent years was revived. The intricate wooden caisson ceiling and towering library shelves are museum-quality art pieces. The first 200 visitors go in for free each day, but it’s worth waiting until 10 a.m. or 3 p.m., because that’s when the monks practice their music, and it’s open to the public. It’s closed Mondays.
BTW: The temple has a long ceremonial musical tradition that’s at least 500 years old, passed down by word of mouth and daily practice.
5 Lumicang Hutong, Chaoyang Men, Dongcheng District, Beijing, China
Dusk Dawn Club
Amid arbitrary campaigns by the government to tighten all forms of expression, DDC is one of the handful remaining venues for live music in Beijing — and probably the most esoteric. It specializes in post-rock and world music. You can buy tickets at the door for most shows, and it has a good selection of beers from local microbreweries. The owner is a huge Tarantino fan, if that’s not clear already from the name; he named his son Quentin.
BTW: Check out the balcony space and frescoes upstairs.
14 Shanlao Hutong, Dongcheng District, Beijing, China
Yifan Zhang
Yifan moved from London to Beijing in 2011 and hosts a weekly cultural review podcast, Culture Potato, with his friends.
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Yan Cong
Yan Cong is a contributing photographer to The Washington Post living in Beijing.
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@yancongphoto

CITY GUIDES