Austin, Tex., couple John Milton and Amy Bush are going to the capital of China for four days and want help navigating the city.
The subway is the easiest way to get around town. Stations are marked with a white capital D on a blue background ("subway" is ditie in pinyin). Most attractions are accessible on Lines 1 and 2. Regardless of how far you travel on those routes, the fare is a flat 40¢.
Peking duck and beyond: When it comes to Beijing food, most visitors will want to try Peking duck and Mongolian hot pot. Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant, founded in 1864, is one of the city's most celebrated Peking duck restaurants. There are six locations, but the most convenient is the original one, a five-minute walk south of Tiananmen Square (32 Qianmen Dajie, 011-86/10-6511-2418, from $22 for two).
Mongolian hot pot is like fondue, but with seasoned broth instead of cheese. Along with the requisite meat and veggies, customers have a choice of fish balls, noodles, and tofu for dipping. It's acceptable either to throw everything into the broth at once and pull it out with chopsticks or ladles once it's cooked, or to skewer your chosen ingredient and hold it in the broth until it's done to your liking. Dong Lai Shun has been stirring hot pot for more than a century (Haidian Dajie 34 Hao, 011-86/10-6256-0556, from $4). The truly adventurous should head to the Wangfujing Street food market, a short walk east of Tiananmen Square, where they'll find hundreds of snacks from all over China--lamb kebabs from the predominantly Muslim Uygur region, cheeses from Inner Mongolia, and spicy Szechuan noodles. John can avoid meat by saying "Wo bu chi rou" (pronounced "wuh boo chuh row"), which means "I don't eat meat."
Badaling versus Simatai: Simatai is definitely the most authentic and unspoiled section of the restored parts of the Great Wall near Beijing. But there's a reason: It's much farther from the city than the more popular Badaling section--by taxi, 90 minutes versus 40. Given the limited time John and Amy have in Beijing, they're probably better off going to Badaling, where they'll still get picture-postcard views. In their case, they can expect fewer tourists anyway because it's winter.
After the Forbidden City: John and Amy should start in the historic Dongcheng district north of the Forbidden City. At the northwest corner of the neighborhood, just east of Qianhai Lake, are two towers originally built in the 13th century. The Bell Tower was rebuilt in the 18th century after a fire, but it still boasts the original Ming dynasty bell (Dianmenwai Dajie, 011-86/10-6401-2674, $2). By climbing the steep steps to the top of the Drum Tower ($2.50), just a stone's throw south, they'll get a bird's-eye view of the traditional hutongs, or narrow residential alleyways, that surround the Forbidden City. Down at street level, Amy can test her bargaining skills at the many curio and antiques shops.
After the maze of hutongs, the wide-open space of Beihai Park will be a welcome change (011-86/10-6407-1415, 60¢). Located between the towers and the Forbidden City, the park covers more than 160 acres, most of which is lake. In winter, the frozen water brings out ice-skaters.
The largest and most peaceful temple in Beijing is in the northeast corner of Dongcheng. Though it's a monastery now, complete with chanting and incense in the five prayer halls, Lama Temple was once a residence of the royal family, which explains the ornate carvings and tapestries (12 Yonghegong Dajie, 011-86/10-6404-4499, $3.25).
Outside the Dongcheng district, two must-see parks should top John and Amy's list. About 10 miles northwest of the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace park is a wonderland of temples, lakes, and gardens. It was built in the 18th century by the royal family as an escape from the heat in the Forbidden City (011-86/10-6288-1144, $2.50). The iconic Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is the centerpiece of the 675-acre Temple of Heaven park southeast of Tiananmen Square (Tiantan Donglu, 011-86/10-6702-8866, $1.25). Dating to 1420, it was where the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties went to worship.