These days, Beijing changes in the blink of an eye. One night, you're at a fantastic restaurant on a street jammed with fantastic restaurants. They're rubble by the next afternoon. That's progress, Chinese style. So go now -- before many of the ancient neighborhoods are destroyed to make way for the 2008 Olympics, and before the costs of visiting, already on the rise, start to approach those of Shanghai and Hong Kong.
The attractions you really must see
Mao's Mausoleum at Tiananmen Square: Out front, watch the locals buy silk flowers for 12¢, genuflecting--and even weeping--as they lay them at the foot of a Mao statue. (Guards gather the flowers and take them out on carts to resell.) You'll be rushed by the corpse too fast to know whether it's real or wax, then spit out the back among hawkers selling Mao watches, pins, and all manner of doodads. 8:30-11:30 a.m. Monday-Saturday, 2-4 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays; free.
The Great Wall: As awesome as advertised--a technological and architectural wonder providing sensational views. Tours often pair the Badaling section with a visit to the Ming Tombs, but resist both. Badaling is reconstructed, overrun, and commercialized, and the tombs waste a half day. You're better off at Simatai (8 a.m.-5 p.m. daily), a more authentic and unspoiled part that costs $3.75 to get into and has a $7.25 lift for those who can't handle the rugged climb. The round-trip ride--with your cabbie waiting at the Wall--should cost about $36.
Forbidden City: Wander the halls and temples where emperors lived for five centuries (8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, $4.75-$7.25 depending on the season). The $3.75 audio tour, Roger Moore's finest performance, is more informative than most of the guides for hire at the entrance. Pay the extra $1.50 to see the Hall of Clocks, a quirky collection of ancient timepieces. After you leave the north end of the Forbidden City, walk to Jingshan Park and climb the hill for a stunning overview.
Lama Temple: The lamasery--in recent decades a monastery for Buddhist monks but for centuries a royal-family residence--is one of the city's most peaceful locations, with five major prayer halls and lots of chanting and burning incense. It's also a terrific example of Chinese propaganda; the museum displays offer an accurate history of Tibetan Buddhism up until the 1950s, when the Communists rolled into the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, exiled the Dalai Lama, and hijacked the faith. Now they call it a "peaceful liberation." Take the subway to the Yonghegong stop and follow the signs. 12 Yonghegong Dajie, 011-86/10-6404-3769, 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m., $3.
Skip the tours of the Great Hall of the People and the Museum of the Chinese Revolution. They're dullsville. Instead: Hop the Line 1 subway west to the Junshibowuguan stop for the little-visited but more entertaining Military Museum, which charges $1.25 to enter (8:30 a.m.-5 p.m.). Unfortunately, much of the collection lacks English explanations; then again, what you see--the history of Chinese artillery and war machinery--is what you get, and you can fire a sling-bow gun at an arcade target (24¢ for four shots). Afterward, walk five minutes west to the free Millennium Monument, a mammoth rotating sundial propped up on 200-odd steps. Climb it for something rare in Beijing: a view.
Skip full performances of puppet, acrobat, or Beijing opera shows. They're often in high school-quality auditoriums, and most Westerners can't bear the indecipherable screeching of the opera for long anyway. Instead: Take in a 70-minute sampler of all three arts, 7:30 p.m. nightly at the Liyuan Theatre, inside the Jianguo Hotel Qianmen (175 Yongan Lu, 011-86/10-8315-7297). It will only cost you one evening and $4.75 to $16, depending on where you sit and whether you order dessert.
Skip the pedicab tours of Beijing's ancient alley neighborhoods, known as hutong. The tours cost at least $30, your guide will stick to a script that you could have gotten off the Internet, and those pedicabs are only romantic until your butt starts aching from the bumpy ride. Instead, all you really need to know is that this style of housing--the courtyard house leading out into narrow alleys--is hundreds of years old, has no indoor plumbing, and is in danger of disappearing as bulldozers make way for thoroughfares. Keep walking south from Tiananmen Square or take the subway to the Qianmen stop, and then meander in the winding maze until you've shot enough quaint photos of old women sitting on milk crates and picking their teeth or diaperless babies chasing chickens.
The hotels listed below are relatively inexpensive, near subway stops, and with some staff who can speak English. There are far cheaper ones, but a non-Chinese-speaking tourist definitely needs easy subway access and/or reliable concierge help. Prices are baseline for doubles, and may rise depending upon arrival and departure dates.
For $58 per night: Hademen Hotel Small, adequate rooms with hard beds and ugly pink-and-gold bedspreads. But you do get cable television (for free) and in-room broadband Internet access (6¢ per minute). The Hademen Hotel is an excellent value especially for its location, kitty-corner from the Chongwenmen subway stop. 2A Chongwenmenwai Dajie, 011-86/10-6711-2244, hademenhotel.com.
For $60: Novotel Xin Qiao Beijing A standard chain hotel with clean, basic rooms and excellent light. Two Western and two Chinese restaurants. Bonus: You can rent a bicycle for $4.75 per day. At the Chongwenmen subway stop. 2 Dong Jiao Min Xiang, 011-86/10-6513-3366, novotel.com.
For $65:Capital Hotel Rooms have white-and-taupe bedding and draperies and large windows that let in lots of light. Seven restaurants, one with a karaoke bar, as per the Asian obsession with lipsynching to Celine Dion. Near Qianmen subway stop; within walking distance from Tiananmen Square. 3 Qianmen Dong Dajie, 011-86/10-6512-9988. Reserve via beijing-hotels.net.
For $90:Jianguo Hotel The airy lobby is often a heartwarming scene--the hotel is frequented by Western parents adopting babies. Rooms are spacious, and you're a block from a Starbucks and Xiushui Market. At Yonganli subway stop. 5 Jianguomenwai Dajie, 011-86/10-6500-2233. Reserve via beijing-hotels.net.
Liqun Roast Duck Restaurant: The traditional Beijing duck restaurant that foreign correspondents once agreed never to write about. Tough secret to keep, and the owner now has a big sign outside welcoming foreigners. You're greeted as you walk through the narrow, dusty entryway into the Chinese courtyard by a coal hearth and several ducks roasting before you. From $2 a dish. At $7.75, the duck is an incredible bargain, since it can feed at least two. 11 Beixiangfeng, Zhengyi Lu, near Qianmen. It's a bit tricky to find, so taking a taxi may be wise.
Xinjiang Red Rose Restaurant: The Red Rose is charmingly reminiscent of a mosque, which befits a place serving Uygur cuisine, the Middle Eastern-inspired style from China's far northwest (where Muslims are a large minority). Unlike a mosque, the restaurant gets rowdy at night, with live music and belly dancers. Lamb kebabs, or "string of roast mutton," cost 60¢ each; hand-pulled-noodle dishes start at $2.25. 7 Xingfu Yicun, the alley across the street from the north gate of the Workers' Stadium, 011-86/10-6415-5741.
FuKu Restaurant: Looking out over Houhai Lake, FuKu is a typical restaurant with plastic-covered wood tables. The food is Dongbei, or northeast Chinese. Don't miss the fried green beans. 4 Binhai Hutong, north bank of Houhai Lake in Xicheng District, 011-86/10-6403-7311. Walk 10 minutes north from the footbridge at Houhai, where most taxi drivers will drop you off.
Gourmet Garden Sichuan Restaurant: A terrific place for Sichuan, the hyperspicy style from the southwestern province. Look for mala xia, referred to on the menu as "hot-pepper lobsterlings," for $2.75. 12-1 Jianguomenwai Dajie, next to the Yonganli subway stop and across from Xiushui Market, 011-86/10-6568-1607.
Panjiayuan Market: Known as the "ghost market" because of the hours--4:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday--and the "dirt market" because it's China's largest garage sale. Vendors line up along dusty aisles, spreading their wares on blankets or hanging them in makeshift galleries. It's a great place to buy Chinese scrolls, sculptures, ceramics, and Mao stuff. Hiding among the junk are valuable antiques, especially the cameras. Take a taxi, after asking your concierge to write the address in Chinese.
Xiushui Market: Also called the Silk Alley market, Xiushui is a colossal bazaar of clothes, watches, bags, and trinkets. Most are knockoffs of famous Western brands, but that doesn't mean anyone back home will know the difference. The market is located immediately west of the Yonganli subway stop.
Wanfujing Street: A sprawling shopping street an easy walk east of Tiananmen Square, Wanfujing Street is abuzz well into the evening with browsers inside and out of the row of malls that surround the pedestrian plaza. The area is a fascinating study in contrasts between the upscale--Nine West to Louis Vuitton--and a bustling street-food market, where vendors hock everything from tasty Inner Mongolian cheeses to fried swallows on a stick.
Partying with the expat community
Sanlitun:A longtime expat hangout, which is actually two separate bar streets branching north and south from Gongrentiyuchang Beilu. The north end is pricier but better lit, and home to several handsome cafés. The south-end bars are so small that folks usually just mill around in the alley. Walk 15 minutes east from the Dongsishitiao subway stop or grab a taxi.
Houhai: Lake Once a quaint residential area around a picturesque lake--small enough that folks ice-skate on it during winter--Houhai has burgeoned in the past year into a bustling mishmash of cafés and bars, up and down both sides of the lake. Some are expensive, some aren't. Cheapest drinks: $1.25 beers at No. 2 Café, on the lake's east side, near the footbridge.