To the first-time visitor, Beijing seems a vast and sprawling city. Characterized by long, wide boulevards and a labyrinthine network of overpasses and freeways, the place can be quite bewildering.
Fortunately, there is order in the chaos. At the heart of Beijing lies the Forbidden City
, around which run four concentric ring roads. The first of these is barely worth mention, but the second and third are essential for navigating around town. Finally, the fourth is useful for commuting to the airport and outlying suburbs. These ring roads are broken down logically according to points of the compass, so "East Third Ring Road North Road" means the northernmost stretch of the eastern section of the Third Ring Road. Easy!
There are 10 districts and eight counties in Beijing municipality proper, with each district containing distinctive "areas". Most areas of interest are in the eastern Chao Yang and central Dong Cheng districts, which make up downtown. The following are highlights:
Chao Yang District
—As the most concentrated commercial and residential area in Beijing, Chao Yang offers many areas of interest for the visitor. Within this district are Chao Yang Park, the San Li Tun nightlife area, and the Jian Guo Men and Ri Tan business and embassy districts.
Jian Guo Men Wai and Ri Tan
—You will always see a wide mix of international faces here: tourists, business people and local Chinese. The main street, Jian Guo Men Wai Avenue, is a mad hustle of people, cars and vendors selling everything from pirate CDs to rickshaw rides. There are many major hotels and office buildings in the area, including the massive China World Hotel
, where the fabulous restaurant and wine bar Aria
is located. Tourists can try their hand at bargaining at the ever-crowded Silk Alley. Just a few blocks away, however, one can find peace and quiet in the graceful tree-lined streets of the embassy area and in serene Ri Tan Park where you can sit by the lake with a cup of coffee at the famous Stone Boat Cafe
San Li Tun
—This is a loosely designated area of bars and pubs with San Li Tun North and South Streets at its heart. These are Beijing's premier people-watching spots. On a sunny day, this is the place to chill-out over drinks on the pavement patios and watch life go by. Besides the ubiquitous cafes and bars, you will also find numerous funky shops selling everything from framed prints to Tibetan handicrafts and clothes. The nearby San Li Tun Market is a good place for bargains on North Face jackets as well as other designer goods. Nighttime always reveals the decadent side of San Li Tun. Bar and club goers can start out the night at Q Bar for top notch cocktails, and then head to Den
Chao Yang Park
—The expansive Chao Yang Park is being touted as the next people-watching hang-out to rival San Li Tun. Upscale bars, pubs, restaurants and shops have recently located here. Cap off the day by heading over to the Big Easy
for some spicy Cajun cooking and live blues, and if you're up for it party the night away at one of Beijing's hottest clubs, World of Suzie Wong Club
Chong Wen District
—Located in the south of the city, this is a long-established commercial area, selling everything from eyeglasses to sporting goods. Check out the Qian Men Shopping Area for some of Beijing's oldest stores. The area is also worth visiting to see the beautiful Temple of Heaven
and the Hong Qiao Market
, a treasure-trove of objects both banal and bizarre.
Dong Cheng District
—With Tiananmen Square
, the Forbidden City
, and Mao's Mausoleum, this district is Tourist Central. Not surprisingly, major hotels abound here—such as the Beijing Hotel
. If you are tired of sightseeing, you can always indulge in a serious shopping spree in the Wang Fu Jing Shopping District
Wang Fu Jing
—This is Beijing's premier shopping street. It is partially closed to cars and is crowded at all times of the day with shopaholics
and tourists alike. Recently unveiled to the public after months of renovation, this wide, sprawling street is a showcase of Beijing's economic progress. Stop off at the Beijing Foreign Language Bookstore
to pick up a Chinese dictionary or the latest John Grisham potboiler. Go shopping at the Sun Dong An Plaza
, Beijing's mammoth shopping mall. Feeling peckish? Then dine on deep-fried scorpion among other culinary delights at the Wang Fu Jing Night Market
. If the idea of chomping on insects does not appeal, try upscale dining at one of several four- and five-star hotels in the area.
Feng Tai District
-—This district is located in the southwest of Beijing. Mainly an industrial area, there are several cultural and historical sites worth visiting, such as the China Space Museum, Feng Tai Park and Marco Polo Bridge.
Hai Dian District
—This northwestern part of the city is also known as the university district, because China's equivalents to Harvard and Yale—Beijing and Qinghua Universities—are located here. Owing to the young student population, this area has a reputation for being rather hip and arty. Hai Dian district is also designated a high-technology zone, so this is where you will find the aspiring Microsofts and Internet start-up companies. There are plenty of cheap restaurants and casual bars that cater specifically to the student crowd—Solutions, for example.
Xi Dan and Xuan Wu
—Like Wang Fu Jing, these areas are known largely for their shopping. While the former is a place to be seen, local Chinese people shop in Xi Dan and Xuan Wu—so you are likely to get a better and cheaper deal here. Browse the small shops and stalls for bargains on clothing, shoes and CDs. Shopping centres here include Parksons
and the Xi Dan Department Store
—Known as the west city district, Xicheng covers a great deal of the old city. It is just west of the Forbidden City
and epitomizes the blending of an old and new China. Once the home of wealthy merchants prior to communism it is now an important part of the city and is often considered the cultural, historical, business, financial, and political district of Beijing. The street of finance,Jinrongjie, is located here as is the commercial district. If you are looking for nature look no farther than Jing Shan Park and the Beijing Zoo. For the ultimate experience of old Beijing visit Beihai Park
, Beijing's oldest park dating back to the 10th century. The popular Houhai bar area is also in the Xicheng district. For good drinks and music visit the East Shore Live Jazz Cafe or the Buddha Bar.