Lay of the Land
“Hong Kong is a painting. Beijing is a book.”~Anonymous
At first glance Beijing seems to be an endless sprawl of high-ways, malls, and high-rise apartment blocks. The onslaught of gray Soviet-style buildings can be overwhelming. But know where to look and China’s capital has a host of architectural surprises, from the quaint hutong alleyways to the grand imperial sights to the post-industrial chic of the 798 Art District.
Locals in Beijing often locate landmarks by saying they are “inside the Second Ring Road” or “outside the Fifth Ring Road”, referring to the concentric ring roads that divide up the vast city. But for new visitors it is best to approach the geography through its well-known sights, which are, for the most part, located in two districts Dongcheng and Chaoyang. (As an exception, the Summer Palace is located in Haidian district in the far northwest of the city). It is important to note that traffic is notoriously bad so it is key to be strategic about your travel within the city. If it is possible to arrange for your sightseeing on weekend days, you will have less traffic and it is key to try to avoid getting anywhere during rush hour, typically during 7:00 to 9:00 am in the morning and 3:00 to 6:00 in the evening.
Dongcheng: This district is located bang in the middle of the capital, covering the eastern part of its core. It includes many of Beijing’s most famous historic sights. Tourists who are after a slice of old Beijing, plus value being close to places of interest, will want to stay here. Dongcheng encompasses Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Lama Temple, the Temple of Confucius, the Drum and Bell Towers, Jingshan Park, and the Temple of Heaven. It is also where most of the city’s last surviving hutongs sit.
Chaoyang: This district is vast and is located in the east of the capital, covering both north and south. It stretches from the center of the city from the Second Ring Road to beyond the Fifth Ring Road in the east. This is where you will want to base yourself if you are traveling on business — there are less areas of touristic interest here. The district includes Sanlitun, a favorite expat haunt famous for its gritty bar street. It is also the home of Sanlitun Village, a smart and highly successful shopping complex where many of the capital’s best international restaurants and high end brands are located. Nearby is the Workers’ Stadium, which houses many nightclubs. Chaoyang encompasses the huge and green Chaoyang Park, the CBD (Central Business District) and the embassy area. It is also where the 798 Art District is located.
When to Go
Spring (April-June) and Fall (late September-November) are the best times to visit, as the weather throughout the country is warm and mild, with temperatures around 60-80 F. Summer is hot, humid and wet.