If, this month, you find yourself as taken with the Olympics’ exotic locale as with the Games, now’s the time to plan the trip of a lifetime. (Come 2010, you can even catch a direct flight from Philly to the capital of the People’s Republic of China.) For better or worse, post-Olympics Beijing is in many ways different from what it once was: It’s spent billions on tourist-friendly venues, launched anti-spitting and pro-smiling campaigns, and 86’d many of the squat-style toilets in favor of sit-down commodes. But some things — the palaces, the Great Wall, the Peking duck — aren’t just what you expect; they’re wildly, awe-inspiringly better. Worth a trip across the planet, even.
The Emperor is an ultra-mod boutique hotel with 24-hour butler service and a rooftop bar (with Jacuzzi) overlooking the Forbidden City and Beihai and Jingshan parks (theemperor.com.cn). If you need familiar, The Westin Beijing isn’t far from Beijing nightlife or the sparkly new Olympic Park in the Chaoyang District, and offers a touch of the exotic via in-house “bathologists” who use oils and flowers to create fragrant soaking escapes (westin.com).
Don’t leave without tasting the city’s most famous dish, Peking duck, at Da Dong Roast Duck, a swank, un-Westernized spot with a better bird than more touristy restaurants (86-10-5169-0329). There’s also Yu Xin, an easy and beloved Sichuan chain near the Silk Market with classic fare like “pockmark” tofu (mapo doufu) and water-boiled beef (shuizhu niurou) (86-10-6515-6588). For late-nighters, Q Bar in the Eastern Inn Hotel boasts a crowd of both locals and expats, tasty Chinese-inspired cocktails and a great terrace (qbarbeijing.com/en).
The part of the Great Wall closest to Beijing (about 50 miles northwest) is called Badaling. Badaling’s drawback is that it tends to be crowded, but there’s an upside in nearby Longqing Xia, a lush gorge with cool, peaceful boat tours (86-10-6919-1020). You can also visit the Confucius Temple (on Guozijian Street inside Anding Gate; 86-10-8401-1977), then head into the nearest hutong — a series of intricate mazes full of Old Beijing culture. For a more modern day trip, visit 798 Space, a cluster of formerly state-owned factories now packed with contemporary art galleries in the Dashanzi art district (798space.com).
The Silk Market and the Hongqiao Market are famous for designer knockoffs, but also offer little cultural gems: Chinese print bottle holders, ornaments, handmade scarves. And you’ll find skilled tailors who can custom-design (or copy) Chinese or Western clothing — quickly (Silk Market, 86-10-5169-8800; Hongqiao Market, 86-10-6713-3354). Another option: Nanluogu Xiang, a particularly special 700-year-old hutong packed with charming little restaurants and shops (86-134-8884-8855).
Getting There: Until US Airways starts up that nonstop service, you can book one- and two-stop flights that generally start around $1,400.
Do: Bring the inhaler if you are or have been asthmatic; Beijing’s famously smoggy air has been known to trigger reactions.
Don’t: Take up space in your luggage with raincoats or umbrellas — you can get them there, cheap. But brush up on your haggling skills — fighting over prices is de rigueur.