China's on-again off-again capital city entered the history books about 2,500 years ago during the Warring States period, when a settlement roughly where the city is today became the capital of the Marquis of Yan; he called the city Ji. Its incarnation as a united China's top city came at the end of the 13th century when the country was ruled by the Mongols. They called it Dadu, and crumbling remnants of their architecture — towers, temples and city walls — remain to this day.
Today, the place shudders under the boom of construction, but those with patience can pick out pockets of old Beijing. There are the hutong — winding tree-lined lanes packed with single-story courtyard houses — Buddhist, Daoist and Tibetan temples, royal parklands and palaces, and squat watchtowers. Those who wish to be reminded of China's recent Communist past need only head to the main east-west thoroughfare, Changan Avenue. Soviet-style behemoths line the grand avenue and surround the expanse of Tiananmen Square.
Beijing's spread of hotels has blossomed under the tourist and business boom. For those not on a budget, there are dozens of highly rated international luxury brands. Take the colonial elegance of Raffles Beijing Hotel for example, whose pampered guests have the run of the 100-year-old French-built building, while the Park Hyatt is Beijing's tallest hotel with its opulent suites perched at the top of the 260-m Yintai Center in the central business district. For international men of mystery there's Austin Powers chic at Hotel G, a funky boutique option near the embassy district downtown. But for an unforgettable Beijing experience, opt for a room in one of the many traditional courtyard hotels. While they do not have the facilities that the international brands boast, they have all the atmosphere and many are fairly luxurious. Two of the best are Lusongyuan Hotel, set in the former villa of a Qing Dynasty general and Côté Cour SL, has a chic take on the courtyard experience.
Beijing's old folks know where it's at. Start the first morning by having breakfast in your hotel and then hanging out with the retirees as they practice taiqiquan and wushu in Tian Tan (Temple of Heaven) Park. Beijing's largest inner city expanse of green is a haven of peace and a popular place for people to exercise, dance, sing opera, play Chinese chess, and tootle on hulusi — a traditional bamboo flute with a gourd chamber. Impromptu opera practice sessions are often staged around the Long Corridor, in the east of the park. The Temple Of Heaven itself — a collection of ancestral prayer halls and imperial walkways are found in the center of the grounds and are arguably Beijing's most beautiful and impressive historical site. Dating back to the Ming dynasty, emperors would stage magnificent sacrificial rites at the Altar of Heaven, a three-tier stone terrace based on multiples of the royal number nine. Don't forget to visit the breathtaking Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. This triple-eaved structure is covered in thousands of glazed turquoise-blue tiles.
Exit the leafy park via the western gate to pay a quick side trip to the kooky Natural History Museum, which boasts everything from pickled corpses to giant robotic Chinese-speaking dinosaurs. If you go out by the east gate you can haggle for pearls at the Hongqiao Pearl Market. But make sure you know your fake from your authentic.
Just north of Tian Tan — it's a 20-minute walk or you may want to hop in a cab — is the district of Qianmen, where the common folk lived during Imperial China. Its bustling lanes were packed with traders, markets, shops, opera houses and, of course, brothels. Nowadays, great swaths of the hutong have been bulldozed to make way for an ambitious Qianmen Avenue reconstruction project. Builders used blueprints from the 1920's to recreate shopfronts, and Beijing's only trolley bus plies its 800-odd meters. Stop for lunch at Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant (32 Qianmen Avenue) — it's been roasting ducks since 1864 and is as good a place as any to sample the capital's signature dish.
In the afternoon, browse for bargains and souvenirs along the newly-spruced shopping lanes of Dazhalan and Liulichang, a few minutes' walk west of Qianmen. Liulichang is famous for its arts and crafts, while Dazhalan is a boisterous hutong of old tea and silk shops and traditional pharmacies. If you have an appetite for history instead, head north on foot and slip through the two old city gates of Jianlou (the arrow tower) and Zhengyangmen (Gate facing the sun), to arrive at Tiananmen Square. The grey, moody building at the southern end is Mao's Mausoleum, where the Great Helmsman's waxy remains lie in state. Entrance is free, but you have to check any bags into a booth on the east side of the square first, and photos are strictly forbidden.
North of the square, past the lines of olive-green clad troops, across Chang'an Avenue, and under Mao's portrait is the Forbidden City. You'll need at least two hours to explore this Ming and Qing Dynasty palace complex where the emperor lived surrounded by an army of eunuchs, maids and concubines. Some of the highlights inside include the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the Clock Museum, and the Imperial Flower Garden at the rear. Head back to Tiananmen to see the lowering of the flag at dusk.
You're in the right part of town to take in a show — either acrobatics (Tianqiao Acrobatics Theatre), Chinese Opera (Huguang Guildhall) or The Egg, (more formally known as The National Center for the Performing Arts), the space-age silver and glass dome just west of Tiananmen Square, which stages classical music and ballet. Grab a quick bite to eat before the show at Donghuamen Night Market a few blocks east of the Forbidden City. It's a raucous food street where you can chow down on everything from scorpions on a stick to pineapple sticky rice.
If you'd rather a more leisurely dinner, with an unforgettable view of Tiananmen Square, try Capital M (2 Qianmen Pedestrian St), serving international fare from an accomplished Australian chef. Oriental Plaza (1 East Chang'an Avenue) on nearby Wangfujing shopping street has two of Beijing's most highly acclaimed restaurants — Grand Hyatt's Made in China's open kitchen presents modern takes on Chinese cuisine, while My Humble House also does fine fusion with Hunan undertones. Both restaurants are in Oriental Plaza at the corner of Wangufjing and Chang'an Avenue.