Around the time the morning coffee starts flowing, the lane outside my courtyard house near one of China’s oldest working temples comes to life. The aged knife sharpener pedals slowly by — the clang of grinding metal on stones a developing-world version of the ice cream truck jingle. A rice seller passes a few minutes later, his wagon crammed with sacks of kernels. Retirees in pajamas emerge laden with caged songbirds that they hang in low branches. On summer evenings, my neighbors bet on cricket fights over beers. Everyone chain smokes.
This is hidden Beijing, a world that still survives just beyond the six-lane boulevards and gleaming skyscrapers. Here lies a rough beauty unique among Chinese cities — a metropolis filled with history careening into the future. Just look for the Buddhist monk gabbing into his Bluetooth.
Centuries ago, the emperor’s feng shui masters chose this arid basin for its spiritual energy and designed a capital that would survive sandstorms, dynasties and Chairman Mao. Holdovers from this ancient city’s time as the nexus of China’s political and creative power poke through the neon in surprising ways, fueling an urban culture where imperial shrines abut indie rock clubs.
At once authoritarian and optimistic, Beijing is meant to impress. But it’s easy to miss its riches without a guide, so here are some highlights that will ensure that you get the most out of a week in the capital.
Culture The 798 Art District (798district.com), in a sprawling decommissioned military factory compound, allows for a whirlwind tour of China’s lucrative modern art world, one that attracts neophytes and collectors alike. Two standouts: the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (www.ucca.org.cn) features massive installations and intense retrospectives, and Galerie Paris-Beijing (parisbeijingphotogallery.com) has a generous supply of photographs featuring China’s fierce creative landscape. Eyeing rich Chinese buyers, global commercial galleries have descended on 798, including Pace Beijing (pacebeijing.com), which features a rotating selection of premier Chinese and international artworks. The district is a sprawling warren of industrial relics, galleries and cafes, and half the fun is stumbling upon the absurd, whether it be an old locomotive train that has become a popular backdrop for wedding photos or a two-story bird cage tucked down a side street.
Walk Beijing’s faceless bureaucrats may pay lip service to their nation’s ancient history, but the swift disappearance of the city’s historic hutongs, or alleys, reveal their fondness for the bulldozer. Luckily, a small network of hutongs in the heart of the city remains unscathed, so make sure to add a hutong stroll to your Beijing itinerary. Start off at the Lama Temple and head west down quaint, leafy Guozijian street, named for the imperial academy where Qing dynasty scholars once studied to become officials. The academy and the adjacent Confucius temple are serene places to take in Beijing’s historical significance before facing its modern incarnation as a city of fortunetellers, home design stores and cafes.
Things get much more hectic across Andingmen Nei Dajie street, a bustling thoroughfare home to the city’s best dumplings (Xian Lao Man, No. 252; try the tea leaf and pork, and the beef and carrot varieties) and some hilarious Chinglish shop signage, such as “Cherish Lady Herd Living Space” for a store specializing in women’s herbal beauty products. While some of the hutongs, like the tourist-mobbed Nanlouguxiang, are long past their prime, the northern Beilouguxiang Hutong remains largely undiscovered by the camera-laden masses even as it has become a hub of youth culture. Be sure to check out Mai Bar (No. 40), a minuscule cocktail courtyard joint, for some imported bourbon before turning left onto Baochao Hutong, where you’ll encounter the goth boutique Monster and some seriously obscure fashion havens. From there it’s south to Gulou Dongdajie, which is filled with quirky boutiques and is a short walk from the ancient Drum and Bell Towers and the subway.
Can’t Miss The ultimate Beijing experience is Tiananmen Square, one of the most surveilled spots on earth. The square, which bears no record of the bloody events of June 1989, is the quintessential totalitarian mecca — a destination built for the masses to venerate the Communist Party at the geographic heart of Beijing. Rub shoulders with peasants from the outer provinces on a pilgrimage to Mao’s mausoleum and do not be surprised if they ask you to pose for photos — you may be the first foreigner they have ever spoken to.
A word of warning: avoid the friendly “students” who say they want to practice their English at a teahouse or bar nearby. This is a scam in which tourists end up footing an exorbitant bill, which the proprietors then split with the scammers.
Decompression With its plush thread counts, chic bars and haute interior design, the Opposite House (theoppositehouse.com) has reigned supreme among Beijing’s hotels since opening in 2008. And no wonder: this boutique hotel, designed by Kengo Kuma, knows how to do chill-out, from its gently towering atrium to its airy rooms done up in natural woods. It’s smack in the middle of the city’s upscale Sanlitun neighborhood, which means that retail therapy is a mere few feet away. If Uniqlo and the Apple store feel too close to home, make for the notorious Yashow market, a multistory temple to the counterfeit gods where, depending on your bargaining skills, low-cost tailoring and fake brand-name sneakers and apparel can be procured for a fraction of what the genuine articles cost just down the block. The area is also home to dozens of dining options that cater to both the gastronomic daredevil and the Luddite.
Night Out Beijing has hundreds of bars and nightclubs. Beer aficionados in the know flock in summer to El Nido (59 Fangjia Hutong), a pub boasting obscure ales from around the world. Another hot spot is Great Leap Brewing (greatleapbrewing.com), a courtyard microbrewery with an ever-changing selection of homemade brews hidden in a quiet back street. Seeking the high life? Migas (migasbj.com) offers a bird’s-eye view of it, with cocktails and D.J.-spun parties on the huge deck all night long.
Outing The Great Wall, just two hours away by taxi or hired car (you will pay 500 renminbi per day at most), lives up to its name. Make the journey feel less like a haul by staying overnight at the Schoolhouse at Mutianyu (theschoolhouseatmutianyu.com), a resort in a village at the foot of the Mutianyu section of the Wall. To avoid the crowds, arrive in the late afternoon and wait until the other tourists have left to catch the last cable car back to their transportation at 5:30. The walk down is easy and, better yet, the Wall will be empty. Then you can imagine facing the oncoming Mongol hordes without being disturbed by souvenir vendors. After days of making sense of Beijing’s chaos, the sight of pale stone snaking over the mountains to the horizon will renew the spirit.
If You Go
Lodging Hotel G is a mod boutique hotel in the Sanlitun neighborhood, close to night life and shopping (hotel-g.com). Rooms start at about 882 renminbi (around $140 a night at 6 renminbi to the dollar). The Emperor Hotel, a futuristic boutique hotel down the road from Tiananmen Square, has a rooftop bar with views overlooking the Forbidden City (theemperorbeijing.cn). Rooms start at 599 renminbi.
Dining Middle 8, a taste of China’s tropical Yunnan Province cooks, is packed every night, and for the right reasons. One of the city’s best places to eat, with presentation to match and very fair prices. No reservations (8 Dong Sanlitun). Temple Restaurant Beijing is housed in a 600-year-old Buddhist temple compound. It serves European cuisine that costs an emperor’s ransom in a setting worth the price (temple-restaurant.com).
Getting Around Taxis in Beijing are jaw-droppingly cheap, costing less than 65 renminbi for an intra-city trip. Always ask for the meter. (The Beijing taxi guide iPhone app, for $9.99, is vital: itunes.apple.com/us/app/beijing-taxi-guide/id287346119?mt=8.) Beijing’s subway system is vast, easy to navigate and exceedingly prompt.
— DAN LEVIN
For years, Hong Kong, a British colony until 1997, was the West’s window onto China, a place where Americans and Europeans could capture a tantalizing glimpse of Chinese culture. But now this teeming city-state — the financial hub of Asia — has been transformed into China’s window on the West. Luxury stores like Louis Vuitton are so mobbed with mainland Chinese customers that velvet ropes are installed on the sidewalk for crowd control. Outposts of Tiffany, Starbucks and other Western companies have pushed egg tart vendors, florists and silk shops out of gracious stone buildings, which have been replaced with opulent shopping malls and high-rises connected by aerial walkways. Stanley Market, where snakes lurked in apothecary jars and pigs were slaughtered in the alleys during my boyhood in Hong Kong in the early 1970s, is now a warren of touristy stalls selling cheap paintings and T-shirts.
While downtown Hong Kong feels like a more frenzied and costlier version of Midtown Manhattan, this metropolis of 7 million inhabitants — one of the most densely populated places in the world — still has much to offer visitors, especially those who know when and where to look. The secret is to visit as many places as possible in the morning, before the tides of Chinese visitors — 28.1 million of them last year, compared with 1.8 million visitors from the Americas and a similar number from Europe — flood tourist sites and stores. Then have an afternoon nap to cope with jet lag before heading out to dinner, with reservations made well in advance.
And, whatever you do, avoid visiting on or close to Chinese holidays, like National Day on Oct. 1, when even larger crowds of mainland visitors come.
Culture Situated close to where the Pearl River pours its muddy waters into the island-dotted expanses of the South China Sea, Hong Kong is justifiably famous for its harbor, but the city has a colorful background as well. For great views and an introduction to Hong Kong’s history — from the British conquest in the early 1840s to the Japanese attack hours after the bombing of Pearl Harbor — try the Museum of Coastal Defense, which stands at the eastern entrance to Victoria Harbor, where craggy bluffs plunge into the sea. Largely undiscovered by tourists, the museum is actually a series of half-ruined British fortifications. With exhibits ranging from a wire-guided torpedo concealed in man-made caves to a gun battery at the crest of the hill, it is a great destination for children. The museum has a simple cafe with a balcony overlooking the South China Sea, and sells delicious grilled cheese sandwiches for 19 Hong Kong dollars (about $2.50).
To get there, take a taxi or catch the Island subway line to the Shau Kei Wan stop. Right outside the subway stop is one of the oldest sites for the worship of Tin Hau, a local sea goddess who protects sailors and fishermen. The current temple dates from the 1870s; inside, it is black with soot from decades of incense burning. On the three-block walk to the museum, you’ll pass Hong Kong’s oldest temple to Tam Kung, a fishing god believed to have power over the weather.
Can’t Miss Arriving early is especially important for what is justifiably one of Hong Kong’s top attractions, the Peak Tram, a funicular railway to Victoria Peak that offers stunning panoramas of Hong Kong Island and the surrounding area. Long lines form by 10 a.m. and last into the night. To avoid the crowds, get there soon after the tram starts running at 7 a.m. After reaching the terminus, take a hard right onto Lugard Road for a stroll around Victoria Peak. Lugard changes its name to Harlech three-fifths of the way around the mountain, and the two roads form a fairly flat two-mile circuit with magnificent views of downtown, the bustling harbor and the South China Sea. The path is seldom crowded except on Sundays, as most mainland tourists are met by tour buses after reaching the top of the Peak Tram.
Decompression After walking around the peak, have breakfast at Pacific Coffee, easy to find in the tower where the tram terminates at the top. It is a local version of Starbucks with impressive views of the entire city below. The longtime manager, Bino, greets morning regulars by name. After descending the hill on the tram, visit nearby Hong Kong Park, an oasis of koi ponds and quiet park benches.
Many residents decompress by shopping, a favorite local activity. The best buys are pearls and custom-made suits. World pearl prices have plummeted because of soaring production of high-quality freshwater pearls in China. American jewelers have been slow to pass on the savings. So try Irene at stall 278 in the old outdoor Jade Market in Kowloon, across Victoria Harbor from Hong Kong Island. She offers a fixed-price, no-haggling bargain. Don’t miss the beautiful Chinese temple with a front courtyard of graceful banyans, diagonally across the street from the market.
Another smart purchase is a custom-made suit, which may cost the same as an off-the-rack suit in an American department store, but fits much better. Try Empire International or Sam’s Tailor in Kowloon, where you can expect to pay anywhere from $250 to $2,500.
Night Out No trip to Hong Kong is complete without crossing Victoria Harbor to Kowloon, a wonderful place to spend an evening. You could take the Star Ferry, with its wooden seats and noisy diesel engines, but for a more luxurious, leisurely trip, go for a 45-minute cruise on the Aqua Luna, built according to the century-old designs of wooden Chinese sailing vessels.
Kowloon is the best place from which to see Hong Kong’s 13-minute nightly light show at 8, with multicolored lights running along the sides of some of Asia’s tallest skyscrapers, and green lasers crisscrossing the sky above. One viewing spot is from the Avenue of the Stars, the Kowloon boardwalk facing Hong Kong Island. Or watch the show while dining at the Hutong or Aqua restaurants, atop a skyscraper three blocks from where the Star Ferry and Aqua Luna drop you off. At the Hutong, order in advance the beggar’s chicken (508 dollars), a whole chicken stuffed with mushrooms, cabbage and minced pork, wrapped in clay and baked. Breaking the hardened clay open with the restaurant’s small hammer is fun for all ages. A pricey alternative is the new Italian restaurant Tosca on the 102nd floor of the International Commerce Center, a short taxi ride from the ferry docks in Kowloon, although Tosca is so high that the view below is often lost in the clouds.
Outing For a jaunt from Hong Kong, take a one-hour ferry in the morning to Macau, a former Portuguese colony that is now the world’s top gambling center. Walk through the historic quarter from the Largo do Senado — a pedestrian area with wavy black and white lines underfoot, and some good Portuguese restaurants at the fringes — and several blocks uphill past shops crowded with furniture and bric-a-brac to the ruins of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Try to return to Hong Kong before hordes of tourists pour onto the sidewalks by midafternoon.
If You Go
Lodging On Hong Kong Island, the luxurious Island Shangri-La hotel (shangri-la.com; 3,900 Hong Kong dollars, about $515 at 7.60 Hong Kong dollars to the U.S. dollar) is a 10-minute stroll east across Hong Kong Park from the base of the peak tram. A slightly longer walk in the opposite direction will take you to the hipper Hotel LKF by Rhombus (hotel-lkf.com.hk; 2,188 dollars), with a rooftop bar and restaurant, Azure, that is not to be missed. For a night in the clouds with a swimming pool on the 118th floor, try the Ritz-Carlton, atop the International Commerce Center in Kowloon (ritzcarlton.com; 4,500 dollars). Prices quoted in late April are for a basic room without a harbor view on the night of June 19.
Dining For northern Chinese cuisine and traditional Chinese décor, go to Hutong (aqua.com.hk). Located on the 28th floor of One Peking Road, it offers excellent harbor views. Aqua (aqua.com.hk), with contemporary food, is one floor up with a nearly identical, breathtaking view. Tosca (ritzcarlton.com/en/Properties/HongKong/Dining/tosca), with southern Italian cuisine, is on the 102nd floor of the Ritz-Carlton.
Sites Museum of Coastal Defense (hk.coastaldefence.museum/index.php; 10 dollars). Open daily except Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; until 6 p.m. in July and August. Irene Lam (852-9639-3084) for pearls at stall 278 of Jade Market, Kowloon. For tailors, try Empire International (empiretailors.com) and Sam’s Tailor (samstailor.com).
Getting Around Adult fares for the Peak Tram (thepeak.com.hk/en) are 28 dollars one way, or 40 dollars round trip; 7 a.m. to midnight daily. On June 24, fares on the Star Ferry (www.starferry.com.hk) will rise from 3 dollars to 3.40 one-way on weekends and public holidays. Weekday fare will remain at 2.50. Fares on the Aqua Luna (aqua.com.hk) are from 150 to 240 dollars.
— KEITH BRADSHER
One of the remarkable things about living in Shanghai is being able to witness this city’s race to complete a century’s worth of building in a mere decade or two. Fortunately, the charm of old Shanghai still exists in places like the outdoor market near the corner of Xiangyang Road and Changle Road, a few blocks from my home in the former French Concession. The sidewalks are narrow and grease-stained. Folding tables and tiny stools make dining awkward. Service with a smile is nonexistent. And yet every morning at daybreak, residents line up there to savor pork-filled dumplings and jian bing guo zi, or egg pancakes.
The scene is a time capsule in a city that is changing at warp speed. Dilapidated lane houses and tenements are being razed to make way for high-rises, boutiques and yoga studios. In a city whose streets were once crowded with bicycles, there are now fleets of Lamborghinis, Porsches and Land Rovers.
At the end of the 19th century, Shanghai, a port city near the mouth of the Yangtze River, was a flourishing international trading and financial center that was known for its decadence — an intoxicating mix of brothels, cabarets, opium dens and privileged foreign settlements. That city disappeared after the Communists swept to power in 1949. But today Shanghai has re-emerged as the dragon’s head of an ambitious nation.
Here are some of my recommendations for a week in the city.
Culture Begin with a trip to the Shanghai Museum, built in the shape of an ancient bronze cooking vessel, and a treasure house of artifacts, including world-class collections of ancient jade, ceramics, porcelain, bronze and imperial coins. South of People’s Square, race ahead in time, to 1921, at the site of the First National Congress of the Communist Party of China, a gathering that helped give birth to the Chinese Communist Party. Photographs, pamphlets and old daggers trace not just the origins of the Communist Party, but the country’s struggle against “foreign aggressors.” (What is remarkable is that this museum exists near an expensive neighborhood, filled with luxury shops.) The museum connects to a red-and-charcoal-colored lane house where 13 delegates to the Chinese Communist Party met in 1921. Among them was a 27-year-old man named Mao Zedong.
Head east to the Dongtai Road Antiques Market, an outdoor bazaar that sells coins, maps, scrolls and sculptures of Mao for as little as 50 renminbi (about $8). Be prepared to bargain (drop the asking price by 75 percent, walk away and see what happens). You will likely be greeted by an elderly man pleading in rough English: “Look! Look! Old. Very old.”
The best place to see contemporary art is M50, or the Moganshan Road arts district, an enclave of studios, galleries and shops. The most notable space is ShanghART, run by the Swiss-born Lorenz Helbling, who has represented artists like Wang Guangyi and Zeng Fanzhi. Nearby, M97 has fine photography exhibitions.
Walk In the French Concession, start at the corner of Shaanxi and Shaoxing Roads, and head east, strolling down the tree-lined Shaoxing, past the Vienna Café and the Old China Hand Reading Room. Make a left at Ruijin Road, another fabulous road with mansions, gardens and old villas. Be alert — drivers sometimes get close enough to remove loose clothing. You might also stop by Taikang Road, and visit the area called Tianzifang, a series of corridors that house bars, coffee shops, restaurants and galleries.
Can’t Miss At nightfall, go to the Bund, the historic riverfront district. The city spent over $700 million to widen the sidewalks and remake the river promenade ahead of the 2010 World Expo. The Bund is dominated by neo-Classical-style buildings, most built in the 1920s and 1930s. Inside are restaurants, bars, galleries and shops. My favorites are Three on the Bund and Bund 18, both masterful blends of preservation and postmodern chic. Farther north is the former Cathay Hotel, with its green copper roof, now known as the Fairmont Peace Hotel. Built in 1929 for Victor Sassoon, the British businessman, the hotel reopened in 2010 after renovations.
Near Suzhou Creek is the Rock Bund area, with turn-of-the-century buildings and cobblestone streets. Here, you’ll find the Rock Bund Art Museum, which hosts some of the city’s best exhibitions, and the new Western restaurant 8 ½ Otto E Mezzo Bombana, partly owned by the Shanghai-based artist Zhang Huan.
Decompression To write, I often venture out to a cafe or teahouse. One of my favorites is Baker Spice, in Shanghai Center, with work benches, comfortable seating and delicious tartines filled with smoked salmon. I also like the lounge at the Puli Hotel, which serves tie guan yin tea from Taiwan and has Asian-chic décor, with antique chests, soft lighting and a black and white interior. And I spend hours reading at the Song Fang teahouse, run by a French expatriate. For something more traditional, head to Da Ke Tang, an old villa decorated with antiques and 1920s memorabilia.
Night Out The American architect Ben Wood, working with a Hong Kong developer, has managed to turn some old Shikumen-style Chinese town houses in the eastern part of town into a trendy bazaar called Xintiandi (“new heaven and earth”), which visitors can navigate into the wee hours. Xintiandi is filled with cafes, jewelers, shops, bars and several restaurants, like Ye Shanghai and Harbour Plaza, which serves splendid Peking duck. At Crystal Jade, a Cantonese restaurant, sample the roasted, crispy pork loin.
For cheaper, authentic Shanghai fare, try Die Yuan, or Butterfly Garden, which is close by, at 70 Taicang Road. After dinner, head to the Bund for drinks at the Glamour Bar, or stop by the hip Vue Bar, at the Hyatt. The Long Bar, at the recently opened Waldorf-Astoria, is also a good place to relax. On the other side of the river, in Pudong, go to the 91st floor of the Park Hyatt hotel and order drinks at 100 Century Avenue, a restaurant and bar that has one of the city’s best views. Equally mesmerizing is Flair, the bar on the 58th floor of the new Ritz-Carlton hotel, also in Pudong.
Outing From Shanghai, Hangzhou is an hour’s ride on China’s new high-speed train. If you choose to stay over, try the Hyatt Regency at West Lake, set against a backdrop of mountains. The lake is surrounded by temples, pagodas and gardens. One of China’s best known teas, Longjing, comes from this region, and there’s a tea museum in the area. For even more serenity, head to the elegant Fuchun Resort, about 40 minutes away, in the hills near Fuyang. After spending a week in Shanghai, you may want to retreat to a place where the lakes and misty hills look like something straight out of a classical Chinese painting.
If You Go
Lodging Mao stayed at the Ruijin Hotel (ruijinhotelsh.com), and so did Nixon. This state-run guesthouse in the former French Concession is modest but comfortable and well situated. Rooms in June start at 1,320 renminbi (about $214 at 6 renminbi to the dollar). The Puli Hotel (thepuli.com) is a boutique property that blends traditional Chinese features with a sleek modern style. Rooms start at 2,000 renminbi plus a 15 percent service fee.
Dining In the bazaar known as Xintiandi, restaurants include Ye Shanghai (No. 338 South Huangpi Road in Xintiandi North; 86-21-6311-2323); Harbour Plaza (Unit C, No. 17 Lane 181, Taicang Road; 86-21-6387-6777), known for its Peking duck; and Crystal Jade (crystaljade.com), a Cantonese restaurant. For Shanghai fare, try Die Yuan (No. 70 Taicang Road, Luwan District; 86-21-5383-7338). 100 Century Avenue Restaurant (91 /F Park Hyatt, No. 100 Century Avenue; 86-21-6888-1234) is open for dinner and drinks from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m.
Bars On the Bund, go to Glamour Bar (6/F, No. 5 The Bund; 86-21-6329-3751), Vue Bar (32-33/F, Hyatt on the Bund, 199 Huangpu Road; 86-21-6393-1234) and the Long Bar at the Waldorf-Astoria (No. 2 Zhongshan Dong Yi Road, Huang Pu District; 86-21-6322-9988). Flair (ritzcarlton.com/en/properties/shanghaipudong), another favorite, is on the 58th floor of the new Ritz-Carlton.
Sites Shanghai Museum (www.shanghaimuseum.net; free) is a treasure house of artifacts, while the Site of the First National Congress of the Communist Party of China (No. 374 Huangpi South Road, Luwan District; 86-21-5383-2171; free) offers an overview of Chinese Communism. For contemporary art, go to M50 (No. 50 Moganshan Road, Zhabei District; 86-21-6266-0963 ) and ShanghART (shanghartgallery.com). To take a breather, head to quiet cafes or teahouses like Baker Spice (Suite 118, East Retail Plaza, Shanghai Center, 1376 Nanjing West Road, JingAn District; 86-21-6289-8875), Song Fang Tea House (songfangtea.com); or Da Ke Tang (dkt-puertea.com).
Getting Around Three of the Shanghai train stations have trains to Hangzhou, but Hongqiao station is the safest, with most trains scheduled from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Round trip is 160 renminbi for a secondary seat; 260 renminbi for first-class seat.
— DAVID BARBOZA