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Highlights of what to see, do and eat in China’s capital city

We sometimes worry that a short trip is giving a majestic city like Beijing short shrift, but when all is said and done, wouldn’t you rather have visited a place briefly, than not all at?  That said, you can get a lot done in this big city, and beyond, in 48 hours. So don’t miss the opportunity to give Beijing a run for its money even if just for 2 days….here’s our highlights of what to see, do and where to eat in the capital city.

See Some of the Oldest Historical Sites in the World
You can run yourself ragged in this sprawling capital, but we have a few highlights to recommend as “must do’s”…

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Tiananmen Square: if you are of a certain age, like myself, you will remember the student protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989 when tanks rolled into the square and “cleared” the area and an untold number of people were killed. Reports estimate 400-800, but the China government have never confirmed. But there is more to the square than this – it was built in 1417 during the Ming Dynasty and has been the site of several significant events in Chinese history, see the Wikipedia entry for more.

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Forbidden Palace: You could spend a whole day here covering the 72 hectares of this Unesco World Heritage site, and maybe you should…..I personally didn’t have the patience for that level of detail, so I would say hit the high points and main buildings and move on to a nice lunch

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  I am not going to lie to you…this place tried our patience a bit….it was totally overrun with Chinese and foreigners visitors alike. Be prepared to be swift and nimble in order to dodge all the sun-shielding umbrellas of the local visitors…they all seemed to be the perfect height to hit / poke us at eye level. With that said, you should definitely see the key sites like the Palace of Earthly Tranquility, the residence of the emperor and empress; The Hall of Supreme Harmony, the ceremonial center of the palace complex; and the Screen of the 9 Dragons is a true stunner outside of the Palace of Tranquil Longevity, And if you really want to thoroughly dive into it, see about a tour guide…many of the signs are in limited English, so it’s difficult to really maximize the experience based on signage alone. Check out Wikipedia for more detail on the palace.

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The Back Lakes, Shichahai Lakes: This is by far my favourite part of the Forbidden City complex…tranquil and soothing, this seems to be almost undiscovered compared to the frenzy inside the complex. You can stroll around the three lakes (Qianhai, Xihai and Houhai) or simply sit and relax in their gentle presence. We bought water from a local vendor and simply sat for a bit and watched the world go by….rickshaws and boys on bicycles, old ladies peddling wares and groups of girls in school uniforms giggling. You really start to get a feel for old Beijing in this picturesque and timeless part of the city.

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The Great Wall, Mutianyu Section: one morning, get up very early and hire a car to take you to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. If you leave Beijing at 8am you can cover the 60km trip quickly and get there before the sun and all the tourists. Supposedly this is the less crowded section of the Great Wall…I will say though as we were leaving, it seemed to be filling up with great speed, so it seems early morning is indeed the ideal time to go. At this section of the wall you can take a cable car to the top and explore one of the best preserved parts of the Great Wall surrounded by lush woodlands and streams. It’s nearly indescribable…you simply have to see it for yourself.

For sure there is more to see in Beijing, but to do it in 48 hours, we would limit it to these 3 timeless sites.

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Visit a Tea House and Shop for Local Ceramics
A trip to Beijing wouldn’t be complete without a visit to a Chinese tea house for a tea ceremony. And we know just the place….right outside the back gates of the Forbidden City lies the Terrace Tea House. Just walk past the lakes and onto Donghuamen Daije to reach the Terrace Tea House at #69. Take a seat and let the experts lead you through the timeless Chinese tea ceremony. The crowds and hustle and bustle of the city will wash away in no time.

Also, if you have the time and the interest, visit the Celadon Story, right next door at #49 Donghuamen Daije. Celadon Story has a wonderful selection of elegant celadon ceramic pieces for the home. The graceful lines and the soothing icy, jade green colour of celadon will likely tempt you in to taking a piece or two home.

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Just for Laughs
Head down to the Donghuamen Street Night Market for a look at some unusual street food. This is the stuff of TV…things you have heard about but may have never actually seen. From innocuous hot teas that bubble and foam to stranger things like sheep’s penis and offal, since 1984 there have been over 100 vendors offering food here. While the grilled corn and spring rolls look familiar and appetizing, the squid flapping about on a stick and beef hearts less so. But it’s worth a look and makes for some fun photos…stroll through about 5 or 6 pm while it is still light out and you can get a good look at things before it gets too crowded. If you are feeling adventurous and prefer your food impaled, you can try the lizards on a stick.

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Enjoy Rooftop Cocktails with Stunning Vistas
While there are lots of elegant places to imbibe in Beijing, we think one of the best has to be the Yin Bar at the Emperor Hotel. Widely reputed as the best rooftop bar in Beijing, you can see the emperor’s estate sprawled before you with the elegant sweep of the tiled Chinese rooftops as your vista. Go at sunset for the most impactful moment. And don’t avoid it if it is rainy on the day that you want to go…the fog and mist can lend quite an ethereal quality to the view even in inclimate weather.

Eat like an Emperor
Food is where this city shines. And I don’t mean lizards on a stick. I love Peking duck and there is no better place to get it than its city of origin. And beyond that, there are a bevy of Michelin-starred chefs (or those who have worked in Michelin-starred kitchens) in town.

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Made in China: This is in the Grand Hyatt Hotel. I usually don’t gravitate to hotel restaurants when I am traveling…they tend to feel less adventurous. But we made an exception for Made in China and hope you will too. We were intrigued by the concept of bringing a street food market indoors…it works and what is really cool is that all the various chef’s stations are behind glass so you can see all the creations in progress. Peking duck is also excellent here.

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Legation Quarter: This is the former US embassy, from 1903 – 1949 when the communists took over. Today it has been restored and now houses some of the beat restaurants in the city. The highlights include Daniel Boulud’s Maison Boulud and Ristorante Sadler. We really enjoyed our visit to the Ristorante Sadler, featuring a 2-Michelin starred chef. Don’t miss some of the most elegant food in Beijing….from wonderfully simple gnocchi to steamed sea bream and Tuscan-style steak….this is a restaurant who’s commitment to impeccable quality and service is apparent in everything they do. Go for the lunch set, it is an amazing deal at 200RMB ($30USD) for 3 courses of truly fine food, including wine.

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Blu Lobster: for a most inventive tasting menu of fusion foods at the Shangri-la Hotel. While again, we don’t love hotel dining as a rule, we did love the fresh and inventive take the chef displayed with many of the dishes on the tasting menu. You will forget you are in a hotel and will get lost in the dreamy surroundings of the restaurant and the even dreamier dishes. Try the tomato salad, the crispy suckling pig and the parmesan-crusted sea bass.

You will find no shortage of fantastic things to do and see in Beijing, we hope our list of highlights can help guide the way to some fantastic experiences on your journey. But in spite of all the recos above, don’t forget to just take time to wander…some of the best adventures, scenic back alleys and interactions with locals can be had by just stumbling upon them. So don’t forget to make time for happenstance. Ni hao Beijing!

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