Gulou (pronounced ‘goo-lo’)
Broadly used to describe the 5 square miles surrounding Beijing’s 600-year-old Drum and Bell towers (once timekeepers for the whole city), Gulou encompasses the very best of Beijing’s old and new identity. A vast maze of hutongs (old lanes), temples and streets that buzz with local life, it’s also where the city’s hip crowd create and congregate; where you’ll find artisanal Italian restaurants and boutique breweries side by side with bustling local fruit markets, portable pancake stands and rickshaw drivers hawking for business.
The city’s international quarter is home to the foreign embassies and centers around a multifaceted modern development called The Village, where Beijing’s young people eat, drink, shop…and shop some more. With a buzzing vibe around the clock and some of the city’s best bars and restaurants all within walking distance, it’s the place to spend your Friday and Saturday night. Or grab a non-Chinese lunch.
Tiananmen Square & The Forbidden City
Chairman Mao’s huge statement square marks the geographical center of Beijing, located directly south of the imperial-era Forbidden City and surrounded by government buildings. But don’t be fooled into thinking that because it’s the center, it is a hub worth spending a lot of time in outside of your sightseeing schedule – it’s not. Historically and architecturally it’s fascinating, but there are just 4 or 5 commendable restaurants and certainly no bars here. This is, after all, where China’s leaders congregate – the ultra-sensitive political heart of a Communist dictatorship. Even taxi drivers are terrified of stopping anywhere near it.
This is not one of Beijing’s neighbourhoods as such, but rather the area several blocks south of Tiananmen Square that’s worth visiting for just three reasons: the Temple of Heaven, the Pearl Market, and the Panjiayuan ‘Dirt’ Market. The Temple of Heaven one of Beijing’s most important sites and a great place to see lots of traditional activities in the early morning, while the latter pair are great places to bargain hard for high quality pearls, Chinoiserie and faux antiques.
798 Art District
Don’t make the mistake of thinking 798 is only for art lovers – this is as much a must-see as the Forbidden City or Great Wall. A sprawling Mao-era munitions factory that’s the size of a small village, Factory 798 is jam-packed with historical artifacts and Communist daubings, stunning Bauhaus architecture and thought-provoking modern art. Not to mention the hundreds of cafes, restaurants and creative boutiques. Trust us, just go!
If you thought a gritty city like Beijing couldn’t do cool and sophisticated, think again. The Central Business District is Beijing’s mini-Manhattan. Skyscrapers, smart five-star hotels and well-made cocktails abound. And since the city’s tallest buildings all straddle Beijing’s 10-lane Jianguomen Avenue, the views from the top are pretty great too.