Travel Postcard: 48 hours in Beijing

BEIJING Thu Aug 19, 2010 9:46pm EDT

A foreign visitor rides a bicycle past Wumen Gate at the Forbidden City in Beijing August 1, 2010. REUTERS/Jason Lee

A foreign visitor rides a bicycle past Wumen Gate at the Forbidden City in Beijing August 1, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Jason Lee

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BEIJING (Reuters Life!) - Beijing is China's rapidly changing and endlessly exciting capital, a modern metropolis clinging on to the vestiges of a proud imperial past.

Punishingly hot in the summer, numbingly cold in the winter, and often covered in a pall of choking pollution, it is nonetheless fast becoming one of Asia's hippest cities with a booming art scene, gorgeous boutiques and heavenly food.

Reuters correspondents with local knowledge help visitors get the most out of a 48-hour visit. Almost everyone needs a visa, unless you have a Singaporean, Bruneian or Japanese passport in which case they'll just stamp you in at the airport.

FRIDAY

6 p.m. - Ease yourself into the chaos that is Beijing with a pre-dinner cocktail at China Bar on the 65th floor of the Park Hyatt in the central business district, opposite the World Trade Center. Observe the city's vast expanse while gently sipping chocolate martinis (beijing.park.hyatt.com).

7.30 p.m. - You cannot come to Beijing and not eat Peking duck. Da Dong has probably the most authentic duck (Sanlitun branch 6582-2892), but for a less touristy, more sophisticated experience Duck de Chine is the place to be seen (6501-8881).

9.30 p.m. - Sanlitun is Beijing's bar street, and drinking options range from beers and pole dancing to sultry mojitos in swish luxury. Boutique hotel The Opposite House has two great watering holes -- Mesh on the ground floor, and the darkly chic Punk in the basement (www.theoppositehouse.com).

SATURDAY

9 a.m. - Start your day with proper coffee and fluffy eggs at Vineyard, a tranquil courtyard-cum-cafe in a hutong, or alley, near the splendid Lama Temple (Yong He Gong) and Confucius Temple. The eggs Benedict are excellent, and the vegetarian options also come recommended. (www.vineyardcafe.cn)

10 a.m. - Flex those bargaining muscles and dive into Ya Show, one of Beijing's most popular tourist attractions. Better than the more famous Silk Market, it's the place to go for everything from knock-off designer clothes to pearls. Visit Tailor Ma on the 3rd floor for bespoke suits and jackets.

11 a.m. - Head next door to The Village in Sanlitun. Ignore the big brands and make a bee-line for Chang and Biorck (www.changbiorck.com), Beijing's hottest new home furnishings hole-in-the-wall for fabulous silk cushions, ties and bags.

12 a.m. - Lunch at Brazilian new-wave favorite Alameda, hidden in an unremarkable lane off Sanlitun's central bar street. It doesn't really matter what you order as it's pretty much all tasty. Don't forget to try their sinful almond pave.

(6417-8084)

1:30 p.m. - Conveniently located next to Alameda is the cute Nali Mall. Small and perfect, having a collection of unique little stores such as Qiancaohua, with its floral belts and colorful cube cushions.

3 p.m. - No trip to Beijing is complete without going down the traditional hutongs that were once the city's signature. And no trip to Beijing is complete these days without picking up a T-shirt at Plastered, down the ultra-fashionable Nanluo Guxiang. The designs are a homage to Beijing's retro-past, mixed with a cheeky take on its present and future. You can even shop online. (www.plasteredtshirts.com/)

5 p.m - A 15-minute walk from Nanluo Guxiang are the city's old drum and bell towers. A little off the beaten track, but well worth stopping by. The whole area is scheduled for redevelopment, and past efforts in other parts of the city suggest this will not have a happy ending. Go now before the colorful alleyways are replaced by depressing malls.

7 p.m. - Three food suggestions, all Chinese. Xian'r Lao Man on Andingmen for dumplings and mustard cabbage -- sounds nasty but is fantastic (6404-6944). The Chuan Ban near Jianguomen, for real Sichuan food in a rowdy setting (6512 2277). Or Dali Courtyard, for al fresco Yunnan cuisine in an old courtyard. (8404-1430). All three are quintessential Beijing restaurants.

9 p.m. - Set in a soulless development of shops and offices by Guomao, Twilight is a huge surprise, hidden away up an unassuming staircase. The bar is Japanese-run, with typical attention to detail and service. You can't really go wrong with the delicately textured drinks. (5900-5376) 11 p.m. - Chairman Mao must have turned in his grave when Chocolate opened. Like something out of cult movie "Showgirls," this Russian night club is fantastic fun, and really has to be seen to be believed. (www.club-chocolate.ru)

SUNDAY

6 a.m. - If you've not danced the night away, the Temple of Heaven is the perfect way to wake up. A must-see whatever the time of day for a touch of history.

8 a.m. - The Panjiayuan or Dirt Market is probably China's largest antique market. Get there at dawn for the genuine Ming vases, otherwise much else on sale is far from authentic. The really fun section is the book stalls at the back. Everything from ancient Chinese classics to North Korean propaganda tomes and Mongolian language posters from the Cultural Revolution.

11 a.mm. - Brunch at the effortlessly cool Salt. The setting is minimalist, the food modern and perhaps best described as European with a South American twist. (www.saltrestaurantbeijing.com)

A second option, which requires some planning to reach, is the Schoolhouse at Mutianyu. Hire a perfectly restored old house for a night or two with some friends, or just go up for lunch. Then walk the Great Wall. (www.theschoolhouseatmutianyu.com)

1 p.m. - A stone's throw from Salt is Spin. The master craftsmen and women behind this store know how to whip up a storm with the clay. Simple, clean and understated is the order of the day. Surprisingly cheap too. (6437 8649)

2.30 p.m. - Not far from Salt and Spin is Beijing's main art district, 798. The galleries welcome casual visitors, and are happier still if you want to drop a couple of thousand dollars or yuan on a piece by one of the country's growing band of avant garde artists. (www.798art.org)

5 p.m. - After all that walking, you'll be in need of a good massage. Dragonfly (www.dragonfly.net.cn/), Bodhi (www.bodhi.com.cn/) and Oriental Taipan (www.taipan.com.cn/) are all classy places that don't offer "special" services.

7 p.m. - "Axis of Evil" restaurant Pyongyang Haedanghwa. Run as a money-making venture by the North Korean government, the grilled beef, pickled cabbage and seafood pancakes are possibly the best Korean food in Beijing. If you're lucky, the staff will serenade you with North Korean folk songs.

(6502-3557)

9 p.m. - A final drink at Yin, the rooftop bar of the Emperor Hotel, will wash away the strains of the day. There are calming views over the Forbidden City, and if the mood grabs there is an open-air jacuzzi. (www.theemperor.com.cn/)

Top tips for travelers:

- The standard of English is poor. Have your destination written down in Chinese, and get a local SIM card for your phone.

- The subway is not for the weak-willed or faint of heart.

- Flights leaving Beijing airport are often late.

- Pick up a copy of free listings magazines in English, like Time Out Beijing or the Beijinger, at restaurants around town.

(Additional reporting by Emma Graham-Harrison, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith)

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