Before making the move to Beijing in 2011, St. Louis-native Jessica Rapp had been a tourist for years, traveling to China’s capital on various occasions to visit her Chinese host-family and sister, Sunny. Having studied linguistics and Chinese culture in University, each time she visited, she fell more in love with the rapidly evolving city until she couldn’t help but call it home. Before she even fully settled in, Jessica began writing about Beijing and contributing to local publications such as City Weekend and Beijinger Magazine, where she worked as an editor, unearthing and sharing the best Beijing has to offer in style and nightlife. Passionate though she is about sharing China’s creative scene with people across the globe, Jessica is also an eager supporter of all of the new changes Beijing has undergone and adopted in the last few years. When she’s not writing or designing, you can find Jessica selling secondhand clothing at local markets through her own garment recycling program, supporting local, organic food movements, or hanging out at all of the new microbreweries. Today, we’re thrilled to have Jessica share her personal take on Beijing, from her favorite watering holes to the hidden gems and must-visit places, broken down by neighborhood. –Sabrina
Beijing is a different city to me every few months. It’s a given that the city is developing incredibly quickly, but at times I find it difficult to decide whether it’s me or the city that’s doing more of the changing. When I moved here from St. Louis, Missouri in 2011, I had already explored Beijing for two summers with the help of Sunny, my 11-year-old Chinese host sister. I took to eating at my favorite hole-in-the-wall restaurants and relied on only a few Western fallbacks (translation: Pizza Hut), and explored clothing markets with Korean imports and wild knockoffs.
The following year, I became style and nightlife editor at an English-language city magazine. I expected to be covering the average expat hangouts you’d find in any large Asian city, but it turned out there was much more creativity brewing behind the scenes.
That one undiscovered cocktail bar turned into 10 in a matter of months. I still can’t manage to find a basic deli, but a new craft brewery seems to open every few weeks. My makeup is still imported, but handcrafted soaps are appearing everywhere. Entrepreneurial energy in this increasingly international city is often without rules – and incredibly contagious.
After you have hiked the Great Wall, explored the Forbidden City, and sampled Beijing duck, reference the guide below for a taste of the Chinese capital’s infectious creative energy.
Some people have referred to Gulou as Beijing’s answer to Williamsburg, and between its craft beer and cocktails, and its independent designer boutiques, it’s hard to disagree. The area is home to some of the most “touristy” spots in the capital as well, so prepare yourself for kitsch and crowds.
Compared to the bustle of Gulou Dongdajie, the area’s main thoroughfare, The Orchid’s location in the hutong, Beijing’s traditional alleyways, is a welcome retreat. The spacious rooms have heated floors and air purifiers, but The Orchid’s shaded terraces are the real reason to stay there. Enjoy a brunch with homemade bread, jam and Yunnan coffee while looking out over Beijing’s old roofs.
On a blue-sky day, the lanes around the Shichahai lakes make for a nice stroll, swim, or tandem bike ride. Skip the touristy snack stalls and explore the residential area famous for its former imperial homes.
At night, catch local and international rock and punk acts at MAO Livehouse, or check Dada’s schedule to find out when their next packed DJ set will be. Finish off a night of dancing with a late-night meal at the Xinjiang dive on Gulou Dongdajie, just west of the entrance to Nanluogu Xiang.
Nanluogu Xiang can be a nightmare for the claustrophobic, so go in the morning before it gets too busy. Check out NLGX and Plastered T-shirts for clothing and accessories featuring modern interpretations of iconic Chinese imagery.
Gulou Dongdajie is packed with streetwear and vintage shops. Don’t miss the beautifully curated Mega Mega Vintage.
If you’re looking for Italian that’s miles more authentic than, ahem, Pizza Hut, then Mercante is your place. Dine on handmade pasta followed by superb panna cotta in a cozy hutong space tastefully decorated with retro Chinese bric-a-brac.
Taste cuisine from southern China’s Yunnan Province at Hani Gejiu, a restaurant featuring in-season, locally grown food run by chef Sue Zhou. Don’t leave without trying their fried cheese or roast fish.
Great Leap Brewing has grown from a modest hutong courtyard bar into three bustling locations serving a rotating lineup of craft beers. Try the Iron Buddha or the Liu the Brave if they have them on tap.
Mao Mao Chong is the place to go on Tuesday and Wednesday nights for drink deals on craft cocktails with Chinese-inspired flavors. Numb the tastebuds with a Mala Mule tinged with Sichuan peppercorn.
Andingmen, Yonghegong, and Beixinqiao
Reserve these large hutong neighborhoods that branch off from the Lama Temple for an afternoon of browsing incense shops, eating jasmine tea soft-serve at Wuyutai Tea Shop, and the activities below.
Get your haircut while sipping on a glass of wine and browsing exhibitions by Beijing-based international artists at Aotu Studio. Check their schedule to find out when their next makers’ market, indie film screening, or guest bartender event will take place.
Wudaoying Hutong makes for a perfect post-Lama Temple shopping spree. Must-stops: Delia, with its Hong Kong retro décor and eyewear, and Zi Wu, featuring lovely handmade leather bags, vintage leather shoes, and indie jewelry.
Off a side street from Wudaoying, Stuff’d does handmade sausages and a great pulled pork sandwich. Behind their homey dining room is their new Arrow Factory craft beer hideout.
For homemade toast and jam in an intimate, former hole-in-the-wall shop, head to Wu Jin. Ask for a juice, and the server pops over to the market next door to grab fresh produce.
To spice things up, there is an entire street dedicated to setting your mouth on fire: Ghost Street, or Guijie. Many of the restaurants on Guijie stay open all night, serving up hot pot and roast fish, as well as snacks like spicy duck neck, spicy crawfish, and endless bottles of Tsingtao beer.
Get your fill of rum from a Moroccan expert at Cu Ju, or for more intensity in true Chinese style, head to Capital Spirits for a flight of baijiu, a Chinese grain alcohol that makes vodka seem like soda water.
If you’re into the idea of a hip tropical getaway in the hutong, then head to Más for a relaxing daiquiri and tapas on their porch.
Head south from Tiananmen Square and you’ll find Dashilar, a neighborhood whose history dates back more than 500 years. It’s currently on the way to becoming a hub for creatives, who are setting up shop in beautifully restored buildings sandwiched between noodle stalls and modest residences.
Yangmeizhu Hutong runs parallel to Dashilar and is part of a former publishing and media district, making it the perfect place to diversify your magazine collection at Book Design Shop, a snug space filled with indie publications sourced from Tokyo, Taipei and Beijing.
Handcrafted leather goods and stylish workwear stores are abundant on Yangmeizhu. Try Revolution for flannel and work boots or head next door to Liu + Workshop for locally made leather bags and Taciturnli, a Beijing answer to American casual menswear.
Pamper yourself with afternoon tea at the gorgeous Capital M, where you have a view of Tiananmen and the Forbidden City. Capital M also hosts talks, tours, movie nights, and other Chinese cultural events, so check their schedule to see what’s happening when you’re in town.
Indulge in seasonal desserts and chocolates on Spoonful of Sugar’s rooftop next to their aquaponic garden, where they also grow many of their ingredients.
Get your caffeine hit in a former public bathhouse, now Soloist. Their baristas will happily educate customers on their specialty coffee, offering workshops for the caffeine-obsessed.
Taikoo Li is shopping heaven, but more importantly, it’s where people go to be seen. Don’t be surprised if, on your way to the Apple Store, you spot street style photography in action.
If you want dim sum and Peking duck without leaving your hotel, then The Opposite House has you covered. Designed by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, it makes for a stylish hideaway in Beijing’s busy shopping district.
Anyone traveling among Beijing’s crowds deserves to be pampered. Sanlitun has spas to suit a range of price points, but Bodhi is a personal favorite for a foot massage.
Dine light and healthy at Tribe, where fresh greens are sourced from TooToo Organic Farm for a menu with gluten free-options. Nearby Modo Urban Deli does picnic baskets you can tote to Chaoyang Park or Ritan Park.
The Taco Bar was a godsend to those craving Mexican food in Beijing when they first opened as a secret courtyard kitchen, so you can imagine the reaction when owner Kin Hong announced he would open a full-on restaurant. Save room after your tacos for a huge bowl of canelitas — sharing is optional.
Bring all your friends for a trip to Haidilao Hot Pot. Order the noodles for 5 RMB (about 81 cents for a few servings), and prepare to be amazed when a kid brings over a portable radio and proceeds to do a “noodle dance” before plopping the freshly pulled noodles in your soup.
Jing A started out as a mobile pop-up, but has since set roots in in a brick-and-mortar taproom. Their fun crew often brews beer with Chinese ingredients, including hawthorn fruit, Osmanthus flower, and of course, Sichuan peppercorn.
Beijing’s cocktail scene has come on in leaps and bounds in recent years. Janes and Hooch was named one of the best new bars in the world in 2013 by Condé Nast Traveler, while BBC offers a barber-shop shave alongside superb, made-to-order drinks from award-winning bartenders. Meanwhile, Hidden House, located behind a bookcase in a faux shopfront, is Beijing’s best speakeasy-style bar.
Migas is synonymous with unforgettable nights out. A typical rooftop tropical disco, house, or funk party lasts until sunrise. If you can make it that long, you might as well forgo sleep and wait around for their killer Spanish brunch to get underway.
And if that doesn’t fill up your schedule…
One of the best souvenirs you can take from Beijing is the knowledge of how to cook Chinese food in your own home. The Hutong offers classes, movie nights, and even cycling trips if you’re in it for the long run.
New art galleries are popping up all over the city, but 798 Art District remains a great place to browse countless memorable exhibitions and shops.
Food safety concerns in Beijing have prompted the development of several organic farmers’ markets. Try Farm to Neighbors in Gulou on Sundays, or the Beijing Farmers’ Market just about any time of the week for produce, rice wines, cheese, and souvenirs you’ll be hard-pressed to find anywhere else.