Best of Beijing & Shanghai
- Beijing’s Best Sights
- Beijing’s Best Restaurants
- Beijing’s Best Nightlife
- Beijing’s Best Arts and Leisure
- Beijing’s Best Shops
- Beijing’s Best Hotels
- Best of the Great Wall
- Shanghai’s Best Sights
- Shanghai’s Best Restaurants
- Shanghai’s Best Nightlife
- Shanghai’s Best Arts and Leisure
- Shanghai’s Best Shops
- Shanghai’s Best Hotels
- Shanghai’s Best Excursions
You’ve flown into Beijing, which is laid out around the Forbidden City, so this is a logical place to start. Grab some brunch at the Big Tree Café, just north of the Forbidden City, then spend a couple of hours wandering through the courtyards and pavilions of the Forbidden City.
The sprawling former home of China’s emperors is a treasure trove of history, with beautifully decorated halls, shady courtyards, and impressive statues. Don’t miss the stunning Nine Dragon frieze with its brightly colored tiles, and be sure to admire the opulent former living quarters of the imperial concubines.
Behind the palace, there’s pretty Beihai Park, with its white dagoba. Take some time to stroll around the park and admire the greenery, then grab lunch at one of the many lakeside eateries around Houhai, like Hutong Pizza.
Next, wander down through Beihai Park to Tian’anmen Square where Mao’s portrait watches over the enormous plaza. Check out the chairman’s preserved body at the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, then gawk at macabre relics like photographs of crime scenes and assassinations (plus the guns used by the assassins!) at the Beijing Police Museum.
Head west to Wangfujing Avenue and sample some unusual street food—scorpions on sticks, whole barbequed squid, and exotic bugs—at the buzzing night market. Stop by Redmoon bar for a glass of wine, then stay the night at nearby Hotel Kapok for an affordably luxurious experience.
After feasting on a hearty German-style breakfast at trendy Zarah, spend your second day at two of Beijing’s most important historic sites. Head up to the Summer Palace in the morning to acquaint yourself with the complex where the imperial court would spend their summers to escape the heat of the city. Explore the stunning Long Gallery, take a boat ride on immense Kunming Lake, and stroll down quaint Suzhou Market Street, where the emperor would pretend he was one of the “common people” by haggling in a marketplace run by his staff.
Head back into town for a nice lunch at The Whampoa Club on Financial Street, spend the afternoon at the Temple of Heaven, which sits inside over 3 million square yards of parkland and was once considered to be the most important of four sacrificial temples in Beijing. Be sure to visit the triple-gabled, vividly colored Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests within the temple compound, which is one of Beijing’s most iconic structures.
Next, take your time strolling through the Legation Quarter, which lies directly east of Tian’anmen Square. It was home to many foreign embassies during the latter part of the Qing Dynasty, but the colonial-era buildings of the Quarter are now home to high-end restaurants and art galleries. Take a peek into a few of the galleries, but try to resist venturing into one of the restaurants, as you’ve got other plans in store for dinner tonight.
You can’t leave Beijing without trying the city’s most famous specialty: Beijing duck. Some of the city’s best and leanest Beijing duck can be had at Da Dong; you’ll want to make a reservation ahead of time, however, as Da Dong is very popular. For this evening’s entertainment, take in a show at Tianqiao Acrobatics Theater and prepare to be amazed by the dexterous members of the Beijing Acrobatic Troupe. Tuck into bed at the well-located and affordable Rainbow Hotel.
Start your day with a leisurely breakfast at Alba; if the weather is nice, grab a table on the sunny roof terrace. A trip to Beijing wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the Great Wall, so strap on your walking shoes, throw some snacks and water into your bag, and hail a taxi. The accessible but quiet Great Wall at Mutianyu is a great choice for a day trip. The Wall here is well preserved and perfect for a hike. Explore the watchtowers dating from the Ming Dynasty, and take in the stunning mountain scenery.
If, like many before you, you are entranced and enchanted by the Wall and you decide to stay the night, rent a guesthouse from The Schoolhouse at Mutianyu or a room from one of its affiliated hotels like the Brickyard Inn & Eco-Retreat.
If you’re anxious to get back to experiencing Beijing, however, head back to town in the afternoon to familiar territory: Qianmen’s Legation Quarter. There, explore the Urban Planning Exhibition Hall, where you’ll find an incredible scale model of Beijing and learn about the city’s history and plans for its future.
For dinner, you don’t have to go far for a memorable experience. Splurge a little on French fare at nearby Maison Boulud, housed in the former U.S. embassy building. Make sure to grab a drink at the restaurant’s bar, Fresco, either before or after dinner. You’ll no doubt be tired from your long day of sightseeing, so head up Qianmen Avenue and check into the Capital Hotel for the night. The hotel doesn’t look like much from the outside, but the decor and luxurious guest rooms, some with a view of the Forbidden City, belie the hotel’s 5-star status.
Spend today in the Chaoyang District, starting at Chef Too with a late brunch. After you’re full to bursting with eggs Benedict or French toast, cruise over to 798 Art District and lose yourself amid the many galleries. Make sure to check out the Iberia Center for Contemporary Art and the 798 Photo Gallery. If you need to reenergize, grab a latte at nearby AT Café, then browse the excellent selection of books at Timezone 8.
Next up, brave the crowds at the Silk Street Market, where anywhere from 20,000-60,000 people may cross its threshold in a given day. Here, you can practice your bargaining skills and purchase tacky souvenirs, bags, and jewelry, among many other options. After you’ve gotten your goods and your wallet is verging on empty, relax and recuperate in pretty Chaoyang Park. Stroll around the park and admire the flower gardens or pick a patch of grass and lie down for a while. Rent a bike or take a boat ride around the lake, then head into the heart of Sanlitun for the evening.
Try the deservedly famous hot pot at Hai Di Lao, where you can customize your order at the sauce station, and even get a manicure while you wait for your food! After dinner, check out Babu Space for a taste of Beijing’s famous street art. If you fall in love with one of the many paintings, photographs, or illustrations on display, check to see if it’s for sale, and you may be able to bring home a one-of-a-kind souvenir of your time in Beijing.
Now it’s time to kick back with an expertly concocted drink at Apothecary. Snack on some New Orleans-style bar food as you sip on a whiskey cocktail and soak up the laidback atmosphere. Tuck in for the night at boutique hotel The Opposite House, known to be among the chicest and trendiest hotels in the city. For the night owls, the hotel is also home to Mesh bar, good for a glass of wine and chatting with friends, or Punk, with its late-night parties.
Sleep in a bit and enjoy a lazy brunch at The Vineyard, known for its mouth-watering hot breakfasts. For today’s adventure, you’ll want to rent a bicycle and explore the picturesque hutong alleys of Houhai’s Gulou Avenue—but try not to get lost! Cycle over to Zhongwan Hutong and visit the Drum and Bell Towers. These eye-catching structures date from the 1200s and were used as time-keeping devices for the Forbidden City complex.
Head back onto Gulou Avenue and try some tasty Yunnanese food at Dali Courtyard for lunch. Make sure to take a peek at the rooms just off the restaurant’s courtyard—they’re filled with quirky ornaments and knick-knacks. Make your way to the Penghao Theater to catch a play in the intimate performance space. Penghao specializes in community and youth theater, and is a great way to experience true Beijing culture. If you’ve got time to kill before the show starts, grab a drink at the theater’s rooftop bar.
On your way to dinner, make sure to pass through Nanluoguxiang, the buzzing hutong full of unique shops and food vendors. An absolute must here for the ultimate souvenir is Plastered T-shirts. If you can resist the tempting smells from the street food vendors, you can pay homage to your earlier visit to the Drum and Bell Towers by dining at Nanluoguxiang’s Drum and Gong. Adventurous eaters can try the kung pao chicken pizza, but the Yunnan mushrooms are always a hit.
After dinner, pop in to Mao Mao Chong for a nightcap. If you feel like staying out late, get a taste of Beijing’s rock scene at the nearby MAO Livehouse, located in a converted warehouse on East Gulou Avenue. If you’re tuckered out, spend the night at the charming Lusongyuan courtyard hotel. Or, get a head start on the second half of your trip by taking the overnight train to Shanghai.
Once you’ve arrived in Shanghai, spend a morning on the Bund and you’ll witness the city’s contrasts firsthand. Buy some savory buns for breakfast at Yang’s Fried Dumplings, and eat on the go, as you walk east down the Bund Promenade. Go as far as the Cool Docks and you’ll see the breathtaking modern skyline of Pudong’s Lujiazui financial district across the Huangpu River. Look for the futuristic Oriental Pearl Tower, Shanghai’s first skyscraper; the pagoda-esque Jin Mao Tower, which features an octagonal floor plan and is the site of the world’s longest laundry chute; and the Shanghai World Financial Center, known commonly as the “Bottle Opener” thanks to the gap near the top of the building.
For lunch, hang out at the Cool Docks and grab a snack at Kebabs on the Grille. Hop on the Huangpu River Cruise and choose the three-hour trip to get to know Shanghai via boat. On your way up to the mouth of the Yangtze River, you’ll pass the castle-shaped Yangshupu Water Plant and the Wusong Fort, where the Opium Wars were fought. Treat yourself to a Taiwanese feast at Din Tai Fung, where you’ll get the chance to try xiaolongbao and jiaozi if you haven’t already.
Soak up Shanghai’s streets at night with a stroll, then meander back over to the Jin Mao Tower and stop in for a drink at Cloud 9, one of the world’s tallest bars. If you’re feeling indulgent, check into the Grand Hyatt for the night—it’s expensive, but worth every yuan you’ll spend. Luxuriate in the marble-encased bathroom and admire the view from way up high before getting a good night’s rest.
Grab a smoothie from Element Fresh for breakfast, then spend the morning in the Old City, with its temples and bazaars, and brave the tourist throng at Yu Garden to take in the telltale dark wood, red and gold paint, and upturned eaves indicative of Shanghai’s historic architecture. Along with the garden after which it’s named, the complex includes the City God Temple and a shopping bazaar. Wander around the garden, being sure to visit the rockery and the teahouse. If you’re feeling peckish, join the line at Nanxiang Mantou and order some mantou buns to snack on.
Next, head over to Tianzifang and immerse yourself in the quaint lanes with their independent boutiques, outdoor cafés, and art galleries. From here, lose yourself in the tree-flanked streets of the Old French Concession. Wind your way up to Xintiandi and learn about Shanghai’s old shikumen (stone gate) architecture at the Shikumen Open House Museum before dining on Peruvian fare at Chicha. Grab a drink a the lounge-y El Cóctel, where there’s always a place to sit. After midnight, night owls will want to make their way to The Shelter, which is known for its till-dawn parties. Once you’re partied out, lay your weary head on a pillow at the Pudi Boutique Hotel on Yandang Road, one of Shanghai’s pedestrian streets.
Have breakfast at the Wagas in Jing’an, then hop on a train and head to the beautiful old canal city of Suzhou. Wander the narrows paths of the Humble Administrator’s Garden, one of China’s most attractive Ming Dynasty gardens, and admire the quaint pavilions, shaded ponds, and lush trees. Dine at Dain Ti Hill for lunch, then finish off your trip with a visit to Pan Gate, Suzhou’s city gate and site of historical importance. Be sure to check out the ancient Ruigang Pagoda and the Wu Gate, both of which date back some 2,500 years. Take the train back to Shanghai and make your way into the Old French Concession. Dine on upscale American food at Bistro Burger; be sure to sample a spiked milkshake while you’re there. A few blocks away, you can sleep in comfort at the quirky Hengshan Moller Villa.
Start your day in the Old French Concession and enjoy a Viennese breakfast at Vienna Café. Then head over to the Old City, and spend the morning shopping like a true Shanghailander. Visit the Dongtai Road Antiques Market, then haul your bags over to Jing’an’s Fenshine Plaza for some faux-designer goods. Head to the edges of the city and spend the afternoon at the M50 art complex in northern Shanghai. The galleries and studios that make up M50 are housed inside an old warehouse complex by Suzhou Creek.
Next, head south across Changshou Road to check out the Jade Buddha Temple with its many lovely statues (including the eponymous Buddha). Start heading back into the heart of the city, stopping off at Pizza Street for a quick bite.
Make a stop at People’s Park before the sun sets and take in the urban views around you. If you have the time, take in a concert at the Shanghai Concert Hall, situated on park land. Venture over to Dagu Road for dinner and tickle your taste buds with New Zealand cuisine at Little Huia. Check in to the spacious Le Tour Traveler’s Rest hostel to save a few yuan for your last day in Shanghai.
Start your final day in People’s Square, the throbbing heart of Shanghai. Go underground for breakfast at Café du Metro in a below-ground mall under the People’s Square Metro Station. Next, take in some contemporary art at MOCA Shanghai, then shop till you drop on West Nanjing Road (stopping off at Plaza 66, one of the giant shopping malls along the road). Once you reach Jing’an Temple, take some time to admire the gilded roofs and the giant copper bell, then hop on the metro to East Nanjing Road and take a walk along the Bund Promenade as night falls.
Treat yourself to dinner at M on the Bund for your final meal and enjoy the view of the glittering skyline. Spend your last night in the lap of luxury at the Bund’s Fairmont Peace Hotel and say goodbye to Shanghai as you head to the airport in the morning.
© Susie Gordon from Moon Beijing & Shanghai, 2nd Edition