Cradle of great empires and dynasties for more than 3,000 years, Beijing is a city with an epic past and a bright future. Located in the northeast of the country just south of the Great Wall, it is China’s political and cultural capital with just under 20 million inhabitants. Famed for its magnificent temples, palaces and classical gardens, Beijing has witnessed a construction surge over the past decade, exemplified by the eye-catching stadia built for the 2008 Summer Olympics. Some of these stunning buildings have been turned into visitor attractions, like the National Aquatics Center or Water Cube (www.water-cube.com/en), now Asia's largest water park.
Where better to start your exploration of Beijing than Tiananmen, Gate of Heavenly Peace? Guarded by stone lions, this national symbol dates to 1420 and marks the entrance to the Imperial City. The National Museum of China (www.chnmuseum.cn) and Palace Museum (www.dpm.org.cn) are among many important buildings in or near the Forbidden City. For something different, visit the avant-garde 798 Art Zone (www.798space.com) in the Dashanzi district, or Beijing Zoo with its giant pandas. If you have a few days in Beijing, take one to visit the Great Wall. Badaling may be crowded but it's conveniently close to the city and boasts long stretches of Wall – and on the way back you can visit the UNESCO-listed Summer Palace and Ming Dynasty Tombs. A little further away is Mutianyu, another well-restored Wall section which you can toboggan down.
Shopping in Beijing is not for claustrophobes. Sharpen your elbows and rehearse your bartering skills (in mime if you don't speak Mandarin) before heading to bazaars such as Silk Market (Chaoyangmen), Yashow Market (Chaoyang district) and the Panjiayuan antiques market. Expect designer clothes and accessories (some fake, some not), electronic goods, toys, fabrics and jewellery. You’ll find vintage fashions and souvenirs in the Gulou neighbourhood, and international brands at Sanlitun Village mall (www.sanlitunvillage.com).
Exploring Beijing’s gastronomic options would take a lifetime. Whether it’s a hot and sour soup or a glazed whole suckling pig, the emphasis is on fresh ingredients and vivid flavours. Visit the home of Peking Duck at Quanjude (http://www.quanjude.com.cn/e_about.html), a famous, long-standing restaurant whose All-Duck Banquet offers exactly what the name suggests. The Courtyard (www.courtyardbeijing.com) is housed in a historic building with stunning views of the Forbidden City. Run by Buddhists, Pure Lotus Vegetarian (12 Nongzhanguan Nahlu, Chaoyang District) serves meat-free versions of Chinese cuisine.
Catch a show at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (www.chncpa.org), a sleek titanium and glass construction nicknamed ‘The Egg’. LAN (4/F Twintowers, B-12 Jianguomenwai Avenue) is a vast, opulent bar created by Philippe Starck where both the design and the cocktails will make your head spin: think velvet upholstery and fake wall-mounted animal heads. Housed in a renovated courtyard, Bed Bar (17 Zhangwang Hutong, Xicheng District) is a maze-like complex full of cosy nooks in which to chill out with a mojito.
If you can live with the transport chaos, the 15-day celebration of the Chinese New Year around February is an unforgettable experience. Other stand-out events include the Lantern Festival on the 15th day of the new year, and April’s Qingming Festival, marking the arrival of spring.