During the Thanksgiving break, I had 4 days to enjoy Beijing, China – and given the lack of knowledge out there, very few clues on the outset as to what to do with my time. Without a doubt, Beijing keeps a low-profile from afar; while it may seem less entertaining than Shanghai and Hong Kong, I soon discovered that it’s near-impossible to find yourself bored or hungry there, either.
I came home wanting to write down my experiences with fulfilling some very fundamental traveler needs, which no amount of Google searching could seem to address (yes, it’s true, Google is blocked in China). They are:
- Interesting neighborhoods to explore;
- World-class food & drink (especially coffee); and most importantly
- Massage and day spas
Here’s a summary on each point, which I hope you find to be of benefit to your own Beijing travels.
Interesting neighborhoods to explore
First thing out of the gate – unless you visit at an especially auspicious time, Beijing’s air quality will vary, day-to-day, from fair to extremely bad. At least two of my days there stated off with blue skies, then slowly turned to what seems to be the default – an ominous beige/brown screen, containing goodness-knows-what toxic stuff.
Long story short: It’s recommended that you buy and wear a face mask while exploring, regardless of your thoughts on how they look. Homewares and gift stores like Miniso stock a wide variety of cute ones and hey, it’s not a bad personal souvenir.
With that out of the way, I recommend checking out:
Wudaoying Hutong (五道营胡同) – This strip includes a wonderful assortment of upmarket cafes and restaurants. It’s also within striking distance of the Lama Temple. Nearest Metro is Yonghegong (Lama Temple) Station.
Nanluoguxiang (South Luguo Alley, 南锣鼓巷) – Head north from the Metro to enjoy a mix of boutiques, cafes (like the cozy, artsy Peking Cafe) and concepts that seem to have come straight from Pinterest. Nearest Metro is Nanluoguxiang.
Beijing 798 Art District (大山子) – Further afield, this incredible, gallery-filled neighborhood is something you wish existed in your city, before it became crazy-gentrified (assuming your city had artists to begin with). It’s a strange mix of gritty and upscale, with industrial spaces being repurposed as art spaces and luxury vehicles jostling with rickshaws to shuttle the weekend crowds around. It gets fairly quiet after 6pm. Nearest Metro is Wangjing South, however you’ll likely need a rickshaw from the Metro to the gate anyway (~¥20); save yourself the effort by hailing a taxi to/from Central Beijing. It may seem far on the map, but when traffic is moving, the trip is only 20-30mins.
A note on the taxis: They may seem intimidating on the outset, especially so after your first rejection (you don’t so much choose your taxi driver, as they do you). However, the mechanics are fairly simple. Taxis can be hailed anywhere. If you don’t know how to say your destination, have the name written down, or on your phone. When the ride is underway, insist that the driver turns on the meter. Fares are ¥13 for the first 3km, then cost another ¥1.50 or so, every km after that. Frequent rejection and spotty meter usage aside, taxis are a convenient and relatively inexpensive way to get around town.
World-class food & drink
Finding great, well-priced food is not a problem in Beijing. Finding vegetarian food, however, is a little more challenging. As our group discovered, the concept of vegetarianism isn’t always well understood, however, stating that “I eat vegetables” (wo chi su – 我吃素) works most of the time, even in the underground food halls.
Here’s two favorites, thankfully with veggie-friendly options:
Dadong Roast Duck Restaurant (Jinbao St) – This is the place to go, if you’re looking to “splurge” on a high-end meal, but not burn your wallet too much in the process. In addition to the well-celebrated roast duck, diners are treated to two heavy and cumbersome menus, with dishes bearing all the floss and foam that you’d expect from an episode of Chef’s Table. Our party of 3 walked in after 8pm on a weeknight, were seated in 15mins, ordered half a duck, wine and a couple of dishes and set ourselves back by less than ¥800 (~$130 USD).
Din Tai Fung in APM Shopping Mall (Wangfujing St) – Dumpling lovers, this place does not disappoint. Drop by the world’s most busy Apple Store, enter the mall, go up 6 floors and ta-da! Xiao long bao (soup dumpling) heaven.
Okay, so what’s really important is the coffee. Both Wudaoying and Nanluoguxiang (see above neighborhoods) have no lack of options, but what became our morning staple was the oh-so-shiny bakery chain, Holiland. Conveniently, there is a Holiland outside of Dongsi Station, where we would start our adventures by admiring their cake display over free sponge cake samples and a cup of coffee.
Finding a fantastic massage
It was a bit of a mistake assuming that because Beijing is an Asian city, it would be absolutely rolling in day spas, much like Bangkok. After all, “Chinese massage” is a thing, right?
The reality is that finding a great day spa in Beijing is in part, detective work and in part, just getting lucky. Also, not all are created equal. The ones we visited ranged in quality from a bed in what looked like someone’s laundry room, to a luxury suite in a modern highrise, ala Oriental Taipan.
The other factor is that price doesn’t necessarily mean quality or services. Said laundry room was still more expensive than a full-service spa, but perhaps only because it was within striking distance of the Silk Street (Xiushui) Market.
So, the two spas (of four visited) that I really liked during my trip to Beijing:
Oriental Taipan (东方大班) – The Central Park branch of this high-end day spa chain is well worth the trip outside of the main tourist zone. Only 5 minutes walk from Dongdaqiao Station and close to fancy shopping area The Place, what it lacks in the historical charm of the hutongs, it makes up for in shiny and newness.
I opted for a 1-hour signature body massage during their daily happy hour (anytime prior to 5pm), which gave me 10% off the ¥268 price. This package included a private room, a choice of healthy juices and even appetizers! I ordered a plate of dumplings and it didn’t disappoint.
The massage itself was just perfect and the serene room helped me drift off. Afterwards, they didn’t seem to mind us lingering around and enjoying the view.
The Oriental Taipan website has their full service menu and location addresses in English.
Beijing Dongquiao Shizhian Jianshenfuwu Youxiangongsi – So, this is a bit of a wild horse favorite, of mine, anyway. It has no website, the hotel it’s located within – Beijing Dongdan Silver Road – has no website, plus the fact that it’s located in the basement makes me think that it was never meant to be found at all. However, we stumbled across it while walking down Dongsi N St, on the way back to our accommodation, thanks to a “SPA” sign outside of the hotel.
In short, this place is not for the faint of heart, but for the quality of massage and unbeatable price, you may be willing to overlook its basement location and well, that the front desk staff look like mobsters. So, it may all be a front – but at ¥160 for 80 minutes of bliss, at least the price won’t likely get you into hot water!
As you can see, there are enjoyable ways to escape from Beijing’s ever-present smog and recover from long days of sightseeing. Talking about sightseeing, I found that Wanderlust Pocket Guides’ “Best of Beijing” book was ideal for planning out attractions to visit over a 4-day stay; paired with the kind staff at Yue Xuan Courtyard Garden, we were able to easily organize a driver for a Great Wall trip, as well as get an address card for Beijing 798 Art District, so we could visit it independently.
Overall, I had a fantastic time in Beijing and would love to visit again, likely during warmer weather. If you get the opportunity to visit – or have it on your radar – leave a comment below. I’d love to know what you have planned!