China’s capital since the Mongol Yuan dynasty, Beijing is one of China’s true ancient citadels. It is also an aspiring, confident and modern city that seems assured of its destiny to rule over China ad infinitum.

A vast and symmetrical metropolis, Beijing is the orderly seat of the communist political power in China, so its architecture traces each and every mood swing from 1949 to the present, from felled hútòng (narrow alleys) to huge underground bomb shelters scooped out during the paranoid 1970s. One moment you are sizing up a blank Soviet-style monument, the next you spot a vast, shimmering tower rising up from the footprint of a vanished temple.

History may have been trampled in Beijing over the past half century, but there’s still much more substance here than in China’s other dynastic capitals, bar Nánj?ng or K?if?ng. You just need to do a bit of hunting and patient exploration to find the historical narrative. It’s also essential to sift the genuine from the fake: some of Beijing’s once-illustrious past has been fitfully resurrected in the trompe-l’oeil of rebuilt monuments. Colossal flyovers and multilane boulevards heave with more than three million cars but ample pockets of historical charm survive. It’s the city’s epic imperial grandeur, however, that is truly awe-inspiring.

Frank and uncomplicated, Beijing’s denizens chat in Beijinghuà – the gold standard of Mandarin – and marvel at their good fortune for occupying the centre of the known world. And for all its diligence and gusto, Beijing dispenses with the persistent pace of Shàngh?i or Hong Kong, and locals instead find time to sit out front, play chess and watch the world go by.

A bit of Beijing

 Beijing redefines and reinvents itself constantly. Stunning historical sights rub shoulders with cutting-edge architecture as the pace of change leaves residents breathless. There is a sense that this once conservative capital is enjoying the time of its life. Here is a quick taste test of what the city has to offer.

Things to see

  • China’s best-preserved ancient site, the Forbidden City was home to the Ming and Qing dynasties. It is a striking series of wooden structures and courtyards full of imperial treasures (subway Tiananmen Xi or Tiananmen Dong; 8.30am- 3.30pm Oct-Apr, 8.30am-4pm May to Sept).
  • The former factory workshops of 798 Art District are now part of Beijing ’s art community. Peruse modern Chinese art at highlight galleries White Space Beijing and Beijing Tokyo Art Projects (10am-6pm; take the subway to Dongzhimen station, then bus 909 to Dashanzi Lukounan).
  • The verdant gardens and pavilions of the Summer Palace were a playground for the imperial court. Glittering Kunming Lake swallows up three-quarters of the grounds (19 Xinjian Gongmen; 8.30am-5pm; £9).
  • The Great Wall wriggles to the Gobi Desert across hill country north of Beijing . The stretch at Mutianyu is the second closest section to town (reachable in 1½ hours) but less commercialised than Badaling. Many hotels run tours, but you can take the 916 bus from Dongzhimen (wall open daily; £5, cable car access £5).
  • Panjiayuan, aka the Dirt Market or Sunday market, takes place at weekends and has everything from Cultural Revolution memorabilia to Buddha heads. Bargain hard (off Dongsanhuan Nanlu; dawn-6pm Sat-Sun).

Where to eat

  • Donghuamen Night Market , near Wangfujing Dajie, is a food zoo: expect lamb kebabs, smelly tofu, cicadas, quails’ eggs, squid, strawberry kebabs and more. Look out for the dragon-spouted copper kettles of xin gren cha vendors for an almond-flavoured sugar rush.
  • Swat aside the English tourist menu at Niuge Jiaozi and stick to what this place does best – servings of steaming, plump dumplings. Aim for the lamb and onion or roast duck. The restaurant has no English sign, but is opposite a building signed ‘Hualong Street’.
  • Treat yourself to home-style cuisine at Xiao Wang’s Home Restaurant. Go for one of the specials: deep-fried spare ribs with pepper salt or hot and spicy chicken wings.Beijing Dadong Roast Duck Restaurant is a favourite of Peking duck aficionados. Its hallmark bird is a crispy, lean duck without the usual high fat content, plus plum sauce, spring onions and pancakes.
  • The Source is a swish Sichuan restaurant with a romantic courtyard setting. The set menus offer typically spicy Sichuan dishes such as hot mapo beancurd (14 Banchang Hutong; lunch and dinner; set menus £12 or £18).

Getting around here

Beijing ’s Capital Airport is 17 miles from the centre. The Airport Line light-rail connects with the underground at Dongzhimen (£2.50). A taxi into the city costs around £8.50.How to get aroundThe subway is fast, reliable and reaches most points of interest. Line 1 runs east-west, Line 5 north-south and Line 2 circles the city. The flat fare is 20p. Most hotels can arrange taxis and bikes (bike rental £2.50 per day; taxis charge 20p per km).

Money & costs

 MoneyForeign currency and travellers cheques can be changed at large branches of the Bank of China, CITIC Industrial Bank, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, HSBC, the airport and hotel moneychanging counters, and at several department stores (including the Friendship Store), as long as you have your passport. Hotels give the official rate, but some will add a small commission. Useful branches of the Bank of China with foreign-exchange counters include a branch next to Oriental Plaza on Wangfujing Dajie, in the Lufthansa Center Youyi Shopping City, and in the China World Trade Center. For international money transfer, branches of Western Union can be found in the International Post Office and at the post office at No 3 Gongrentiyuchang Beilu (6416 7686).If you have an Amex card, you can also cash personal cheques at CITIC Industrial Bank and large branches of the Bank of China.

ATMs that take international cards can now be found in abundance. The best places to look are in and around the main shopping areas (such as Wangfujing Dajie, Sanlitun) and international hotels and their associated shopping arcades; some large department stores also have useful ATMs. There’s a Bank of China ATM in the Capital Airport arrivals hall. Other useful ATMs are:

  • Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC; 6526 0668, 800-820 8878; www.hsbc.com.cn) Jianguomen Dajie (Ground fl, Block A, COFCO Plaza, 8 Jianguomennei Dajie); China World Hotel (Suite L129, Ground fl, 1 Jianguomenwai Dajie); Lufthansa Center (Ground fl) All have 24-hour ATMs.
  • Industrial & Commercial Bank of China ATM (G?ngsh?ng Yínháng; Wangfujing Dajie) Opposite Bank of China ATM at entrance to Sundongan Plaza.
  • Citibank (6510 2933; www.citibank.com; 16th fl, Tower 2, Bright China Chang’an Bldg, 7 Jianguomennei Dajie) ATM.
  • Bank of China ATM Lufthansa Center Youyi Shopping City (1st fl, Lufthansa Center Youyi Shopping City); Novotel Peace Hotel (foyer, Novotel Peace Hotel, 3 Jinyu Hutong); Oriental Plaza (Oriental Plaza, cnr Wangfujing Dajie & Dongchang’an Jie); Peninsula Beijing (2nd basement level, Peninsula Beijing, 8 Jinyu Hutong); Sundongan Plaza (next to main entrance of Sundongan Plaza on Wangfujing Dajie); Swissôtel (2nd fl, Swissôtel, 2 Chaoyangmen Beidajie)

 From Lonely Planet