The heart and soul of Beijing is found in two districts, Xicheng (West City) and Dongchen (East City), home to many top historical and cultural sites. Xicheng includes Zhongnanhai, home of the country’s senior leadership, as well as the sprawling lakes district known as Shichahai. If you desire to watch hardy souls take a winter dip amidst the ice, you will find it at Houhai Lake, along with hundreds of cafes, bars and restaurants along the banks. Xicheng also has good examples of the hutongs, the alleyways that have traditionally defined the city.
Dongcheng is a must for any tourist. It is home to The Forbidden City and Tian’anmen Square, sitting side by side and both UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It also includes the Temple of Heaven, Lama Temple, and the Drum Tower and Bell Tower area with its hip cafés, restaurants, and shops. Historical areas such as the Legation Quarter, home of the embassies of the past, and Qianmen, the city’s south gate that first appeared on this site in 1419, have seen facelifts and, while not everyone appreciates the outcome, they remain popular stops. Guijie (Ghost Street) is a favorite for fans of hotpot, especially late at night.
Three additional districts surround this core. Chaoyang, to the north and east, is the most cosmopolitan area of the city. It hosts nearly all of the city’s 150-plus embassies, the headquarters of many foreign companies, and top Western bars and restaurants, notably in the Sanlitun area. It has notable green areas, such as the sprawling Chaoyang Park and the smaller but more historical Ritan Park, shopping districts such as the Silk Market and Russian-influenced Yabao Street, and the large art district 798. It is vast enough to include Beijing Capital Airport and, with nearly four million people, has a population almost as big as that of New Zealand.
Haidian, to the north and west, has a far different focus. It does includes notable historical sites, including both the old and new Summer Palace. But it also has a reputation for smarts. Haidian is home to the top education and research institutions, including Peking University and Tsinghua University, and includes Zhongguancun, which some compare to California’s Silicon Valley. The Wudaokou area is home to many of the city’s foreign students and has a good range of restaurants and bars to serve them.
Finally, Fengtian to the south completes the central area. This area, which includes suburban residential areas and is more industrial than the other four districts, has developed rapidly over the past 30 years. It includes historical sites such as the Marco Polo (Loguo) Bridge and a transportation hub in the form of Beijing West Railway Station. It is also home to Beijing World Park, where visitors will find more than 100 scale reproductions of iconic sights from dozens of countries, including the Statue of Liberty, Eiffel Tower, and Great Pyramid. How many people know that you can find the world in this little-known district?