As a 7-year Beijing resident, I’m so excited to share more about discovering the best of the city that was the inspiration for Tea’s Fall/Winter 2013 Collection.
As Emily mentions in her introduction to the Fall/Winter Collection destination inspiration, “China is so big it’s hard to take it all in. The cities are huge, the palaces are massive…” which both the Busy Beijing Tee and the Traffic Jam Pajamas illustrate pretty well.
To take away any intimidation of visiting this great city, I’m thrilled to point you to the best kept secrets and hidden gems of what makes Beijing such an exciting and special place to visit.
Obviously, you want to make sure you visit Beijing’s greatest hits: the Great Wall, the Forbidden City Palace Museum, Tiananmen Square, the Temple of Heaven, and the Summer Palace. If you have private transportation sorted out and a great guide to help you make the most of your time in each place, you could easily discover all of those sites in two days.*
For culturally curious families who want to experience the best that Beijing has to offer, however, you’ll want to leave enough time to explore the off-the-beaten path sites and experience the city like a local.
Exploring Beijing’s Ancient Hutong Neighborhoods
The most important and locally unique activity you must save time to do is wandering through Beijing’s ancient hutong neighborhoods. Many of these historical neighborhoods have been torn down to make way for new modern developments, but a good number still remain in the city center.
A hutong literally means “alley,” and the hutong neighborhoods are labyrinths of alleys connecting Beijing’s traditional courtyard homes. In addition to homes, the hutongs house many different local businesses. Recently there has even been an upsurge in hip cafes, restaurants, and boutiques located in hutongs.
Wandering hutong neighborhoods, you can see residents living an integrated community street lifestyle that has been part of Beijing’s unique rhythm and spirit for centuries. You will see elderly residents playing mah jong, chatting outside while neighborhood kids play in the alleys, and various local vendors biking by, shouting the wares they sell.
Some of the most fun hutong neighborhoods to wander through are the ones surrounding the Drum and Bell Tower or the Lama Temple.
Vibrant Early Morning Park Culture
Early Beijing park culture is one of the most fun and unique experiences for visitors. Each morning, Beijing’s parks are vibrantly buzzing with activity like group tai qi, elderly men congregating with their caged bird pets, water calligraphy on the pavement, and women’s exercise groups.
One of the best parks to visit is Ritan Park in the Embassy District. Ritan Park is one of Beijing’s four ancient altar parks where the Emperor would go annually to make the appropriate sacrifices and rituals that would ensure peace and prosperity. Positioned symmetrically throughout Beijing–north, south, east, and west of the Forbidden City–Ritan Park is the sun altar park on the east.
The sun altar is still there, but nowadays you are more likely to find locals flying kites in the altar than stumble upon an imperial ceremony. Handpainted kite-making is a local craft, and taking the family to fly kites with locals in the ancient sun altar would be a great family memory and iconic Beijing experience.
China’s Hot Contemporary Art Scene
China is not only a wonderful place to discover ancient history and culture but also a place alive with modern energy, creativity, and exuberance.
In the last few decades, China’s contemporary art scene has exploded on the international art stage. A great place to take the family to explore Chinese contemporary art is the 798 Art District, the inspiration for Tea’s Modern Dot Bubble Dress.
798 Art District used to be an old industrial factory complex located between the city center and the airport. Local Chinese artists started moving into the abandoned factories to create studios and galleries slowly followed. Now what you have is a full blown art district with many of the world’s top art galleries present.
798 is huge, with lots of open spaces to run through and outdoor art and sculptures for kids to play on. Among all the galleries, cafes, and shops in 798, you don’t want to miss Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA). UCCA is a great museum built by dedicated contemporary Chinese art collectors that also has many kid-friendly and kid centered activities.
Nearby, Caochangdi (not walkable, you need a car or taxi) has more galleries and studios with a lot less visitors than 798. If you go to Caochangdi, don’t miss the beautiful Three Shadows Photography Center, which is the premier spot to discover contemporary Chinese photography exhibitions.
As Tea notes in their Destination Inspiration introduction, China is an enchanting land of contrasts and we are sure you will have a memorable time discovering the fascinating city of Beijing where the energetic optimism Tea noted is palpable and a fascinating combination of ancient and modern awaits your adventures.
*For help designing customized private itineraries with local experts who have experience guiding young families visiting Beijing for the first time, I recommend contacting Stretch-a-leg Travel.
Another great resource for visiting families is http://www.beijing-kids.com/ and the related free publication, Beijing Kids, you can find in restaurants and cafes around town.
Charlene Wang is a 7-year Beijing resident who runs Tranquil Tuesdays, a Beijing-based Chinese social enterprise dedicated to showcasing China’s finest teas and rich tea culture. To learn more about discovering Chinese tea, teaware, and design please visit www.tranquiltuesdays.com