Day One

8am: Tuck into the free breakfast at Beijing Downtown Backpackers, a clean, hip and sociable hostel on one of Beijing’s trendiest hutongs, Nan Luo Gu Xiang. Hutongs are the capital’s narrow back alleys, boasting traditional architecture and a more old-world feel. Nan Luo Gu Xiang also manages to pack in thriving bars, live music and indie boutiques.

9am:  Take the subway to Tiananmen Square. See the crowds of tourists and a big red gate hung with a huge portrait of Mao? That’d be the Forbidden City. An enormous complex of Chinese palatial architecture, it covers almost 8000 sqft. Reserved for emperors and their attendants from the Ming Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty, it is ‘forbidden’ because it was out of bounds to the public for almost 500 years. Get yourself a nifty GPS-activated audio guide if you don’t want to shuffle around in a tour group, and don’t miss the collection of elaborate 18th and 19th-century clocks.

5pm:  Summon your last bit of energy to climb the stairs of the Gate of Heavenly Peace. It’s the same gate you pass through to enter the complex, and affords an impressive panorama over Tiananmen Square. Although you must store your bag in a security locker before ascending, you can take your camera with you – so be sure to grab it.

5.30pm: Dinner at Dadong Roast Duck Restaurant is a must. There are three branches around town, and Beijingers are forever having heated debates about which comes out on top. Two are in the Dongcheng district, the same area as the Downtown Beijing Backpackers hostel, so ask the staff for a recommendation. No matter where you end up, Dadong’s signature Beijing duck will be out of this world: even the fat tastes sublime. We’d also recommend the saliva chicken, which is a lot more appetising than it sounds.

8pm: Back at the hostel, it’s just a short walk to Houhai Lake, a scenic spot ringed with bars offering shisha and angsty haircuts strumming acoustic guitars. True, it’s overcrowded and shamelessly touristy, but you can’t beat the holiday vibe. 

10pm:  End the night at Cargo, not far from Dongcheng on Gongti Xilu near the Chaoyangmen subway stop. Teeming with the trendy Beijing set and sweaty backpackers alike, big name DJs often play at weekends.

Day 2

6am:  It’s a punishing start after a night out, but you mustn’t miss the sunrise flag-raising ceremony at Tiananmen Square. Soldiers march through the Gate of Heavenly Peace and across the main road – all traffic is halted – at an apparently rigorously drilled 108 paces per minute, 75cm per pace. The same ceremony takes place again at sunset, but the crowds are more manageable in the morning.

8am: Start queuing early if you want to get inside Mao’s Mausoleum, right in the centre of Tiananmen Square. The lines are epic and it closes at 12pm, so early morning is best for a visit. Be warned: you’ll pass by the communist leader’s preserved ‘body’ in a matter of seconds. Expect a small fee.

10am:  Grab a Beijing pancake for breakfast at any street food stall. Trust us, this pancake/omelette hybrid is delicious. Then catch a cab to the Summer Palace, in the north-west of town, a seasonal getaway for China’s evidently pampered old emperors. Saunter the pretty gardens at leisure and take to the placid Kunming Lake in a dinky motor-powered boat.

2pm: Next up, a trip to Beijing’s 798 Art District (2 and 4 Jiuxianqiao Lu). A vast complex of factory workshops-turned-art galleries, you can spend all afternoon browsing contemporary art. Seek out prints from the Cultural Revolution at 798 Photo Gallery, mixed mediums at Chinese Contemporary Beijing, and conceptual art at Beijing Tokyo Art Projects.

6pm: Head back to Dongcheng for dinner with a difference at the tourist trail essential, Donghuamen Night Market (Dong’anmen Dajie). Stallholders hawk the likes of grasshoppers and scorpions on sticks to brave/silly travellers. If that doesn’t tempt your tastebuds, more conventional snacks, such as lamb skewers, are available.

8pm:  Then take in an acrobatics show at the century-old Tianqiao Acrobatics Theatre (95 Tianqiao Shichang Jie Chóngwén). Expect eye-watering contortion acts and heaps of high-wire action.

10pm:  For a pint with some personality, head to 12sqm (on the corner of Nanluogu Xiang and Fuxiang Hutong), the city’s smallest bar – hence the name. Run by a Chinese-Aussie couple, they do a good line in malt whiskies and cocktails from just £3.50.

Fly indirect from London to Beijing with Aeroflot (28hrs15mins outward bound, 14hrs15mins inward).

Emirates offers indirect return flights (34hrs15mins outward, 18hrs15mins inward).

This article is taken from the TNT Archives, and was first published in 2011.

Image credit: Thinkstock