Beijing has a serious reputation as China's seat of government compared with its decadent port-city sister Shanghai.
In Beijing, however, the innovative concepts popping up alongside centuries-old Unesco World Heritage Sites forms an appealing juxtaposition of new and old.
With a second international airport, Daxing, designed by Zaha Hadid Architects and opened on Sept 25 and Beijing's first Michelin Guide launching on November 28, there is a new swirl of excitement in the city.
I lived in Beijing for five years, arriving before the 2008 Olympics, and have returned many times over the last decade to see the city blossom with hip enclaves, trendy cafes, concept stores and award-winning skyscrapers.
Still, you can experience these time-honoured places differently. For instance, WildChina (wildchina.com) does the best-in-class private tour of the Wall, including picnics on secluded parts of the storied fortification or stopping by a villager's house for lunch.
SHOP THE OLD, NEW AND FUNKY
While some of my favourite markets no longer exist, thanks to the city's pace of development, the gentrified Panjiayuan antique market (subway line 10 or go by taxi) still offers eclectic choices from antique clocks to paintings and carpets. It is delightfully random but, with a little patience, you will walk away with nifty finds.
Another old favourite is Glasses City (Dongsanhuan Nanlu 64, Chaoyang district; subway station Jinsong). It is a multistorey building dedicated to - yes - all types of non-branded quality spectacle frames, along with fitted prescription lenses done in 30 minutes, for a song.
I love Lost and Found (42 Guozijian Jie, Dongcheng district), with its woody minimalist interiors. Set in the hutongs, it sells everything from custom furniture pieces and clothes to tableware. I come here for the unique accessories and the old Beijing trinkets that they repurpose.
Spin Ceramics (6 Fangyuan West Rd, Chaoyang, Beijing; tel: +86-10-6437 -8649) is a great stop for beautiful jewellery boxes and homeware. The handmade collections are modern, with a nod to Chinese traditional ceramic techniques.
The shopping area by the old drum and bell tower quarter (Nanluoguxiang) is filled with trendy stores. Check out Plaster 8 (61 Nanluoguxiang, Dongcheng district) for kooky T-shirts. Pop into the Feiyue store (106 Gulou Dong Dajie, Dongcheng district) for some cheap and durable canvas sneakers that have grown a global cult following in recent years.
Sanlitun remains a hot spot for dining and shopping for both locals and tourists. Comic buffs will enjoy visiting Polyphony (1F, Topwin Centre, 1 Sanlitun Nan Lu, Chaoyang district), a comics and records shop with modern minimalist interiors and a coffee bar. There are soundproof listening booths and a large collection of classic American comics.
The Insta-perfect towering bookshelves at Page One (Building 11, Beijing Fun, Langfang Toutiao, 13 Meishi Jie, Xicheng district) in Qianmen stocks a large collection of English books in a store that did not exist a decade ago. It is open 24 hours.
If you are looking for flavourful souvenirs to take home, Wuyitai (44 Dongsi Bei Dajie, Dongcheng district) sells a large collection of Chinese teas from across the country at a range of price points, some going for up to thousands of dollars.
Flying a kite in Beijing is a popular activity and great fun. Sanshizhai (25A Di'anmen Xi Dajie Xicheng; tel: +86-10-8404-4505) has been hand-making kites for three generations. From simple shapes to elaborate dragons, you name it, they make it. Prices range from $20 to $2,000 for a kite.
There are many private tours to artist studios for art collectors. However, the 798 Art district (798 Art District, 2 Jiuxianqiao Road, Chaoyang district) and nearby Caochangdi are a good start, with many world-class galleries to wander into.
My favourites include UCCA, Pace Beijing, Galleria Continua, Long March Space, Officina, Tang Contemporary, Boers-Li Gallery at 798.
A short drive to Caochangdi is White Space Beijing (255 Caochangdi Chaoyang District) and Pekin Fine Arts (241 Caochangdi Village, Cui Ge Zhuang Chaoyang district; tel: +8610-8434-0791). Reach out to Pekin's founder Meg Maggio, she is a wealth of resources.
FEASTS FIT FOR EVERYONE
The first Beijing Michelin Guide will be launching on Nov 28 as the capital city's restaurant scene finally gets recognition for its diverse and rich culinary choices.
Meanwhile, Western vegetarian options have extended beyond Element Fresh (S8-33, Building 8, 3/F Taikoo Li Sanlitun, 19 Sanlitun Lu Chaoyang district).
Tribe (Building 3, China View, 2 Gongti Dong Lu, Chaoyang district) offers generous salad bowls in rainbow colours and cold-pressed green juices as well as a range of gluten-free, lactose-free alternatives.
A fine-dining spot not to miss is The Georg (45 Dongbuyaqiao Hutong, off Di'anmen Dong Dajie, Dongcheng district; tel: +86-10 8408-5300), which serves modern European cuisine. It is the flagship restaurant of Danish design house Georg Jensen. Its kitchen is helmed by local chef Wang Bin, who trained in Michelin-starred French kitchens and is touted to be the next rising star in the capital's fine-dining scene. The spacious hutong restaurant has a generous skylight with a vaulted glass ceiling, Scandinavian interiors and a fireplace - a popular choice for date nights.
No one leaves Beijing without indulging in some Peking duck. New kid on the block Sheng Yong Xing does a mean crispy fowl, but I still enjoy Peking duck at Jing Yaa Tang (11 Sanlitun Road, The Opposite House Chaoyang district; tel: +86-10-6410-5230).
I suggest pre-dinner drinks at the new Union bar at The Opposite House, a speakeasy serving delicious cocktails inspired by the ancient Silk Road. The expansive minimalist hotel lobby was designed by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma in 2008 and was recently given a Manhattan twist by New York design firm AvroKo.
Sharing plates are popular with the Chinese, so it is little wonder that Mexican food has been trending. Nali Patio - a Spanish-style mini mall - in Sanlitun offers great tacos at Q Mex Tacqueria and El Barri is a great spot for margheritas al fresco.
If you are up for the first artificial intelligence "smart" hotpot experience, enjoy getting served by robots and having your info stored in the cloud at Haidilao (Level 1 Block E, World City, 9 Jinhui Lu, Chaoyang district; tel: +86-10-6501-8449).
After visiting the National Art Museum, venture off the beaten path to The Merchant (77 Meishuguan Houji, Dongcheng district; tel: 400-7990-299), a former Mao-era print factory, for a tipple or two at their all-day wine bar. It also serves Asian-inspired dishes.
Finally, the best views of the old city can be enjoyed over sundowners on the terrace of the new Mandarin Oriental Beijing (269 Wangfujing Street, Chaoyang district; tel: +86-10-8509-8888). Here, you have unobstructed front-row views of the Forbidden City at dusk.
PuXuan Hotel and Spa, with a spacious lobby and mid-century style Chinese-inspired furniture, is nestled in the old quarter of the town close to the Forbidden City. Located within the Guardian Art Centre designed by architect Ole Scheeren, you will enjoy the communal sky garden that pays homage to the traditional hutong courtyard.
Go to the spa for treatments that blend ancient healing practices with modern science to complete your stay. Rates start at $520 a night.
Located a stone's throw from Tiananmen square, the Beijing branch of Muji Hotels is everything you'd expect from the brand - modern, minimalist and utilitarian. Rates start at $100.
• Juliana Loh is a Singaporean freelance lifestyle writer based in Hong Kong.
The best way to get to the capital is to book the direct 6½-hour flights via Singapore Airlines or Air China. There are daily flights and I like taking the red eye, so you land in the morning to start the day bright and early.
Beijing's second international airport, Daxing, by Zaha Hadid opened in September and is slated to be among the world's busiest air hubs.
•Beijing's grid layout makes the city easy to navigate, even for someone with a poor sense of direction. You will quickly learn to orientate with "ring roads" and addresses given based on cardinal directions from landmarks. Chang An Jie is the main artery leading to Tiananmen Square (East-West) and all roads in Beijing run North-South/East-West.
• The trick to planning your trip is to keep daily activities in the same district, so you do not lose time commuting in traffic.
• Technology and e-commerce have put China ahead of the world. Beijing vendors and taxi drivers prefer e-payments through QR code these days.
• Book sightseeing tickets online to bypass the long snaking queues. It is quick, efficient and hassle-free with staggered time slots.
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