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Beijing

Updated: March 15, 2011 02:52 PM EDT
Step past the huge Chairman Mao portrait guarding Tiananmen Square and back into the Ming dynasty inside the mysterious Forbidden City. (©iStockphoto/Giorgio Fochesato) Step past the huge Chairman Mao portrait guarding Tiananmen Square and back into the Ming dynasty inside the mysterious Forbidden City. (©iStockphoto/Giorgio Fochesato)
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By Jen Lin-Liu, Sherisse Pham,

Peking man, Ming dynasty emperors, Chairman Mao and 17 million residents have made their mark on modern-day Beijing. A capital of exhilarating extremes with its glittering skyscrapers, mazy hutongs and enigmatic Forbidden City -- nowhere is China's rapid progress and rich imperial history more tangible. But in a city so enormous, it's the little experiences that are most memorable -- whether it's graceful tai chi moves in the parks, spicy hot pot on lantern-lit Ghost Street or the lakefront serenity of the Summer Palace.

Things to Do

Step past the huge Chairman Mao portrait guarding Tiananmen Square and back to an age of Ming dynasty emperors and tittering concubines roaming the mysterious Forbidden City -- off limits to the public for 500 years. Local history comes alive in the atmospheric warren of hutongs, narrow alleys best explored by pedicab. Locals meet for early morning tai chi in front of the pagoda-like Temple of Heaven and quiet contemplation in the pavillions and manicured gardens of the lakeside Summer Palace.

Shopping

Join the throngs at Hongqiao Market to haggle for pearls, high-tech gadgets and brilliantly colored silks or tailor-made clothes at Ya Show Market. The mood is more upmarket in designer-lined Wangfujing, where the Arts & Crafts World Mansion stocks Chinese crafts from jade to intricate wood carvings. Bordering the hutongs and centered on remodeled Qing dynasty siheyuan courtyard houses, Liulichang Xi Jie is an atmospheric street to pause for tea and shop for antiques, name chops and calligraphy brushes.

Nightlife and Entertainment

On warm evenings, the city's parks and streets fill with Beijingers ballroom dancing and working out to taped music. Houhai Lake is a backdrop for late-night dining, cocktails and twilight boat rides. Continue the party at the neon-lit Sanlitun district, where bars pulsate to DJ beats and live jazz. The graceful moves and colorful theatrics of Peking opera come alive at the traditional Liyuan Theater and Lao She Teahouse, where performances are complemented by jasmine tea and baozi (steamed buns).

Restaurants and Dining

With chopstick know-how and a little Mandarin, you can enjoy an inexpensive feast of staples like jiaozi (Chinese dumplings) and crispy Peking duck dripping in plum sauce. Lanterns cast a red glow over Gui Jie, or Ghost Street, peppered with 24-hour hole-in-the-wall restaurants ladling out Beijing's spiciest hot pot. International cuisine from pizza to mezze is served in chic surrounds in Chaoyang District and on Houhai Lake's banks. Brace your tastebuds for scorpions, deep-fried grasshoppers and starfish at the wonderfully weird Wangfujing Night Market.

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