From hutong hideaways to a flurry of bar openings in buzzy Sanlitun, this ancient capital has a whole new crop of attractions to savor.
The hottest hotel opening of the summer is Sanlitunâ€™s chic CHAO, part of a new-gen lifestyle complex that combines a 180-room hotel and expansive membersâ€™ club (open to hotel guests) with a rooftop pool, private cinema, 40 serviced apartments, plus a 3,000-square-meter art center and performance amphitheater. Making a serious design statement with sweeping staircases, bold neon-light projections and sleek natural timbers, CHAO has already established itself as a social hub with a series of curated events, including film screenings, director talks, and gourmet pop-ups.
The 27-year-old Peninsula BeijingÂ is emerging from a two-year, US$123 million makeover. The imperial-inspired lobby features lustrous white marbles, hand-carved columns, and a museum-quality collection of large-scale Chinese artworks. Having halved the original number of rooms, the 230 suite-style guest quarters are now among the cityâ€™s largest and come with touch-pad master controls, complimentary VOIP calls, and nail dryers.
On a smaller scale, boutique charmer The Orchid Gulou, tucked in the ancient hutong alleys beside the Drum Tower, has expanded to include six satellite private residences within a short walking distance. Sleeping between two and four guests, the rustic-chic apartments each have a private kitchen and under-floor heating, and some are topped with cool roof terraces. Stays here include all-day breakfast at The Orchidâ€™s popular restaurant, Toast.
Danish silverware brand Georg Jensen has opened its first-ever design and lifestyle space in a Beijing courtyard mansion close to Houhai. The Georg by Georg Jensen comprises a Nordic restaurant and lounge plus a design gallery beneath the loft rafters. Every element is beautifully crafted to complement the iconic cutlery, from the glass-roofed courtyard itself to the â€śfocused foodâ€ť menu that blends Scandinavian minimalism with seasonal local ingredients, such as langoustine with miso and smoked carrot.
Popular fine-dining institution Temple Restaurant Beijing has opened the more casual TRB Bites. As well as serving up deliciously creative and well-priced set menusâ€”think cauliflower with white chocolate and Avruga caviar, or beef flank with bok choy, bone marrow, and potatoâ€”the smart setting overlooks the Forbidden City moat and yields fine views of the palace from the multilevel dining rooms and rooftop terrace.
Long Jing in South Sanlitun transforms from contemporary teahouse by day to â€ścocktealâ€ť lounge at night, when the wooden cabinets behind the long sit-up bar auto-rotate from leaves to libations. Choose an armchair in the ocher-hued lounge or walled alfresco courtyard to sip tea-spiked riffs on classic favoritesâ€”like a puâ€™er-infused Old Fashioned and a Hendricks gin and tonic with cucumber, green tea, and gingerâ€”served in little Chinese teapots. The guys behind the worldâ€™s first baijiu bar, Capital Spirits, have opened The Distillery in a nearby hutong where they craft their own gins on-site using Chinese herbs, flowers, and other ingredients. Head upstairs to the tiny loft where you can sip with your legs dangling onto the ancient shingled roof tiles.
Secreted away inside D.Lounge at South Sanlitun, keypad-protected speakeasy Infusion Room (86- 10/6415-9837; no website) reveals its password to discerning drinkers only. Behind the narrow bar, last yearâ€™s China Chivas Masters cocktail competition winner Kevin Song conjures experimental elixirs like the Beijing-inspired Papaâ€™s Childhood, combining homemade soy milk with whisky, wild honey, and sesame sauce in a square wooden box.
Mercedes me has parked itself on a prime Sanlitun corner opposite Taikoo Li, opening Chinaâ€™s first and the worldâ€™s largest Mercedes-Benz branded lifestyle space and experience center. If youâ€™re not in the market for the attractively curated auto merchandise, there are several stylish restaurants and lounges plus occasional pop-up markets in the large forecourt.
A haven of Chinese fashion, the sleek racks at Algorithm showcase local designers alongside custom tailoring services, home accessories, and luxury toiletries. Refuel after shopping with brunch or a wine at the elegant upstairs restaurant and outdoor patio overlooking Gongti Beilu.
Shanghai foodies Untour have just launched in Beijing, bringing their intrepid culinary adventures to the capitalâ€™s back alleys. Choose from the Beijing Hutong Breakfast or Old Beijing Dinner walking tours and ready your taste buds for hearty helpings of delicious dumplings, Mongolian hotpot, and donkey burgers in carefully selected local venues. They also run custom private tours.
For a little thrill-seeking in the suburbs, take a 90-minute drive into the forested mountains beyond Beijing. Shilinxia Scenic Area, dotted with wooded trails and waterfalls, has opened the worldâ€™s biggest glass-bottomed viewing platform over the side of a cliff, 400 meters above the ground. The 38-meter-wide glass donut juts out 11 meters farther than the Skywalk over the Grand Canyon. Hello, vertigo.
Warren Pang, co-owner at Janes + Hooch
When Iâ€™m not shaking things up at cocktail lounge Janes + Hooch, I like to relax with a glass of wine at Buona Bocca. Itâ€™s rare to find a good neighborhood wine bar in Beijing and this cute and inviting spot to the west of Sanlitun is ideal for aperitivos and good conversation. For eats, I usually take out-of-towners to Hu Da at Ghost Street (Gui Jie) for a truly local experience, trying spicy baby crayfish and black bean frogs, or Temple Restaurant for innovative modern cuisine against a charming traditional Chinese backdrop.
Doris Chou-Durfee, designer at Amulet by D
Beijing is a dynamic city where tradition and modernity are thrown together in everyday life. Dashilar, one of the cityâ€™s oldest neighborhoods, has become a grassroots incubator for design in Beijing and is the centerpiece of Beijing Design Week every fall. Here you can find hip cafĂ©s and independent boutiques alongside mom-and-pop grocery stores and intense games of mahjong. Ubi Gallery at Dashilar is a great place to pick up handmade porcelain bowls and jewelry by local designers (including Amulet by D). I also love browsing the boutiques along nearby Wudaoying hutong.
Chinaâ€™s dynamic second city is second to none when it comes to providing visitors with new reasons to return.
The worldâ€™s largest private property developer, Chinaâ€™s Wanda Group, chose a prime piece of Shanghai riverfront on the South Bund for its flagship 193-room Wanda Reign on the Bund, which opened its doors in June. London-based architecture firm Foster + Partners designed the exterior, while inside, 10-meter-high ceilings, a trippy LED-lit pool, bold mosaic bathrooms, and Chinese contemporary art galore are complemented by fabulous river views that are particularly impressive from the terrace of French restaurant and bar MARC, overseen by Michelin-starred chef Marc Meneau.
In September, the HBA-designed, 536-room InterContinental Shanghai NECCÂ opened next to Hongqiao Railway Station in the new National Exhibition and Convention Center, a four-leaf-clover-shaped structure that is also the worldâ€™s largest building. Farther west still, in a 1,700-year-old Chinese water town on Shanghaiâ€™s suburban periphery, homegrown Chinese resort brand Ahn Luhâ€”co-created by Aman founder Adrian Zechaâ€”has just unveiled its debut property, Ahn Luh Zhujiajiao. The 35-villa resort is built around a spectacular Ming-era courthouse and opera stage; highlights include a Chinese tapas lounge, a spa focused on traditional Chinese medicine, and sessions with tai chi masters in the verdant gardens.
The team behind popular Bund-side Nordic seafood and vodka bar The Nest has hooked another ocean-inspired winner, The Cannery, in the cityâ€™s west. Beneath a glimmering ceiling of pressed copper, a well-groomed crowd lounges at low-slung, reservations-only dining tables or sits at the island bar to enjoy a seafood-centric menu paired with a long list of craft beers on tap, wines, and some surprising cocktails. The Peanut Butter Old Fashioned is surprisingly good.
Long-established Yunnan restaurant Lost Heaven is exploring an alternative ancient route with Lost Heaven Silk Road. Spread over two cavernous floors of a former watch factory, plus a treetop terrace, the scarlet-hued space is a romantic paean to the ancient cave temples of Dunhuang in western China, adorned with hand-painted murals and Buddhist sculptures (seek out the secret grotto behind the bathrooms). The menu offers its own exotic journey through western China and into India, Pakistan, Iran, and Kazakhstan, including hearty lamb-stuffed flatbreads, chicken stews, and cold noodles.
Meanwhile, on the sixth floor of Bund 5, self-styled â€śDemon Chefâ€ť Alvin Leung of Hong Kongâ€™s three- Michelin-starred Bo Innovation has just opened a secret gourmet speakeasy called Bo Shanghai. Seating just 26 diners and serving a 12-course tasting menu themed by Chinaâ€™s eight great culinary styles, itâ€™s tucked at the back of the more casual Daimon Bistro, also by Leung, which dishes up cocktails and Cantonese dishes until 2 am. against a backdrop of sparkling riverfront views.
Shanghaiâ€™s recent tightening of licensing laws has seen a slew of high-profile closures and relocations across the city, including the shuttering of the popular Yongkang Road bars. Fortunately, Shanghai isnâ€™t going thirsty anytime soon. Award-winning China bartender Daniel An has opened a tiny temple to cocktail culture at Shrine at 462 Changle Lu. Accessed via a narrow flight of stairs at the back of a new bar complex, the bijou speakeasy requires drinkers to confess their sins at an altar â€śbibleâ€ť to gain admittance. But the conceptual hijinks give way to some divine mixology within; try the Shrine No.3, made with rosemary-infused gin, absinthe, blueberry, marmalade, and egg white.
On-trend tipplers are also heading to new hot spot Botanist. Behind a perforated gray facade, the lofty space inspired by â€śfuturism and sustainabilityâ€ť contrasts Matrix-like industrial chic with feature walls of vertical-growing greens and herbs. These infuse innovative cocktails like the #21, a potent mix of grapefruit juice, rose tea, lavender bitters, plum liqueur, and Aperol, served in a newspaper cone.
The folks behind Art Deco jazz lounge Heyday have scored again with Shake. Designed to resemble a 1960s Manhattan supper club with a mirrored ceiling and bagged brick walls, the intimate live-music venue hosts a six-piece band and funk/soul singers along with classic cocktails, whiskies, and Asian-inspired tapas. Donâ€™t miss the cheese tofu with honey.
Occupying a beautifully restored terrace house in the former French Concession area, the Changle Lu branch of fashion boutique Dong Liang showcases Chinaâ€™s top designers, with five galleries dedicated to (and curated by) Uma Wang, Boundless, He Yan, Nicole Zhang, and Yang Li. A sunny ground-floor cafĂ© adds extra appeal.
Between the delicatessens and gelato pop-ups on swiftly gentrifying Wulumuqi Lu, Kate Wood OriginalsÂ is a Shanghai-Dutch sustainable-accessories brand stocking a hip collection of handcrafted wood-frame sunglasses, watches, and fixie bikes made from bamboo and silver-coated hemp.
June witnessed the Shanghai opening of â€śthe most magical place on earthâ€ťâ€”and one of the most crowded. Crowned by the tallest and most interactive Enchanted Storybook Castle ever created, Shanghai Disney Resort comprises the Shanghai Disneyland theme park, the 40-hectare Wishing Star Park, the Disneytown shopping and dining district, and two themed hotels. If you have the stomach for it, the high-speed Tron Lightcycle Power Run rollercoasterâ€”a Disney firstâ€” is worth the queue.
The September opening of the 632-meter Shanghai Tower completed the triptych of super-tall skyscrapers that dominate the Pudong skyline. You can now ascend to the worldâ€™s highest observation deck (on the towerâ€™s 119th floor) via the worldâ€™s fastest elevators, which are expected to travel at 20 meters per second. Not to be outdone, the 88-story Jinmao Tower next door has launched its own â€śultimate highâ€ť: a Skywalk around a glass-bottom outside ledge, 340 meters above the ground. How high would you go for the ultimate Shanghai selfie?
These articlesÂ originally appeared in the October/November print issue of DestinAsian magazine (â€śCity Guides: Beijing, Shanghaiâ€ť).