To the first-time visitor, Beijing seems a vast and sprawling city. It is characterized by long, wide boulevards and a labyrinthine network of overpasses and freeways that comprises the six ring roads.
Fortunately, there is order in the chaos. At the heart of Beijing lies the Forbidden City, the absolute center of the capital, from where the ring roads emanate in concentric circles. First Ring Road surrounds the former imperial complex and land that is now mostly parks and museums. More important to travelers is navigating the Second and Third Ring Roads. Second Ring Road was built where Beijing’s ancient city walls once stood, and the old city is comprised within including the districts of Dong Cheng, Xi Cheng, Chong Wen and Xuan Wu. The area within Third Ring Road is also considered the center of the town where the most concentrated portion of public transit exists, including Chao Yang and Hai Dian districts. The fourth, fifth and sixth rings are useful for commuting to the airport, university and technology district, and outlying suburbs. These ring roads are designated according to points of the compass, so "East Third Ring Road North" means the northernmost stretch of the eastern section of the Third Ring Road. Easy!
There are 16 urban districts and two rural counties in Beijing municipality proper, with each district containing distinctive neighborhoods. Most areas of interest are in the eastern Chao Yang and central Dong Cheng and Xi Cheng districts. Dong Cheng District With Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and Mao's Mausoleum within its boundaries, this district is one of the most visited places in Beijing. Not surprisingly, major hotels such as the Grand Hotel Beijing are found here. Dong Cheng is the district where many of Beijing’s distinctive neighborhoods are found, including Wang Fu Jing Shopping District, the area surrounding the Drum Tower and Yong He Gong Lama Temple.
Wang Fu Jing
This is Beijing's premier shopping area. It is partially closed to cars and crowded at all times of the day and night. The wide, sprawling central street is a showcase the best of Beijing's commercial success. Stop off at the Beijing Foreign Language Bookstore to pick up a Chinese dictionary or the latest John Grisham potboiler. Dip into Sun Dong An Plaza, Beijing's mammoth shopping mall, to browse the big name labels that are feeling more at home in China. Feeling peckish? Try some deep-fried scorpion or other heavily spiced oddities on a stick at the Wang Fu Jing Night Market. If the idea of chomping on insects does not appeal, try upscale dining at one of several four- and five-star hotels in the area such as Huang Ting in the Peninsula Hotel for a taste of traditional Beijing cuisine.
Chao Yang District
As the most concentrated commercial and residential area in Beijing, Chao Yang offers many areas of interest for visitors. Within this district are Chao Yang Park, the San Li Tun diplomatic and nightlife area, and the Jian Guo Men and Ri Tan business and embassy districts. Chao Yang is also home to Beijing's pulsing artistic community, Da Shan Zi, which grew out of an abandoned factory. Outer Jian Guo Men and Ri Tan You will always see a wide mix of international faces here: tourists, businesspeople and locals. The main street, Jian Guo Men Wai Avenue, is a mad hustle of people, cars and vendors selling everything from pirated CDs to rickshaw rides. There are many major hotels and office buildings in the area, including the massive China World Hotel, where the fabulous restaurant and wine bar Aria is located. Tourists can try their hand at bargaining at the ever-crowded Silk Alley. Just a few blocks away, however, one can find peace and quiet in the graceful tree-lined streets of the embassy area and in serene Ri Tan Park where you can sit by the lake with a cup of coffee at the famous Stone Boat Cafe.
San Li Tun
Originally the embassy district, San Li Tun is home to some of the best of Beijing’s nightlife. This is a loosely designated area of bars and pubs with San Li Tun North and South Streets at its heart. With the recent reconstruction efforts for the Olympics, the actual street and its many fabulous bars and restaurants have shifted, much to the confusion of return visitors to Beijing. Besides the ubiquitous cafes and bars, you will also find numerous boutiques selling everything from framed prints to Tibetan handicrafts and clothes. The lending library and gourmet cafe Bookworm is one of the unofficial community centers of the international community here, as well as home to an annual literary festival. The nearby Yashow Market is a good place for bargains on designer goods. The fourth floor is outfitted with tailors ready to whip up any clothing item you desire, made to order at bargain prices and in a very agreeable amount of time. Nighttime always reveals the decadent side of San Li Tun. Bar and club goers can start out the night at Q Bar for top notch cocktails, and then head to VICS. Gong Ti Bei Lu (North Workers Stadium Road) lights up with dance clubs and restaurants such as Loft.
Chao Yang Park
The expansive Chao Yang Park rivals San Li Tun for nightlife fun. Upscale bars, pubs, restaurants and shops have recently located here, catering to Beijing the relaxed community of young families that centers itself near the park. Legendary staples like Annie’s Italian Cafe have been in Beijing long enough to achieve institution-status. World class clubs can be found within the park, such as 1920s Shanghai-flavored World of Suzie Wong Club and the ultra fashionable Block 8. During the 2008 Summer Olympics Chao Yang Park was the venue for the volley ball competition.
Da Shan Zi
The Bauhaus-inspired factories and workshops of Da Shan Zi once produced the audio equipment for the Workers' Stadium, and Tiananmen Square, now they house tinkering sculptors, paint-smudged artists and lots of space to display the energies of Beijing's avant-garde art community. Central to Da Shan Zi is 798 Space where events, fashion shows, and exhibitions are often held. If you are in Beijing in October, they also host the most outstanding Halloween party in town. The former factory grounds are open to the public free of charge and offers a campus-like feeling of quiet tree lined paths, creative whimsy and plenty of galleries to see artistic history in the making.
Xicheng covers a great deal of the old city. It is just west of the Forbidden City and epitomizes the blending of an old and new China. Once the home of wealthy merchants and people loosely associated with the court, it is now considered the cultural, historical, business, financial, and political district of Beijing. The financial and commercial districts, centered at Jinrong Jie, are located here. For the ultimate experience of Old Beijing visit Bei Hai, Beijing's oldest park, dating back to the 10th century. The Hou Hai area offers entertainment and dining (Beijing punk made its early debut here) and is also the gateway to Beijing's famous hutongs, an architect's delight. For good drinks and music visit the East Shore Live Jazz Cafe or the Buddha Bar.
Chong Wen District
Located in the south of the city, this is a long-established commercial area, selling everything from eyeglasses to sporting goods. Check out the Qian Men Shopping Area for some of Beijing's oldest stores. The area is also worth visiting to see the beautiful Temple of Heaven and the Hong Qiao Market a treasure-trove of objects both banal and bizarre. The open markets still capture some of the Old Beijing atmosphere and are fun for browsing even if you are not shopping.
Feng Tai District
This southwest district Beijing houses the Yangtai Sports Center where the Olympic softball tournament was held. Mainly an industrial area, there are several cultural and historical sites worth visiting, such as the China Space Museum, Feng Tai Park and Marco Polo Bridge.
Hai Dian District
This northwestern part of the city is also known as the university district. Along with Beijing University and Qinghua University, who compete to be China's top school, there are ten major national universities within a four mile radius here. Owing to the young student population, this area has a reputation for being hip and full of cheap eats and dive bars. Hai Dian district is also designated a high-technology zone, so this is where you will find start-ups and high tech companies, such as Sohu and Google’s China headquarters. Interesting shopping can be found along Chengfu Road. Check out the old map section in 02 Sun Bookstoreor get an incredible chocolate confection at Awfully Chocolate. The Summer Palace, a World Heritage site, and Ruins of the Old Summer Palace, or Yuan Ming Yuan are also in Hai Dian.
Xi Dan and Xuan Wu
Like Wang Fu Jing, these areas are known largely for their shopping. While the former is a place to be seen, Beijingers shop in Xi Dan and Xuan Wu. In imperial times Xuan Wu was home to the lower classes unconnected to court life. After the republic was established, it became known as “Little Lanzhou” because the large number of Hui or Uighur families, restaurants and shops here. Browse the small shops and stalls for bargains on clothing, shoes and CDs. Shopping centers here include Parksons and the Xi Dan Department Store.