Making heads or tails of Beijing can be a daunting task. The city proper is about 1,300 sq km (502 sq mi) which makes it about the same size as Los Angeles but with three or four times as many people and a significantly longer history. The Beijing Municipality is 16,801 sq km (6,487 sq mi) and packed full with centuries worth of political and cultural history, modern city infrastructure like the growing subway system, 4 million cars and between 10 and 20 million people. Peking Man was hanging around the area several hundred thousand years ago, long before the first cities were built here in the first millennium BC. During the Warring States Period (773-221 BC), long before the Mongol and Ming rulers made it their capital, what is now Beijing (North Capital) was the capital of the Yan State. Over 1500 years later a brewery took the name of that capital – Yanjing – as their name.
The greater Beijing area is comprised of 16 districts and two counties. Fortunately, most of Beijing proper is comprised of seven districts located within the fifth ring road. You may know a few of them well or you may only have dim recollections of hearing their names. Either way, there’s no reason that unfamiliarity with what the city has to offer should keep you holed up in the closest coffee shop nor should a visit to a far away district be squandered because you didn’t know you could pop down the road and check out someplace like the Museum of Ancient Architecture. The following guide runs down the major districts inside the fifth ring road, where they are and what there is to do in each of them.
Haidian District 海淀区
Where is it: Northwest
What’s there: After Chaoyang, Haidian is the second largest district in urban Beijing. Twenty odd years ago there wasn’t much there except wetlands, a few elite universities – Tsinghua and Peking University – and the Summer Palaces. Now its Wudaokou neighborhood is teeming with students from China and abroad and the district is home to some two million residents. Though it lacks the expat sophistication of Chaoyang, the diverse population makes it a great place for Korean food and cheaper Western dining options aimed towards students. It mostly lacks big nightclubs but houses some of Beijing’s best rock venues – D-22 and 13 Club. Haidian also includes Fragrant Hills, Zhongguancun (“China’s Silicon Valley”) and Purple Bamboo Park.
Chaoyang District 朝阳区
Where is it: On the east side of the city stretching from north to south
What’s there: Sanlitun, the Central Business District (CBD), 798 Art District, Guomao, Yaobao Lu, most of the embassies, Silk Street and, according to the 2000 census, 2.3 million people. Chaoyang tends to be where the better off expats live – it has the best foreign restaurants, the country’s only official Apple dealership, a Hooters and a whole lot of glitzy nightlife. Towards the northern end of the district is the 798 Art Zone, the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube. In the run up to the Olympics it was estimated that the local and national government was spending half a million USD per day on developing the district.
Xicheng District 西城区
Where is it: Inside the 2nd ring road to the northwest
What’s there: One of the original imperial districts, Xicheng is home today to the massive Xidan shopping complexes, Beihai Park, the Beijing Zoo and the government buildings of Zhongnanhai. Though it’s namedropped much less than Haidian or Chaoyang, if you’ve been to Beijing you’ve probably spent more time in Xicheng than you realize. Despite being a relatively small district, in 2000 it was already home to well over 700,000 official residents.
Dongcheng District 东城区
Where is it: East of Xicheng on the northeast side of the city center
What’s there: In Chinese, Xicheng means West City and Dongcheng means East City. The east side of the city center, Dongcheng District is home to Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, Wangfujing (including the Donghuamen Night Market with the infamous scorpions and spiders on sticks), Ditan Park, Yonghegong lama Temple, as well as the Drum and Bell Towers and all the funky stores and restaurants clustered around Nanluoguxiang.
Xuanwu District 宣武区
Where is it: East of Xicheng District towards the southwest side of the city center
What’s there: Xuanwu District is the home to 500,000+ residents, the Liulichang Antique Market and some excellent hutongs. Although it was located outside the traditional Imperial Inner City (in imperial times you actually wanted to live in the inner city) and populated by the lower classes, the area has a rich history. Though significant portions of the districts, including historic hutongs, were razed to create space for Beijing West Railway Station and more are getting torn down in order to allow for more real estate development, it’s still one of the most interesting and “traditional” parts of the city. One of Beijing’s oldest hutongs, Dazhalan is located here as is one of the most bustling streets in Beijing. Though it mostly lacks historical hotspots, those with more time in the city – including the many expats living here who never enter the district – would do well to check out Niujie Mosque, Fayuan Temple, as well as Baoguo Temple and the surrounding market. There are also some quirky museums and slightly strange parks including the Beijing Museum of Ancient Architecture which contains models of ancient Beijing.
Baoguo Temple Culture Market 报国寺文化市场View In Map
Add: Baoguo Temple, Guang'anmennei, Xuanwu District, Beijing
Tel: 010 6303 0976, 6317 3214
Opening hours: 8:00 – 16:00
Beijing Museum of Ancient Architecture 北京古代建筑博物馆View In Map
Add: 21 Dongjing Lu, Xuanwu District, Beijing
Tel: 010 6304 5608
Opening hours: 09:00-16:00 Tue-Sun
Price: 15 RMB
Chongwen District 崇文区
Where is it: Southwest, west of Dongcheng District
What’s there: One of the older areas of the city, Chongwen District is southeast of Tiananmen Square in the heart of the city. As Beijing districts go it’s relatively small, but everything is relative: it’s still got roughly 450,000 residents in its 16.46 square meters and a number of top attractions, the most notable being the Temple of Heaven and the surrounding park.
Fengtai District 丰台区
Where is it: Mostly southwest but stretching all the way to meet Chaoyang District in the southeast
What’s there: Another newly urbanized district, 20 years ago Fengtai District was still so rural that large parts of the district lacked electricity. During the Qing Dynasty it was a military training ground for the Imperial Manchu Army; now it hosts a medley of slightly bizarre but totally awesome attractions like Beijing World Park, the Marco Polo Bridge and the nearby Anti-Japanese Aggression War Memorial Hall, and the China Space Museum.
Anti-Japanese Aggression War Memorial Hall 抗日战争纪念馆View In Map
Add: 101 Wanpingcheng Neijie, Lugou Qiao, Fengtai District, Beijing
Tel: 010 8389 3163
Opening hours: 9:300-16:00 Closed on Monday
China Space Museum 中华航天博物馆View In Map
Add: 1 Nan Dahongmen, Fengtai District, Beijing
Tel: 010 6875 3590
Opening hours: 9:00-17:00 Mon-Fri
Price: Adults 30 RMB, Students 15 RMB
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