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  • Cityscape Ming imperial
  • City life Business for pleasure

At its heart, the Forbidden City marks the historic nerve centre of imperial China, but the glossy skyscrapers, thriving street markets and buzzing bar and restaurant scene surrounding it cement Beijing's status as a thoroughly modern metropolis.

One of the four ancient capitals of China, Beijing is a flat urban checkerboard with the Forbidden City standing proud in the centre. Until the 20th century came around, the five fortified gates and high walls marked the city borders, but since then shimmering skyscrapers have sprung up and the city has sprawled outwards. Traditional courtyard houses, siheyuan, occupy old Beijing, but among and around, striking modern architecture abounds. No longer content to remain Shanghai’s dowdier sister, Beijing is now a city that balances the best of both worlds — historic architecture and ancient monuments mingle with a buzzing cosmopolitan cityscape.

Do go/Don’t go

Unless you’re planning to venture into the cooler mountainous regions around Beijing, summer is not the ideal time to visit, as temperatures frequently soar beyond 40ºc. Equally, winter can be harsh, particularly in January and early February. The autumn months from September to early November, are ideal.

Getting thereView map

  • Planes About 26km from the city centre | Beijing Capital International Airport has three terminals processing direct international flights from Air China | United | Continental and British Airways | Qantas | and plenty more. It's one of the world's largest (the third terminal alone is bigger than Heathrow) | and is due to be supplemented by the city's second airport in the ensuing decade. Prearrange transfers if you can | as although there are a host of taxis available | they'll expect to see the name of your destination written in Chinese before they set off.
  • Trains Direct express services run from Hong Kong to Beijing's West Station every other day, and there are weekly services from Moscow via Ulan Bator. If you’re within central Beijing, the metro or ditie (www.bjsubway.com) is a nifty way of escaping the peak-time road traffic.
  • Automobiles Within most of central Beijing itself, a combination of taxis and metro rides should fulfil all your urban navigation needs. However, if you’re keen for a trip out of the city, or to explore to the outlying sections of the Great Wall, hire a car at the airport or in the city from Avis (www.avis.com).
  • Taxis Cabs are a dime a dozen in traffic-heavy Beijing and, as long as you make sure the number plate starts with a B and that the meter's running, are a safe and easy way of getting around. Smith tip: get your hotel to write any destination addresses in Chinese, together with any phone numbers of the places you're visiting, so the driver can zip you straight there.