A city more than 3,000 years old, Beijing is known for its epic palaces and ancient temples, co-existing happily alongside neon billboards and ultra-modern skyscrapers. By night, the city's attractions are a mixture of ancient traditions and modern hedonism.
Lose yourself in the hutong alleys
In the evenings, Beijing’s 800-year old maze of narrow streets comes to life. As you stroll along amid delicious smells emanating from food carts, you will see residents playing mah jong in the street, getting a haircut in late-night barbershops, having an impromptu jam session or even wandering down to the communal bathrooms in their pyjamas. The best hutong areas are around the Drum Tower and Houhai Lake.
A night at the Beijing Opera
Imagine a soap opera, but one that may involve ghosts, cross-dressing nuns, clowns, kung fu fighting and acrobatics. An intensely visual experience, it allows you to guess a character’s role and importance from the intricacy of their costume or the colour of their makeup. Bring some earplugs in case you cannot take the vocal rollercoaster for the entire three-plus-hours, and enjoy the spectacle at the venerable Chang An Grand Theatre.
Catch an acrobatics show
Acrobatics have been part of Chinese culture for more than 2,000 years, and the top venues to witness incredible feats of human dexterity include Tiandi Theatre (10 Dongzhimen Nandajie) and Chaoyang Theatre. Expect plate spinning, tumbling, daredevil trapeze acts and balancing acts of up to nine acrobats riding a single bicycle. If you watch child acrobats, you will find yourself catching your breath because you see the potential for acts going wrong, making the show all the more moving.
Watch a kung fu show
The harsh discipline of kung fu has evolved in China over many centuries. And while the performances at the likes of the Red Theatre are undoubtedly a departure from tradition, that does not detract from their visual impact. The frenetic routine is a blur of bodies as the fighters mock spar, show off their weapons skills, dance and perform feats of endurance, such as breaking blocks of concrete on one another’s stomachs.
Chocolate attracts well-heeled professionals with its outrageous rococo floor show, whereas Kai Club (Sanlitun Beijie) acts as a magnet for local students, with a mix of break beats, indie and house. The chic Area, with international DJs doing weekend sets, caters to the young and stylish, who also lie around on Ming dynasty beds at The World of Suzie Wong, part 1930s Shanghai opium den, part postmodern lounge. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Mix (Inside Worker's Stadium north gate) heaves with hip-hop clubbers.
Sate the evening munchies
Faced with night food cravings, make a pit stop at one of Beijing’s celebrated chicken joints: Kuan Dian (135 Jiugulou Dajie) or Chi Bang (218 Dongsi Beidajie) for the smoky, fiery wings. You can also fill a tin plate with steaming unidentifiable goodies from a food cart in a hutong, or head to Wangfujing Snack Street, the stalls piled high with seafood, noodles, pitas with grilled lamb and scorpion skewers.
Admire the night cityscape
The National Stadium, aka the Bird’s Nest, is spectacular when lit up at night, particularly when you see it reflected in the moat to the east. The stadium and its neighbour the Water Cube – its curvy lines and LED-lit bubbles contrast with the Bird’s Nest’s rigidity – are best seen from above. Sip a cocktail at the Happiness Lounge, the elegant bar at the Pangu 7 Star Hotel, with the panoramic view of the Olympic giants before you.
Attend a gig
Beijing’s music scene has been going strong since the 1980s, its genres ranging from death metal and rock to jazz and electronica. Intimate Jianghu (7 Dongmianhua Hutong) entices blues and folk music aficionados and encourages impromptu jamming sessions between visiting musicians. Fledgling metal acts pound your eardrums at 13 Club while tiny What bar (72 Beichang Jie) packs in the crowds with its mix of psychedelic, ska and rock.
Sanlitun is still the hedonistic centre of Beijing’s nightlife, though good watering holes are also found around the Drum Tower. Mingle with expats at the Den (A4 Gongti Donglu), one of Beijing’s oldest bars – good for sports and cheap beer – or head to Latino-themed Salud for superb sangria and homemade infused rums. Sip a sunset drink at the atmospheric courtyard of the Drum and Bell, or lounge around with a blue cheese martini at the smart Centro.
Go to bed
Rest your weary head amidst the chic minimalism of the Opposite House, sink down onto a handmade Chinese silk bed, surrounded by traditional wall murals inside the 500-year old hutong residence of Hotel Côté Cour SL, or bed down amid the marble and wood at the St Regis, blissed out after a spa session. Alternatively, go to Bed – the stylish bar where you recline on one while snacking on the Asian finger food.
Lonely Planet's 12th edition China guide is out now. With pull-out maps for Beijing and Hong Kong and a special Great Wall feature we think it's our best yet!