updated 8/3/2007 5:00:00 PM ET 2007-08-03T21:00:00

If you're planning a trip to Beijing for the 2008 Summer Olympics, but you fear you may tire of Olympic fever and flag-waving throngs, don't despair. Consider checking out bohemian Beijing, from art, music and groovy boutiques to quiet temples.

Most of the capital city's guided tours are about awe and acquisition. Visitors are stunned into submission by the Forbidden City, the Great Wall and Tiananmen Square, then quickly shuttled to buying sprees at the Pearl Market or Silk Street.

The humbling grandeur of those imperial masterpieces is offset by the giddy empowerment of buying quality knockoffs of brands like Gucci, Marc Jacobs and Tiffany for a fraction of the usual cost. Few can resist the temptation. It is usually followed by a belly-busting Peking duck feast.

But this kind of Beijing experience is not for everybody, and there are a wealth of unique, low-cost alternatives.

Cui Jian, a lifelong Beijinger and China's most famous rock star, says he never sends visitors to the Great Wall or Forbidden City.

"I am not really interested in all that Kingdom Culture, stuff that shows this was once the greatest kingdom city or something," said the veteran rocker who performed "Wild Horses" with the Rolling Stones last year in Shanghai. "The Great Wall? I think a lot of people died building that wall."

Cui recommends you instead soak up the atmosphere in the 798 art district in the city's eastern Dashanzi neighborhood. The 1950s-era factory zone has been transformed into a bohemian oasis with galleries, cafes, bookstores, outdoor sculptures, and graffiti splashed on old factory walls.

Artist and fashion designer Feng Ling, a transplant from south China's Chengdu, has a studio in 798 and a house in the suburbs. She goes to Dashanzi's At Cafe for its good selection of red wine, Italian food and art.

She can't imagine leaving Beijing after 15 years here because "it has a great atmosphere for creating art and it's very international."

"You can meet people from all over the world here," Feng said.

Cui, the veteran rocker, calls 798 "the new center" of Beijing.

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The Beijing of his childhood, best epitomized he says in actor-director Jiang Wen's 1994 film "In the Heat of the Sun" about coming of age in the 1970s, doesn't exist anymore.

That era's courtyards, ancient alleyways, tinkling bike bells and political chaos have made way for today's go-go economy with its designer high-rises, glitzy malls and relative social stability.

Historian and author Jonathan Spence says he still sees Beijing "through the eyes of the Manchu regime, which captured it from the peasant rebels in 1644 and recentered it as Imperial Capital."

He said 20th century efforts to win the city's center from the emperors and bureaucrats and deliver it to the common people gained traction but then sputtered amid the country's headlong pursuit of wealth.

"We are now seeing how the central planners have managed to wreck so much of the civilized residential spaces that the people had managed to carve out for themselves," Spence said.

Wu Jianxin, the owner of a Chinese tea shop in Boston and a private wine club in Beijing, grew up near Houhai, a once quiet, lazy lakeside neighborhood now overrun by loud bars and rental boats for tourists.

When he comes home these days, Wu likes to wander around the Baiyun Guan or White Cloud Taoist Temple. It has dynastic charm without the tourist crush and is a wonderful place to while away the afternoon. You can often stumble on ceremonies at the 800-year-old temple, which is staffed by Taoist monks and is also headquarters of the Chinese Taoist Association.

Designer Lin Jing likes to stroll around Nanluoguxiang, a well-preserved stretch of backstreets in downtown Beijing along which bars, hostels and boutiques have mushroomed in the past few years but that still retains a neighborhood feel.

"It's a really nice area with that real old Beijing flavor and you can also find some very local restaurants there, pretty cheap ones," said Lin.

One groovy spot for shopping along Nanluoguxiang is Plastered 8, a T-shirt shop opened by a British expatriate that specializes in cheeky and iconic cotton shirts that make affordable and easily packable presents.

For those looking to pick up something a little more unusual, Plastered's self-titled "Creative Dictator," Dominic Johnson-Hill, recommends the Jindian Consignment Shop.

You won't find any stuffed pandas, jade chopsticks or cloisonne dragons here. But you will find "Flying Pigeon bicycles from the 1970s, stereo systems from the 1980s, old bus passes, beautiful old clocks," he says.

At the Nali Mall in the Sanlitun bar district, you'll find a warren of tiny boutiques selling clothes, shoes and jewelry. Expect to bargain. The offerings are a mix of local design plus some imports and knockoffs.

Beijing is most conveniently seen by taxi, but keep in mind that you contribute to the city's ever-present shroud of smog with every trip. Consider taking the subway or grabbing a "sanlunche," or three-wheeled rickshaw, if you are not going too far.

Pedaled by migrants from neighboring provinces like Shanxi and Anhui, they are cheap and a fun way to see the city. A ride costs around $1.30.

The Beijing city government stopped giving out new rickshaw licenses a few years ago, so most are illegal but police generally turn a blind eye especially if a foreigner is on board.

Though it's laid out on a grid, Beijing can be a hard place to wrap your head around, especially if you are here just for a short visit.

Get a headstart by first visiting the Beijing Planning Exhibition Hall, which might sound dull but is a wonderful surprise. You can walk around an astounding 3,250-square-foot model of the city.

If you tire yourself out touring the model or the real thing, a nice antidote is a massage at one of the many outlets of the Oriental Taipan Massage and Spa. This Hong Kong-owned chain is clean and reliably good, with four outlets around the city.

The masseurs here are often young migrants from the countryside. They are well-trained. One who would not give her name said she and most of her colleagues live 40 minutes away by bike in dormitory-style housing and that they receive $3 for each $19 massage they give.

Taipan serves complimentary drinks and snacks and also offers facials, manicures and pedicures. Unlike many Beijing massage parlors, the Taipan outlets are not sex shops in disguise.

For nightlife, rock star Cui reeled off a few clubs where he likes to go for live music: New Get Lucky Bar, Nameless Highland and CD Cafe.

Finally, regardless of what Cui says, see the Great Wall. A nice stretch is found at Mutianyu. The wall itself is breathtaking but people are frequently as stunned by the fresh air and gorgeous green mountains north of the city.

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