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Frommer's favorite experiences in Beijing

The combination of peaceful man-made lakes, many of the city's best bars and restaurants, and several pockets of rambling lanes called keep foreign residents coming back here despite the growing crowds.
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Dining & Drinking around the Back Lakes: The combination of peaceful man-made lakes, many of the city's best bars and restaurants, and several pockets of rambling lanes called hutong keep foreign residents coming back here despite the growing crowds. Dine with a view of the lakes (or arrange to eat on a private traditional boat), take a post-meal stroll through the less explored lanes, and find your way back to the lakes to sip gin-and-tonics as lights from nearby courtyard mansions flicker on the water.

Enjoying a Moment of Quiet at the Museum of Ancient Architecture: Standing just west of the Temple of Heaven on grounds once nearly as extensive as those of its neighbor, the Altar of Agriculture is largely overlooked. So is its excellent museum, in halls with a grandeur to match those at the heart of the Forbidden City, but receiving fewer than one ten-thousandth of the visitors.

Investigating the Northeast Corner of the Forbidden City: Away from the main north-south axis on which the former palace's grander halls stand, there's a more human scale similar to that of the rapidly disappearing hutong beyond the palace's walls, although with much greater luxury. Venturing so far from the main arteries, is well worth the effort for such treasures like the ornate theater building where the Empress Dowager Cixi watched her favorite operas on demand, and the well in which she ended the life of her nephew's favorite concubine.

Rubbing Shoulders with Monks at Beijing Temples: Among the capital's temples that have once again become genuine places of worship as well as tourist attractions, the Yonghe Gong has an active and approachable community of Tibetan monks (although under careful scrutiny by the authorities), while leafy Fayuan Si houses amicable Chinese Buddhist monks in Beijing's most venerable temple. Baiyun Guan is the Daoist alternative, where blue-frocked monks wear their hair in the rarely seen traditional manner -- long and tied in a bun at the top of the head.

Bargaining for Fakes: At Panjiayuan Jiuhuo Shichang, the first asking prices for foreigners are at least 10 to 15 times those asked of Chinese, but this weekend market has the city's best selection of bric-a-brac, including row upon crowded row of calligraphy, jewelry, ceramics, teapots, ethnic clothing, Buddha statues, paper lanterns, Cultural Revolution memorabilia, army belts, little wooden boxes, Ming- and Qing-style furniture, old pipes, opium scales, painted human skulls, and more conventional souvenirs. A similar, but more intimate market at Baoguo Si Wenhua Gongyipin Shichang is set in the grounds of an ancient temple, and is open all week long. Bargaining fun can also be had at Yaxiu Fuzhuang Shichang, a hunting ground for souvenirs and gifts including kites, calligraphy materials, army surplus gear, tea sets, and farmer's paintings from Xi'an. The basement and the first two floors house a predictable but comprehensive collection of imitation and pilfered brand-name clothing, shoes, and luggage. Starting prices are increasingly imaginative, however.

Haggling for Tea at Malian Dao: If you're serious about tea, this is the only place to go. Malian Dao may not have all the tea in China, but it does have over a mile of shops hawking tea leaves and their paraphernalia. Most shops are run by the extended families of tea growers from Fujian and Zhejiang provinces, and you may rate this friendly street the highlight of your visit.

Attending Beijing Opera at the Zhengyici Xilou: The Zhengyici, last of a handful of theaters that supported Beijing Opera from its beginnings, only occasionally hosts performances and is under constant threat of permanent closure. But the scarcity of performances only makes the experience of watching the colorful operas in this intimate, traditionally decorated space all the more precious. Tip: Ask your hotel staff to call and ask about performance schedules and tickets.

Unwinding at a Traditional Teahouse: Several quiet teahouses offer you the chance to remove yourself temporarily from the tourist rush. The teahouse in the Sanwei Bookstore offers live traditional music with its bottomless cups of jasmine. For a little extra, the Purple Vine Tea House near the Forbidden City and The Teahouse of Family Fu in the Back Lakes area brew your Oolong (Wulong) in the Chinese version of the tea ceremony. All three teahouses are furnished with replica Ming dynasty tables and chairs and make ideal spots for reading, writing, or doing absolutely nothing.

Seeing a Band at Yugong Yishan: The owners of the now defunct Loup Chante have created what Beijing lacked for years: an atmospheric venue showcasing an eclectic range of musical styles, from Mongolian mouth music to acid jazz. It's stuffy, smoky, difficult to find, and run by serious and talented musicians.

Hiking along the Great Wall from Jin Shan Ling to Simatai: Visitors are scarce at Jin Shan Ling, although the Wall runs in a continuous ribbon along a high ridge, several kilometers visible at a time. Strike out eastwards to Simatai and you'll quickly reach unrestored and crumbling sections of considerable charisma. Views sweep across a sea of blossoms in spring and rich reds and golds in autumn.

Taking a Trip to Qing Dong Ling: The Eastern Qing Tombs offer more to the visitor than the better-known Ming Tombs, but see a fraction of the visitors. Undeniably difficult to reach, the effort is rewarded many times over by the Qianlong emperor's breathtakingly beautiful tomb chamber, Yu Ling, and a drop-dead funny photo exhibit of the much-maligned dowager empress Cixi.

For a complete listing of what to see and do in Beijing, visit the online attractions index at

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