Feeling the weight and the power of China’s history is inevitable as you stand on the Avenue of Eternal Peace, Chang'an Jie, at the crossroads of ancient and modern China. The pale expanse of Tiananmen Square, built by Mao Zedong to fit up to a million revolutionary souls, leaves even mobs of tourists looking tiny and scattered. An iconic portrait of Mao sits upon the scarlet wall of Tiananmen Gate, the serenity of his gaze belying the tumult of his reign. And beyond, the splendors of the Forbidden City await.
The soul of old Beijing lives on throughout Dongcheng District, where you’ll find the city’s top historic sites and idyllic hutong worth getting lost in. A day or two exploring the district will leave you feeling as if you've been introduced to the complicated character of the capital. Dongcheng is also one of the smaller districts in the city, which makes it ideal for tackling on foot or by bicycle.
Start with the imposing majesty of Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City for a view of official China at its peak, past and present. Nearby, witness the rise of China’s middle class firsthand on Wangfujing, where you’ll find familiar brands (McDonald’s, Nike) amid a dwindling number of large stores, relics from the days of central planning. Then take a detour deeper into the past-meets-present dichotomy with a visit to the hutong surrounding the Confucius Temple. Wudaoying Hutong and Fangjia Hutong currently feature the best array of restaurants, boutiques, and cafés in the neighborhood. From the old men playing chess in the hutong to the sleek, chauffeured Audis driving down Chang'an Jie, to the colorful shopping on Wangfujing, the Dongcheng District offers a thousand little tastes of what makes Beijing such a fascinating city.