Fortunately for you, Beijing has emerged from its Communist era of drab government-owned hotels and motels characterized by horrendous service, dim lighting, and rock-hard beds, which were often accompanied by pillows stuffed with beans. In the old days, hotel attendants let you in and out of your room, keeping control over your keys. Toilets were smelly. The breakfast buffet consisted of leftovers from last night's stir-fries and fake Wonder bread.
Nowadays, booking a room in the capital has never been easier, and a glut of new privately owned guesthouses and hotels -- spurred by development for the 2008 Olympics -- means that fun options exist for every budget. In fact, with dozens of five-star hotels having opened in the capital in the last decade, Beijing has become one of the best values in the world for a luxury hotel stay: in the off season, you may be able to pay as low as ¥800 for a sparkling, new room with all the modern amenities (flatscreen TV with satellite service, iPod dock, DVD player) at branded hotels like the Hilton. Creative types will be drawn to the plentiful boutique hotels hidden down the alleys of new and old Beijing decorated with antique Chinese furniture and contemporary art.
As with hotels and guesthouses in most cities, the rack rate for Beijing accommodations is set high -- sometimes double or triple what guests usually end up paying. The key is to bargain directly with the hotel -- in Mandarin, preferably. (If you don't speak Mandarin, perhaps you can find a friend to do the bargaining for you.) Make sure to ask what the rate includes -- if you're willing to forgo breakfast and airport transfer, you can often save a few hundred yuan. Or you may want to bargain by asking for a room upgrade -- many hotels in Beijing offer executive rooms, which come with lounge privileges that provide complimentary Wi-Fi, breakfast, and drinks. Most hotels are also willing to offer better rates for longer stays. When booking your room, make sure to specify if you want a double bed; otherwise, you may wind up with two very unsexy twin beds. Many hotels these days have nonsmoking floors or rooms as well.
When arriving at the hotel, check out the room to make sure you've gotten what you've bargained for. These days, most hotels take credit cards, though the infrequent cash-only establishment may ask you for their full fee plus a deposit upfront -- the best way to negotiate is to pay for the first night, plus deposit, and then pay daily for each additional night's stay.
While service has become more chipper in Beijing, it still lags behind that of other international cities. With the competition fierce between hotels to retain quality staff, you may find that hotel employees lack proper communication skills (like English fluency) to get simple tasks completed. The proper response is patience and to remember that China is still a developing country. Also remember that tipping is never expected, but is appreciated for staff who may make less than the price of one night's stay in most luxury hotels.
On the other hand, you may be offered services that you simply don't want or need -- prostitutes disguised to varying degrees pop up in hotel bars or massage rooms, and may make phone calls to your room in the evening hours asking if you'd like a "massage." If you do receive such a call, make a complaint to the front desk and if need be, unplug your phone. Prostitutes usually work in large, lower-end hotels; the hotels we've chosen in this guide are generally safe from unsavory elements, but even some quality establishments turn a blind eye to the practice, so you should beware.
All establishments still need to report your presence to the local police station (a procedure from the Communist era that still exists), so be sure to have your passport with you when you check in. Many places will refuse to check you in unless you have proper identification, though they may accept a copy or fax of your passport. As for what to do with your passport during your stay, my husband and I are divided on this: He insists on placing his in the safe, while I hide mine in my luggage. (Nowadays, there's no reason to carry your passport with you at all times, though it is wise to have a copy of it with you.)
We've picked our favorite accommodations in Beijing and hope you'll enjoy your stay -- there are so many new establishments in the capital that it's been difficult to narrow down the list. Each of the places we feature offers something special, whether it is a prime location to Beijing's tourist sites, a historic Imperial setting, or a rooftop Jacuzzi!
How to Choose the Location That's Right for You
For the most atmosphere and proximity to tourist sites, you should choose the Back Lakes (Hou Hai) area. Plenty of hotels and guesthouses have blossomed in the alleys to meet every budget. Another nearby option is the city center, within walking distance of the Forbidden City and Tian'an Men Square, on Wangfujing Dajie or nearby. The range of accommodations in this area -- from superluxury to rock-bottom -- is unmatched.
The greatest luxury and highest standards of service can be found in Chaoyang, near the two main diplomatic areas just outside the East Second Ring Road. The district's southern half, also known as the CBD (Central Business District), is filled almost exclusively with high-end hotels and is the city's glitziest shopping area. The north has proximity to the airport and the dining and nightlife options of Sanlitun.
A good option if you're planning on spending time near the universities and the western tourist sites (like the Summer Palace, the Olympic Green, and the Fragrant Hills) is the western district, with the new superluxe Aman resort and some decent budget options. The southern districts of Xuanwu (southwest) and Chongwen (southeast) are the least desirable but offer convenient access to the Beijing Railway Station, and Beijing West Railway Station.
The Best Hotel Spas
The glut of new luxury hotels also means that there's a glut of luxury hotel spas in Beijing. The city's new spas feature state-of-the-art treatment and relaxation rooms and masseuses who excel in Asian treatments. Prices tend to be on par with what you'd pay in other international cities -- but it doesn't hurt to bargain. One of our favorites is the Tian spa at the new Park Hyatt, which offers a range of treatments based on traditional Chinese medicine, plus access to the hotel's gorgeous pool and gym. For a completely sedate experience, visit the Espa at the Peninsula, where you'll first go to the sauna and steam room and de-stress in a plush reclining armchair before finally sinking into a heated massage bed in a darkened treatment room. Both of the Ritz-Carltons offer luxurious treatments, while if you're looking to get away for an entire day, try the Aman Beijing near the Summer Palace or Chi at the Shangri-La, with calming Tibetan-themed rooms.
In the Red Lantern District
Southwest of Qian Men, beyond the mercantile madness of Da Zhalan, is where you'll find the remains of Beijing's once-thriving brothel district, Ba Da Hutong (eight great lanes). Prior to the Communists' elimination of prostitution in the 1950s (and its rapid reemergence since the 1980s), government officials, foreign diplomats, and other men of means would come here to pay for the pleasures of "clouds and rain."
The transaction was not always lurid. The women were closer to courtesans, akin to Japanese geishas, and their customers often paid simply for conversation and cultured entertainment. Popular guidebooks were published advising on the etiquette for wooing courtesans. Although the promise of another brand of entertainment always lurked in the background, and many of the women who worked south of Qian Men were kidnapped from other provinces, the dynamic was not half as base as its modern counterpart's.
Many wonderful old bordellos still stand, although local tour groups are forbidden to take tourists to the area or even mention it. Most buildings were converted into apartments or stores, but a few were restored and turned into cheap hotels. While those who can afford it will prefer to stay in a more luxurious hotel farther north, travelers on a budget would be hard-pressed to find affordable accommodations with so much character.
Among the best restored of the old brothels is Shanxi Xiang Di'er Binguan (tel. 010/6303-4609), at the north end of Shanxi Xiang (once home to the most upmarket bordellos), a poorly marked and malodorous lane a few minutes' walk south of Da Zhalan. As with most buildings of its kind, it is recognizable by its multistory height (rare in a neighborhood made up of single-floor houses) and by the glass that divides its roof, designed to let light into the central courtyard while blocking an outsider's view of the activities taking place inside. Far nicer than the late-night barber shops and karaoke parlors where Beijing's working girls now do business, the hotel is spacious and lavishly decorated, with red columns and walls supporting colorfully painted banisters and roof beams, the latter hung with traditional lanterns. The rooms, arranged on two floors around the courtyard, are tiny and windowless, as befit their original purpose, but now have air-conditioning, TVs, and bathrooms for ¥100 per night. From the Hepingmen subway station, walk south on Nan Xinhua Jie for 1km (less than 1 mile), turn left on Zhu Shikou Xi Dajie, and then make a left at the second alley, Shanxi Xiang.
The Mandarin Oriental Fire
Images of fireballs engulfing the yet-to-open Mandarin Oriental hotel made international news in early 2009, after the property was set ablaze by illegal fireworks during the Chinese New Year holiday. The hotel, one of the most highly anticipated luxury property openings, was part of a larger development that included the iconic Rem Koolhaas-designed CCTV tower, consisting of two sloping towers connected by a platform in the sky. Fortunately, the fire resulted in only one fatality since the hotel was unoccupied, but the blaze caused 4 billion yuan ($588 million) in damages -- and plenty of embarrassment to the Chinese Communist government, since it illustrated the lack of safety controls for even the most prestigious of addresses. As of press time, the gutted structure still stands and rumors have been circulating that the hotel serves as a counterbalancing weight to the main CCTV tower and thus can't be demolished.
Plenty of hotels, all with free shuttle services, are located near the airport. The most pleasant choice is the new Hilton Hotel (Xierdun Jiudian) (tel. 010/6448-8888; fax 010/6458-8889; www.hilton.com), right next to Beijing's sparkling Terminal 3 Airport, where most international flights arrive and depart. The Sino-Swiss Hotel (Guodu Dafandian) (tel. 010/6456-5588; fax 010/6456-1588; www.sino-swisshotel.com) contains large rooms with two queen-size beds for around ¥856 after discount. It has a pleasant resort-style pool complex, and regular shuttles go to the airport (every 30 min. 6:15am-10:45pm) and downtown. Farther from the airport, in northern Chaoyang, the Holiday Inn Lido (Lidu Jiari Fandian) (tel. 010/6437-6688; fax 010/6437-6237; http://beijing-lido.holiday-inn.com) is part of an extensive complex with foreign restaurants and shops. Standard rooms are large but in dire need of refurbishment (¥1,300 after discount), and the coffee served with breakfast is vile. Right near the Lido, and a 20-minute drive away from the airport, is the new Traders Upper East Hotel (Shangdong Chengmao Fandian) (tel. 010/5907-8888; fax 010/5907-8808; www.shangri-la.com), part of the well-respected Shangri-La hotel chain. The hotel has a good restaurant, Wu Li Xiang, offering regional Chinese dishes.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.