Deep beneath the foundations of Beijing’s long-gone city walls, Subway Line 2 circumnavigates the heart of the capital and, by extension, the very heart of China. It circles Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, financial hubs and buzzy shopping zones, and swaths of age-old alleyway neighborhoods. Along the way it connects to must-see monuments, top-drawer eateries and a host of diversions.
Line 2 is a compass of sorts — the north, south, east and west of some of the very best that Beijing has to offer — with Tiananmen as the pivot around which the compass’ imaginary needle spins. A day spent exploring the city means going against the motion of the sun: so jump on Line 2’s counterclockwise-travelling train to do the rounds of China’s cultural capital.
Morning: North by northwest
Yonghegong (12 Yonghegong Davie; Yonghegong Station, Exit C; www.yonghegong.cn) translates as “Harmonious Peace Palace” but that name is a bit misleading. However enchanting the 300-year-old temple might be, once the sightseeing crowds arrive, any peace or harmony that dwells here races for the exits. So head here — it’s better known as Lama Temple — at the start of the day, ideally following a visit to the nearby Confucian Temple (13 Guozijian Jie; Yonghegong Station, Exit C; www.kmgzj.com), which opens 30 minutes earlier at 8.30am.
The Confucian Temple is a tranquil retreat — the perfect prelude to a busy day — while the Lamasery is bustling and smoky and formed around five halls. The last of these — the Ten Thousand Happinesses Pavilion — wraps itself around a breathtaking image of the Future Buddha, carved from a single trunk of sandalwood 26m high (8m of which are buried underground).
An hour’s stroll through a maze of centuries-old hutongs (lanes) or two stops on Line 2 later, the Drum Tower (Guloudajie Station, Exit G) provides a different perspective on the capital’s historical inheritance — along with fine views over the surrounding neighborhood from its 30m-high platform. Regular drum performances give just a hint of what the beaten time signal must have sounded like to those living during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Visitors’ hearts are likely to be pounding just as hard after the steep and precarious climb up the tower’s smooth stone steps.
After all that exercise, a taste of traditional cuisine at one of two popular local restaurants is just what the doctor ordered. Huntun Hou (309 Gulou Dongdajie; Guloudajie Station, Exit G) serves silky-skinned wontons in a mildly tangy broth, best accompanied by a plate of pickled cabbage and a tea egg. Next door, Yaoji (331 Gulou Dongdajie; Guloudajie Station, Exit G) cooks up hearty, stick-to-your-ribs Beijing dishes. Chaogan’r, for example, is a gummy liver soup that was once a breakfast staple, the sort of dish capable of keeping a Beijinger going all day during the harsh winter months. This is also a good spot to try a classic zhajiang mian, thick noodles topped with minced pork in a salty-smoky fermented soybean sauce, served alongside crisp julienned veggies. It’s hugely satisfying.
Also read: Beijing city guide
Walk off brunch by heading to Nanluoguxiang (a lively hutong lined with cafés, bars and boutiques) or over to the Shichahai lake district — aiming for Yindingqiao (or Silver Ingot Bridge), which crosses the channel linking Houhai and Qianhai lakes. It’s where everybody seems to go, in boats steered by uniformed gondoliers, by pedicab, by bike or on foot, with or without the family dog.
In the winter, the lakes freeze over and people head onto the ice from here to skate or buy hot fried snacks from hawkers who somehow manage to avoid melting the temporary rink. On warm summer evenings, enthusiasts swim across the wide expanse of water while couples wander beneath the willow trees.
Afternoon: Southern comfort
As you continue along Line 2’s anti-clockwise (or “outer loop”) circuit, you’ll come to Fuchengmen Station, which is adjacent to the shiny towers of the Financial District. From here, it’s a short walk to the tiny Guanyuan Insect and Bird Market (B1 Guangyuan Building; Fuchengmen Station, a little north of Exit B) where you might see fighting crickets, and vast Tianyi Flea Market (259 Fuchengmen Waidajie; Fuchengmen Station, Exit A) where you shouldn’t expect to find any fleas. Still peckish? Try Jewel Chinese Restaurant (Lobby, The Westin Beijing Financial Street, 9B Financial St; Fuchengmen Station, Exit C) for some tasty modern Chinese dishes, including sautéed chicken with almonds and chili.
Five stops farther on — by now it’s probably mid-afternoon — is Qianmen Station. It’s located beneath the towering, 600-year-old gatehouse that also lends its name to Qianmen Street (Qianmen Station, Exits B or C), a lively area of 19th century-style structures harboring 21st-century restaurants and international fashion brand stores. The more authentic, if equally touristy, Dazhalan (or Dashilan) Street runs to the southwest and is the place to find traditional paintbrush, pickle, medicine and shoe stores. Xixinglong Jie district in the east beckons those seeking to escape the crowds and lose themselves in yet another set of atmospheric, maze-like hutongs.
One stop farther along is Chongwenmen, whose modern look testifies to just how much the city has changed in the past decade or so. Good cooking is served up around the corner at 8 Qinian restaurant (New World Beijing Hotel; Qianmen Station, Exit D1) where unassuming (part-time TV) chef Duan Yu turns out not-to-be-missed classic dishes with elegance and precision. The menu includes everything from tenderloin beef with truffle to humble dan dan noodles — the offerings are delicious and surprisingly affordable.
The restaurant’s name is its address on Qiniandajie. About 10 minutes due north is Wangfujing (Beijing’s central shopping hub) while heading south will take you to Tiantan Park (1 Tiantan East Rd). Keep going — past tai-chi practitioners and jamming musicians — to see UNESCO-listed Tiantan, the celebrated Temple of Heaven.
Evening: East side story
As sundown nears, press on to Ritan Park (6 Ritan North Rd; Jianguomen Station, Exit B). Ritan means “Sun Temple” so it seems most fitting to arrive at dusk, when the air is still and day’s last light brings a glow to this delightful garden. Along with Tiantan, it’s among the four ancient ritual altars used by long-gone emperors that are within reach of Line 2 stations. (The Temple of the Moon is near Fuchengmen and Ditan — “Earth Temple” — is five minutes north of Andingmen.) These days they’re encircled by a public garden that’s the ideal place to kick back and relax, assuming you can dodge the ballroom dancing, card playing, kite flying and choral singing.
By the time the subway hits Dongsishitiao Station, two stops farther along, there should be little doubt in your mind: it’s time for the dinner to end all dinners. Not one but two of Beijing’s top duck roasters are within reach, so a choice must be made. Is it Da Dong (Exits B or D, depending on the branch)? This place is famed for its tender, crispy-skinned duck, but its succulent sea cucumber is first-class too. Or how about Duck de Chine (1949 Club, 98 Jinbao St), which requires a 10-minute walk farther east? A different roasting technique is employed at this restaurant to produce a mouthwateringly savory version of this time-honored dish, which is served with spring onion and radish.
You’ve reached Sanlitun district: a place to shop, dine, party and be seen. It’s the polar opposite of Lama Temple and its surrounds (where the day started) yet it’s still Beijing, an ancient capital that’s nonetheless very much of the 21st century.
Every month there’s something new here. A trending spot for a nightcap — after a head-spinning day on Line 2 — is Mesh Bar (The Opposite House, 11 Sanlitun Rd). It’s a cocktail lounge that has what it takes to help you unwind after a day of going around in circles.
This article originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of Smile magazine.