Four years after the Summer Olympics transformed Beijing, the booming capital of China is still in flux: uprooted alleyways make way for more hotels or apartments, and restaurants seem to change hands every few months. But that is what is fascinating about this expanding city, where old and new stand shoulder to shoulder, from one neighborhood to the next. Here are some tips for navigating this city in transition:
The subway system is the best way to get around the city, and it's safe. If you are directionally challenged but have an iPhone, download the Explore Beijing Subway app. It's $1.99, intuitive and can map out any route between stations.
All stations come with fare machines that are in both English and Chinese. A flat fare of 2 yuan (30 cents) comes with unlimited transfers for one ride. If the subway isn't your thing, taxis are plentiful, but cabdrivers generally do not speak English. The minimum charge is 10 yuan ($1.60), but 11 yuan after 11 p.m.
Street signs, most of which are written in Pinyin, are confusing, and there is a major difference from the layout of signs in the United States. The blue street sign at an intersection running parallel to the cross street does not indicate the name of that cross street. Rather, it denotes the name of the street you are on at that moment.
Beijing is a food lover's haven, despite the reports about recycled "gutter" oil and fake organic produce. The food is highly affordable, and you'll find a variety of cuisines to sate any craving. A typical dinner will cost 20 yuan to 120 yuan ($3 to $19) a person.
Start the day with street food, namely jianbing, a crisp, savory crepe with eggs that is a Chinese breakfast staple. It costs a mere 2 yuan (30 cents).
If you can take the heat of Northern Chinese food, try the kaoyu, a simmering platter of fish with a blanket of chilies. Tops on the go-to list are the Haidilao chain of hot pot restaurants and high-end roast duck restaurant Da Dong.
The best bet is to travel to Beijing during the slow season, from the middle of December to March. According to travel search site Qunar.com, rates at four- or five-star hotels drop to about $30-$80 a night per room. The Opposite House (oppositehouse.com) is known for its minimalist, hip designs, but if you want to go for high-end luxury, try the Hilton Beijing Wangfujing (tinyurl.com/6pp5dcm).
The trendiest thing to do is to find a siheyuan (traditional courtyard) that has been converted into a hotel. The sights and sounds of life in Beijing are right outside your door, though you'll have to get accustomed to the squat-style toilets. The Orchid Hotel (theorchidbeijing.com) and Double Happiness Courtyard Hotel are two popular siheyuan that are also affordable; visit agoda.com for hotel info and booking.
Any visitor to Beijing should check out these general websites for events, restaurant listings and reviews, and blogs about life in the city: