The Beijing Municipality is slightly smaller than the state of New Jersey. It is hilly in the north and flat in the core city and south. The Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square serve as the geographic center of the city, and other important government structures are aligned directly to the north and south. The city center is circled by a series of seven concentric ring roads (although the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th ring roads are the ones you’ll regularly use). Wide north-south boulevards connect with similar east-west roads, creating a grid street pattern. As long as you stay on these main roads, you’ll navigate the city like an old pro in no time. Wandering off these main arteries into Beijing’s infamously crooked hutong alleys is a sure-fire way to get lost but also a great way to mingle with traditional Beijing.
Surrounding the Forbidden City north of Chang’an Avenue are Xicheng and Dongcheng Districts. Both are characterized by their historic hutong neighborhoods and the courtyard homes of famous literary and political players of the past. Xicheng is also home to Beijing’s urban lakes, including Beihai, imperial gardens turned into a large park, and Houhai, a popular entertainment district where trendy bars and upscale restaurants line the edge of the picturesque lake. South of Chang’an Avenue has a reputation as being some of Beijing’s working-class neighborhoods where you’re more likely to find the so-called “Chinese apartments,” in other words, the real China.
Farther northwest of the city center you’ll find the Haidian District, which is home to the Summer Palace, numerous universities, and the Beijing Zoo. Directly to the east of downtown is the Chaoyang District. Here you’ll find Sanlitun and Jianguomen, two neighborhoods with lots of embassies and large expat populations. Besides the embassies, Sanlitun is most famous for its restaurant and bar scene on Sanlitun Road, with dozens of old watering holes, new restaurants, and modern shops.
The Beijing Capital Airport is about a 30-minute drive to the northeast of downtown. There are numerous new expat enclaves that have been developed along this route, quite a few with upscale villa-style housing with architectural styles from around the globe.
Surprisingly the central business district (CBD) is not located in the center of town but to the east of Tiananmen Square between the 3rd and 4th ring roads. The area has undergone major redevelopment to make it an attractive place for office buildings, and plenty of high-end housing is available here to serve the businesspeople who work nearby.
Excerpted from the Second Edition of Moon Living Abroad in China.