Beijing thrust itself into the world’s consciousness in 2008, when it hosted a spectacular Olympic Games. China, the sleeping dragon, had awoken, and its capital announced that it was open for business.
The Olympics brought with it sweeping cultural and physical change to the city. Dizzying architectural heights were reached in the form of the Bird’s Nest stadium, the Water Cube, and the Beijing Opera House. These contrast with the traditional courtyard homes, or hutongs, that still remain, thanks largely to the city’s emerging middle classes, who saw the opportunity these beautiful properties presented and converted them into restaurants, hotels, and high-end private properties.
The Games also rendered Beijing a far more accessible travel destination than it was before. For example, taking a taxi ride used to be an exercise in skillful diplomacy, innovative communication techniques, a lot of pointing, and seeing parts of the city you never intended to. Now, most cabbies speak some English and are used to sharing their cars with tourists. Furthermore, swathes of luxury hotels have been built, along with high-end restaurants that complement the city’s already excellent (and affordable) restaurant scene.
Happily, Beijing’s relentless renovation has spared the Forbidden City, which is as awe-inspiring as ever; the Drum and Bell Towers; and the Summer Palace, which sits just outside the city. These magnificent sites offer a reminder of Beijing’s rich imperial history. Meanwhile, the austere government buildings, the vastness of Tiananmen Square, and the wide boulevards serve as testimony to China’s modern-day might.
And while Beijing may be the capital of the People's Republic of China (PRC), the city has always maintained a mischievous undercurrent, which is embodied in the locals’ dry wit as well as in the exciting, often subversive, art and music scene and pulsating nightlife.