Sports tourists can show their Olympic mettle in Beijing

Updated: August 4, 2008, 11:29 PM ET
By Sunny Wu | Special to ESPN SportsTravel

• Beijing Olympics Travel Guide photo gallery

BEIJING -- You've confirmed your flight to China, landed a hotel room, secured a visa, bought a Mandarin phrase book and even scored tickets to a few events at the Olympics. All the hard work is over. Now comes the fun.

The country has been working overtime to make the Games of the XXIX Olympiad a success, pouring money into security, infrastructure, transportation … and entertainment. The Olympics will be a test of endurance and will, not just for the athletes but for visitors eager to experience the history, the culture, the sights, the food and the nightlife Beijing has to offer. Are you up for it?

Here are just a few highlights to get you started on your Olympic road trip.

The first (and easiest) stop for any visitor is Tiananmen Square (Tiananmen West or Tiananmen East stations on subway line 1). The massive public square is rich with history and the site of famous (or infamous, some would say) gatherings, including the student protests in 1989. Here, you can catch a clear view of Mao Zedong's portrait hung from The Gate of Heavenly Peace. Security is tight at the square; expect to have your bags searched upon entering.

While you're there, head south to the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall, where the body of the erstwhile supreme leader of China is entombed and on display. The mausoleum is open only from 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., Tuesday through Sunday, during the summer, so be there early if you want to pay respects to the Great Helmsman.

From the square it's an easy jaunt to the Forbidden City (Tiananmen West or Tiananmen East stations on subway line 1), the former home of dynastic emperors, their wives and concubines, their servants and sycophants. Tourists from China and around the world flock to the compound that was once barred to outsiders. It's easy to spend the whole day exploring the resplendent buildings and trove of antiques. To escape the inevitable heat visit its Imperial Garden, where the emperor and his harem relaxed, to catch some shade and a cool drink from one of the snack shops.

If you only have half a day, check out Temple of Heaven Park (Tiantan Dongmen station on subway line 5). Heads of state, including former president Richard Nixon, have visited the site where emperors from the Ming and Qing dynasties prayed for abundant harvests. The buildings are impressive, but don't miss the amateur singers and choirs (singing Chinese opera ballads or revolutionary songs) using the park grounds as their own performance halls.

Even if your Olympic schedule already is packed, visiting and climbing the Great Wall is a must. Sure, you could go to Badaling, the section of the wall to which visitors flock; it's the easiest and closest section to access and your hotel concierge will be more than happy to sign you up on one of their tours. But you aren't traveling to China because you want things easy. To truly experience the Great Wall, carve out a full day and head to remote Simatai, about a 2½ hours drive northeast of the city center (take bus 980 from Dongzhimen long-distance bus station to Miyun, then transfer to a minibus; or just hook up with one of the tours from your hotel). You'll be rewarded with fewer tourists and hawkers, a strenuous hike and a majestic view.

After visiting these sights (and others that will beckon), no doubt you've worked up a mighty appetite and thirst.

You cannot leave Beijing without eating Peking Duck, the local delicacy known the world over. Even if you've had the dish elsewhere, it won't compare with the duck in Beijing. Although there are more crowded and more popular Peking Duck restaurants in the city, go to the highly-regarded Beijing DaDong Roast Duck Restaurant (two locations: No. 22 Dongsishitiao, Dongcheng District, local phone numbers are 5169-0328 and 5169-0239; and No. 3 Tuanjiehu Beikou, Chaoyang District, 6582-2892, 6582-4003 and 6582-4012). The skin is delightfully crispy and the meat moist; best of all, the duck is not dripping with grease.

Another must-try cuisine is hot pot, a boiling, spicy broth placed in the middle of the table. Dip and cook to preference an assortment of vegetables and meats at Dong Lai Shun (multiple locations, but try this one: Fifth floor, Xindong'an Plaza, Wangfujing Dajie, Dongcheng District, 6528-0932), a local chain that comes highly recommended by Beijing residents.

If you consider it a must, take in the bustling Donghuamen Night Market (on Dong'anmen Dajie, near the Sundongan Plaza, Dongcheng District), where you can order skewers of meat (and other unidentifiable edibles) from among the throng of food stalls. Locals, however, typically avoid the place, and one business owner, a lifelong Beijing resident, said it's because -- fair warning -- many consider the stalls unsanitary.

Craving a pizza or a plate of pasta? Find your way to the charming Vineyard Cafe (31 Wu Dao Ying Hutong, Dongcheng district, 6402-7961, Web site), which is nestled in a hutong, an old alleyway, across from the Lama Temple. Servers give a healthy pour of their house red or white wine (30 RMB, or renminbi, the currency of the People's Republic of China) and the restaurant has a nonsmoking room -- a rarity in China -- behind its courtyard.

And for all the delightful tackiness and unrefinement you can handle, Hooters (201 China View Building No. 1, Chaoyang district, 6585-8787, Web site) has set up shop across from the Workers' Stadium, one of the Olympic soccer venues. For a dash of decadence you can order a bottle of Dom Perignon with your plate of wings. And the servers are more than eager to sing a ditty at your table, just like at your neighborhood Hooters.

To get your drink -- and party -- on, venture to Houhai (pronounced ho-high) and Sanlitun (san-lee-tune), two sections of the city stocked with bars and clubs. Just mention either place, even if they are the only words you know in Chinese, to a taxi driver and he'll know right where to take you. If he drops you off a block or two away, don't worry; just follow the lights and reverberating bass.

You won't have trouble finding a bar in either area; many employ touts to persuade you to patronize their establishment. It can be quite the turnoff. Here are a few bars that don't pull that move.

Catch live music at the East Shore Live Jazz Cafe (Second floor, 2 Qianhai Nanyan Lu, Houhai, 8403-2131), a dark, moody, smoky joint with a second-floor view of the lake. Go early to snag a table, especially on Fridays and weekends. It's an especially good place for people-watching, and the tunes are a welcome change from the top-40 hits other bars are blasting onto the street.

On the other side of Houhai is Club Obiwan (4 Xihai Xiyan, 6617-3231, Web site), a two-story lounge and club named after a bar in "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" and not the Jedi Knight. Enjoy a Tsing Tao beer on one of the red lounge chairs or grab a seat on the deck overlooking a quieter section of Houhai. On Sundays try the sampling of free salad and wings.

In Sanlitun, after you've stiff-armed more touts, reward yourself with a mug of Hoegaarden brew or two and a thin-crust pizza at The Tree (43 Bei Sanlitun Nan, 6415-1954, Web site), a secluded, rustic bar and restaurant that features a brick oven. Even though it's off the main street, the place can get crowded.

The Q Bar (Sixth floor, Eastern Hotel, 6595-9239, Web site) is in a quieter section of Sanlitun, but don't be fooled. The hip, trendy lounge on the sixth floor of a hotel packs in the beautiful people, not to mention expats, who chat away while drinking sour apple martinis and mojitos. It's the place to drink fancy cocktails -- and look good doing it -- even if the hotel it's in seems a little rundown.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the street Nanluogu Xiang (near the Drum Tower, Dongcheng district), a revitalized hutong now lined with funky boutique stores, coffee shops and bars. Spend a comfortable evening strolling and exploring the alleyway in a tout-free zone. Have dinner at Luogu Drum & Gong Fusion Restaurant (104 Nanluogu Xiang, Dongcheng district, 8402-4729) if you're up for some spicy, stir-fried bullfrog.

It will take one Herculean effort to experience all that Beijing has to offer, but no one said striking gold in this city was simple.

Sunny Wu, a Salt Lake City-based free-lancer, is spending three months in China, drinking his fill of Tsingtao, eating all the steamed baos he can stomach and chronicling his exploits on his blog.