By Zoe Li, Raemin Zhang, Tom O'Malley, Sean Silbert , for CNN
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Elbows out and cameras up, folks, we're in Tiananmen Square.
CNN Insider Guides are thoroughly checked for accuracy. Given the fluid nature of the travel industry, however, some listings may fall out of date before guides can be updated. The best practice is to confirm current information on official websites before making plans to visit any business or attraction.
(CNN)Important things happen in Beijing. You can feel this everywhere in the city of nearly 20 million people.
There are the majestic imperial buildings, perfectly preserved in their gold and blood red, sharing the same sidewalk with Soviet masterpieces designed to intimidate.
In the years before and after the Beijing 2008 Olympics, modern wonders of glass and chrome have appeared.
It all makes Beijing's cityscape a study in superlatives; the grand scale of the city planning a campaign for headlines.
And yet, there's a Beijing that's growing organically on a human scale, particularly within the narrow hutongs, tiny alleys that separate traditional courtyard homes.
Unique restaurants, music venues and boutiques are opening in these fast-gentrifying neighborhoods.
You're never short of options when planning what to do in Beijing.
This adds up to a city of drama and juxtaposition.
Visitors return home with pictures of epic monuments and cute alleyway cats resting with elderly people in faded Mao suits.
Here's where to start and what to do in Beijing.
Did we mention the comp mini-bar?
Did we mention the comp mini-bar?
Few hotels capture the bustling energy of cosmopolitan Beijing like the Kerry Hotel.
Style and service runs through the veins of the downtown hotel.
Bright, airy rooms are equipped with space age bathroom equipment.
The list of amenities feels like what you'd get at a luxury resort.
Guests get complimentary fitness classes at the gym, complete with running track and sports courts.
Kids can romp on the slides and ball pit at the Adventure Zone playroom.
There's a deli, as well as a deluxe Peking duck restaurant.
Every night, award-winning bar Centro is packed with Beijing's glitterati kicking back over fashionable cocktails and live jazz.
The resort is a period Qing Dynasty structure of crisscrossing courtyards, halls and suites, unfolding symmetrically like a miniature Forbidden City.
Attached to the Summer Palace, where the Empress Dowager intended to retire, Aman is Beijing's most expensive hotel.
There's all the comforts "Aman junkies" take for granted: huge bathrooms, period furnishings, a packed program of tours and cultural events and fine dining at Naoki Restaurant, which serves Japanese kaiseki cuisine.
Some distance from the city center, this one is designed for escape, not exploration.
Aman at Summer Palace Beijing, No.1 Gongmenqian Street, Yiheyuan, Haidian District Summer Palace, Beijing 100091 China;
The Opposite House
The Opposite House is the city's hippest address.
The work of Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, this 99-room boutique hotel shows off modern Beijing's commitment to design and style.
White rooms accented with natural materials have a breezy, yoga studio aesthetic.
Even the bathtub is wooden.
Below ground, a stainless steel pool looks like something from Doctor Evil's lair, sans piranhas.
Mesh, the hotel's lounge, pulls in pretty people, while restaurant Jing Yaa Tang specializes in Peking duck.
Not just a place to stay, The Opposite House is also what to do in Beijing.
The Opposite House, Building 1, No.11 Sanlitun Road, Beijing 100027 China;
Langham Place Beijing Airport
The Langham Place Beijing Capital Airport turns the airport hotel on its head.
Although just a minute away from the international airport, this 372-roomer succeeds in being more than a place to pass out during a layover.
With contemporary Chinese art filling the hotel, Langham Place has a cheeky, creative atmosphere. Appropriate, considering the hotel is just 20 minutes' drive from Beijing's 798 Art District.
If you have only a couple hours to spare between flights, it's worth hopping aboard one of the Langham's pink shuttle buses to get to the hotel and try the excellent dim sum at Ming Court.
Langham Place, Beijing Capital Airport, No.1 Erjing Road, Terminal 3, Capital International Airport, Beijing 100621 China;
On the outskirts of Mutianyu village, this eco-conscious boutique retreat rests in the shadow of Beijing's second most visited stretch of the Great Wall.
A former glazed-tile factory, it's gone through a full makeover.
Floor-to-ceiling windows with Great Wall views have been installed in all guest rooms at ground level, but curtains are absent (so expect to rise with the sun or use the eye shades provided).
Breakfast (included) features local bacon, freshly baked pastries and jams made with fruit from surrounding orchards.
A newly opened spa with pool, an outdoor Jacuzzi, sauna and treatment room has all wellness needs taken care of.
Brickyard Retreat at Mutianyu Great Wall, Yingbeigou Village, Beijing 101405 China; +86 10 6162 6506
A laid-back hotel in one of the city's most vibrant hutong neighborhoods, The Orchid offers a relaxing way to experience local life in old Beijing.
From a trio of roof terraces you can catch sight of the famed Drum and Bell Towers looming over tiled rooftops.
Outside the front door is Baochao Hutong.
Here, visitors can find typical sights and sounds of Beijingers going about their day in the cramped, crumbling courtyard houses.
The neighborhood is filled with good cheap eats, from street-side kebab stands to Yunan delicacies.
The lobby bar has a well-curated wine list and potent locally brewed beer.
All rooms have an Apple TV set, goose down beds and jars of high-grade tea.
The Orchid Hotel, No.65 Baochao Hutong, Gulou East Street, Beijing 100009 China;
Peking Yard (北平小院国际青年旅舍)
A cozy and friendly courtyard experience.
This upmarket hostel caters to the needs of today's "flashpacker" tribe.
Housed in a handsome building in the middle of an old Beijing neighborhood, Peking Yard is all potted flowers and cozy modern furnishings with plenty of Western comforts.
If you're wondering what to do in Beijing, fellow guests here will likely be excited to share their ideas.
With pool table, Belgian beer, pizza and burgers, the lobby bar is the place to meet other travelers and compare Great Wall adventures.
There's a quiet garden in the back and a sun terrace with lounge chairs, a welcome sight after a day of sightseeing.
A silk worm larvae to start, then scorpion for the main course.
A freak show of a food market takes place near Wangfujing each night.
The Donghuamen night market consists of dozens of stalls lined up in a neat row, each selling a variety of Beijing snacks.
Sure, there's the tame candied fruit, lamb kebabs and stuffed buns, but the other end of the spectrum is rather more challenging.
Scorpions, centipedes, starfish, cicadas and snake skin can all be fried and eaten on a stick.
A bowl of stodgy gray beef offal -- a Beijing favorite -- will help it all go down.
More than just a meal, this one is at the top of many "what to do in Beijing" lists.
Donghuamen Night Market, Donganmen Dajie Dongcheng, Beijing China;
Artisanal cocktails are the thing at Apothecary, a sleek bar that gets so ridiculously crowded on weekends it has to turn people away.
Everything is homemade, from the bitters to syrups.
You can test bartenders' skills at making an old fashioned and other classics, or challenge yourself with the bar's original Bazillionaire, a wicked twist on the Millionaire cocktail that adds absinthe and rye to the mix.
For the munchies, it's hard to beat the fried chicken sandwich with sweet potato fries, or the charcuterie platter.
Apothecary, ChaoYang District SanLiTun Bar Street 81 , NaLi HuaYuan 3 Floor 4, Beijing China;
Slow Boat Brewing Taproom
The brewery is named for the song "(I'd Like to Get You on a) Slow Boat to China."
Here's one thing: Slow Boat has the most beers on tap of any bar in Beijing. Here's another: they brew them all themselves.
Riding the craft beer boom, the tiny taproom hidden deep among traditional alleyways was started by two Americans who missed the taste of beer back home.
This is where local beer nerds meet up over a pint, sitting at long tables in the rustic hutong atmosphere.
Brews are chalked up with their alcohol content and bitterness units, with offerings anywhere from light pale ales to dark, malty stouts.
The bar regularly experiments with new styles, like a potent imperial vanilla stout or an IPA with laced with hints of mango.
Many show up just to eat. Burgers slathered with homemade hot-sauce aioli, a plate of house pickles and bratwursts cooked with IPA mustard are big sellers.
If you do only one thing on a short trip to Beijing, visit Tiananmen Square.
This is definitely what to do in Beijing.
A few minutes at the square is enough for anyone to feel the combined weight of Chinese imperial and communist history.
It's literally located at the heart of Beijing -- the rest of the city fans out in concentric circles from the Forbidden City and adjacent Tiananmen Square.
Standing in the square, visitors can observe the majesty of the Forbidden City gates to the north, and the blockhouse, Soviet-inspired National Museum of China and Great Hall of the People on the east and west.
Toward the south side is Mao Zedong's mausoleum, where visitors file through to get a look at the Great Helmsman's embalmed body.
This is the place to get that postcard perfect snapshot with the triple-whammy background of Chinese flags, giant portrait of Mao Zedong and Chinese tourists milling about making V-signs for their own cameras.
Chairman Mao Memorial Hall, Tiananmen Square, Dongcheng District, Beijing China; +86 10 6513 2277
The Great Wall
Great crowds at the Badaling Great Wall.
As the symbol of China, many Chinese believe that the Great Wall is "the only man-made structure on Earth that can be seen from the Moon."
This is untrue.
But a visit to the wall is still mind-boggling.
Like a sleeping dragon, fortifications made from little more than stone, brick, earth and wood hug the crest of mountains for thousands of kilometers across northern China.
Construction began more than 2,000 years ago on the hardly impenetrable defense system.
Parts of the wall that can be accessed from Beijing today were reconstructed around 450 years ago and are well preserved.
Of the seven sections of the Wall near Beijing, Badaling is the closest and most popular.
The views are great, but so are the crowds of tourists.
Mutianyu and Simatai Great Wall are further away.
The latter is 100 kilometers northeast of Beijing, but there are somewhat fewer visitors, and thus a more serene atmosphere.
Huanghuacheng Great Wall is particularly stunning, with a reservoir that splits the wall and "wild" sections that have been left to crumble.
Jiankou Great Wall is the most undeniably dramatic, rising and falling along sharp, tall mountains.
This section of the wall is largely unmaintained -- climb at your own risk.
The Great Wall at Badaling, Badaling, Yanqing County 102112 China; +86 10 6912 1383
Great Wall at Mutianyu, Mutianyu Road, Huairou District, Beijing China; +86 10 6162 6505
Great Wall at Huanghuacheng, 60 km (37 miles) N of Beijing, Beijing China; +86 10 6165 1111
Temple of Heaven
Like a giant emperor's crown.
The most striking of Beijing's temples, the Temple of Heaven is a park outing, a cultural experience and physics lesson all in one.
Built for Chinese emperors from the Ming and Qing Dynasty to worship the god of heaven and pray for harvest in spring, the temples within the grounds are iconic for their round, tiered structures resembling the crowns worn by emperors.
A perfectly smooth circular wall surrounds the Imperial Vault of Heaven.
This is the echo wall, where words whispered at one end are transmitted to a friend standing at the opposite end.
Kids can be occupied here for ages.
Four times the size of the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven grounds are notable for 60,000 ancient trees.
They create perfect shade for locals who come to the park to practice martial arts, fly kites and just hang out.
A former complex of 1950s factory buildings has been taken over by artists, galleries and cafés to form the 798 Art Zone.
Much of the industrial space has been left untouched, including Mao-era propaganda slogans painted on the walls, rusting machines and exposed pipes.
The cavernous industrial spaces are a great backdrop for contemporary Chinese paintings, sculptures and installations, as well as flocks of hipsters, eccentrics and blog-baiters (people who hope to be featured on blogs) that flood though.
Even if contemporary art bores you, 798 has plenty of attractions.
The increasingly trendy neighborhood has atmospheric eateries throughout, such as Sichuan restaurant Tian Xia Yan.
The Grace Beijing is a quirky-elegant hotel.
Leng Yan tattoo studio is arguably Beijing's finest, if you're interested in taking away a permanent Chinese ink painting.