The Wangfujing area is the closest that Beijing has to a bustling midtown. Start in a quiet place: (1) the beautiful former residence of writer Lao She (19 Fuqiang Hutong), often billed as China's Charles Dickens (Rickshaw Boy, Lao's most well-known work, is an epic novel about China's laboring class). Read about his early years abroad, then view his study and library, left untouched since the day he disappeared, prior to his supposed Cultural Revolution suicide.
Exit the home and walk south on (2) Fuqiang Hutong: note elaborately carved roofs and doors. Turn right onto Dongshikou Xijie, enter Donghua Fandian on the right, and go to the second floor to (3) the Loving Life Massage Center.
"Tui-na" style massage (an acupressure-based massage technique) was often performed by blind people in China. For about $10, you can get a full-body massage without any bells or whistles (no candles, no oils, a semi-private room, Chinese pop music blaring). The massage therapists are highly skilled: in addition to their supposedly innate skills, average training is three years.
Continue down Dongshikou Xijie to Wangfujing Dajie, and turn south (right). You'll see (4) Dong Tang (East Church) on your left, a Gothic cathedral with a park-like entrance. Fire, earthquake, and war put this 17th-century cathedral through multiple incarnations. After your visit, re-cross Wangfujing Dajie and continue south until you reach the massive (5) foreign-language bookstore, worth a stop if you need books.
Continue south three blocks. You will begin to see hawker stalls to your right. Follow the crowds (at any time of day) to (6) Wangfujing Xiao Chi Jie ("Snack Street"), a clean pedestrian plaza that's a culinary map of China, from remote Xinjiang to fiery Sichuan to seafood-centric Canton. "Street food runs the gamut from banal (noodles, lamb kebabs) to intensely weird (wriggling scorpions on a stick), and the atmosphere and experience are unbeatable," says Dan Ouyang, brand manager, City Weekend Magazine. Most dishes are $1-3, and some of the vendors have storefronts where you can sit and eat: slurping is encouraged.
Go back out to Wangfujing Dajie, continue south one to two blocks (depending on where you exit), and turn left onto the major thoroughfare, Dongchan'an Jie. To your left you will see (7) Oriental Plaza, a huge indoor mall with foreign (Diesel, Esprit) and Chinese brands. Of particular interest is the basement-level food court: if you're thirsty, buy a prepaid card ($5-6), then hit the fresh juice bar.
Oriental Plaza is connected to the (8) Grand Hyatt Beijing. Follow the signs and escalators to the lobby of the hotel. The patisserie is worth a visit, if only to gape at the Chinese gongs and urns—made of chocolate. If you're in the mood for a drink, good options are Red Moon and Made in China, whose wine and sake lists (and accompanying food) are somewhat epic.
End your tour on the massive hotel steps outside, where Chinese are bound to be posing for tourist photos. Snap your own.
2014 Traveler Photo Contest
See all the winning images from the 2014 Traveler Photo Contest.