Travel to BeijingA Family’s Ni Hao, Beijing
In our children’s lifetime, China may very well surpass the United States as the largest economy in the world. The provincial China we once knew is on its way to extinction, replaced by modern cities of that are centers of commerce. Even today, there are towns in China we haven’t heard of that dwarf New York. While we don’t know what the future holds, China is already a formidable economic and political presence.
A family trip to China today will introduce your children to the culture, language, history and food of this formidable land. As adults, your children will do business in China as if it’s second nature. Besides enrichment, a trip to Beijing can also be an experience to bond your family as you discover this exotic land. A family trip to Beijing done right will be the pinnacle of cultural and educational experiences for your kids.
The Creature Comforts
There’s no need to be a hero and feel like your family should rough it on your trip to Beijing. You’ll get the most out of the city by hiring a driver, who will help you navigate the traffic, maximize your family time at sites and alleviate unnecessary stress. Beijing Limousine has clean cars and English speaking drivers, who will cart you around for a relatively inexpensive daily price. You’ll find that taxis in Beijing are hit or miss: Many of the drivers come straight from the provinces and don’t know East from West, much less English. For those sites that are further afield like the Summer Palace, Great Wall and for most of the restaurants, a car is a necessity.
Beijing hotels have top notch service to make your family vacation a breeze. You can stay five-star in Beijing for U.S. three star prices, so take advantage of it while inflation hasn’t quite yet set in. The Peninsula has an unbeatable location for families, within walking distance to the Temple of Heaven, Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. You may not be in the center of nightlife, but save a stay at a hipper hotel like the Opposite House when it’s your kids taking you on vacation one day. Other family friendly choices are the St. Regis in Embassy Row and Ritz Carlton in Chaoyang, both of which are exceptional but less ideally located than the Peninsula to the tourist sites.
Packing it all in
The Peninsula concierge should become your new best friend. Besides dinner reservations, they are the key to arranging afternoon arts and cultural activities to integrate with your family experience at the sites. The kids will love calligraphy class after a visit to the charming Luilucheng Street, where locals water paint beautiful old Chinese characters on the sidewalks. They will also enjoy kite making for flying their beautiful kites in Tiananmen Square. Our suggested itineraries pack it in, but recognize that downtime is integral to the enjoyment of the trip. We suggest you hit the sites early in the morning to beat the crowds, sit down to a proper lunch, then spend the afternoon doing an activity like art class, kite making, cooking class or good old family pool time to decompress. One major site a day is plenty when you have kids, though you know your brood best.
There is a bit of provincial China left, though it has been touristified. The Hutongs and Houhai are quaint areas that give you a glimpse of what China was just 20 years ago. At Houhai, pick up antique water brushes and paint brushes to take home, and walk through the Hutongs where families gather to eat around a boiling pot of food. Take it in now, as at the rate China is going, this may be a folklore experience by the time your kids are adults.
The Silk Market is a lesson in trade at its simplest, where your kids can watch you negotiate for silk goods, cashmere sweaters and brightly colored souvenirs. Confidant kids can bargain alongside you for own goodies: Most of the vendors are friendly and maybe your precocious child can get an even better bargain than Mom and Dad.
The Great Wall will surely be a highlight of your family trip, and the place to snap all those Kodak moments. Go on a weekday when the crowds subside and/or head to the Mutianyu area of the Great Wall. While further afield, it’s one of the most beautiful parts of the Wall and a lot less crowded. You don’t want to be on the slow bus so make sure you have a driver for the full day. The excursion will take a total of about 3 hours to drive there and back, and about 2-3 hours to tour around. Take the tram up to the Wall when you arrive and save that hiking for the Wall itself. There is little food we would confidently recommend at the Great Wall, so our Great Wall day is paired with a hearty Sunday brunch at the St. Regis. On any given Sunday, you’re tikes can dine among the Beijing elite. The food presentations range from Western to Eastern, so a feast for even the pickiest eaters. Make sure to bring your own snacks too as hiking the Wall for a few hours will build up an appetite.
The Summer Palace is one of the most worthwhile excursions from the regular tourist circuit. Set on a lake on the outskirts of the city, the Summer Palace is a UNESCO heritage site. It’s the ideal place to stroll and explore the historic buildings, take in the vistas and learn how the Chinese royals once lived. As a secondary bonus, it gets you out of the Beijing pollution for a day, to breath in the relatively fresher air.
Expanding their Food Horizons
You can pretty much take your children to any restaurant in the city for an earlier dinner. The Chinese cherish family, and a well-behaved child, or a not so well-behaved child, is welcomed almost everywhere. Forget what you know about Chinese takeout from home. The dishes may sound the same, but they taste so much better in Beijing. The food in China is made with ingredients picked up at the market that day, and their meals don’t include anything but small amounts of rice. Yes, there are some adventurous items, like the not-so-urban legend buffet of bugs. But if you stick to the basics, your children will develop a taste for fine Chinese cuisine.
Ease your family into Chinese food by heading first for lunch at Din Tai Fung. It’s a chainlette of dumpling restaurants, which is ultra clean and serves comfortingly familiar dishes. It’s a casual sit-down restaurant, so a perfect place to regroup after a morning of heavy siteseeing.
Peking duck, also referred to as Beijing duck, is the specialty of the city. Dadong is the most popular and to many locals, the best place to have the prized dish. With a familial atmosphere, it's where the locals and tourists have large dinners and boisterous conversation. They have beautifully prepared dishes besides Beijing duck, so if it’s not a hit with the kids, there is a good Plan B. Duck de Chine is the other chicer Beijing duck spot, and a little less touristy. For Cantonese food, Lei Gardens has the best in the city. Only downside is your kids will be disappointed that the lo mein and chicken and broccoli at home won’t taste anywhere near as good.
Too much of a good thing though, can be, well, too much. At some point you may want to have non-Chinese food. Don’t worry, the locals feel the same. This is apparent from the line out the door at Chef Two, which serves the best diner food and burgers in the city. Many expats and wealthy locals frequent Alla Osteria for top notch Italian for when the kids are just craving a plate of pasta.
To dine at restaurants from top chefs like Daniel Boulud for a fraction of the price, take your brood to Maison Boulud. The restaurant itself, set in the former U.S. embassy next to Tiannaman Square, is a cultural experience. No stuffy service here; their wait staff will warmly welcome your family to dine on finely prepared French food. One thing is for certain: Your kids will not go hungry in Beijing.
A Lifetime Experience
Don’t be surprised if your kids pick up more than a few words of Chinese. Their newly acquired Ni Hao, which is Hello, and Xie Xie, Thank You, are just the tip of the iceberg. This trip will expand their horizons and get them primed to appreciate and maybe even embrace other cultures. It’s an extraordinary gift as a parent to give this lifetime experience to your kids.