Backroads Travel is an occasional series that focuses on out-of-the-way, lesser-known, or otherwise off-the-beaten-track travel destinations that are nevertheless well worth the time and energy it takes to get there. These are places that might not be highlighted in your travel guides or pop up in typical Google searches. They’re the hidden and unsung wonders of the world.
Let’s get this out of the way right up top: I don’t particularly care for Beijing. I lived in China for several years, and it’s where I met my wife and got married. I’ve been to Beijing multiple times, but the city and I just never hit it off. And this is coming from someone who currently lives in Washington, DC, so I’m familiar with cities overwhelmingly defined by politics and government.
However, my personal feelings about the city aside, it’s chock full of historic sites and tourist must-dos. I certainly wouldn’t dissuade anyone from visiting Beijing, nor would I recommend visitors to China avoid the capital. Far from it. Beijing has the Great Wall, Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace, and some of the best urban parks and museums in the country. It’s home to seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites. In short, it’s a required stop on any Chinese itinerary.
So it was that I recently found myself in Beijing for about a week. We took our kids (now 5 and 8) back to China for the summer and did a fair bit of backpacking around the country. How could we NOT take them to Beijing to see some of the country’s most famous and spectacular sites?
While there, we had the opportunity to stay at the Red Wall Garden Hotel, which is centrally located in downtown Beijing and within walking distance of the Forbidden City. Listen, I’ve been all over China, from one end to the other and back again. I’ve used every form of transportation imaginable, and I’ve stayed in places that run the full range: from dirty holes in the wall in the middle of nowhere to charming youth hostels to standard, no-frills Chinese hotels to four- and five-star luxury Western chains. Each has its own list of pros and cons.
Most visitors to China, though, don’t come with this well of experience. Most people will plan a trip and get overwhelmed by the abundance of information online and in travel guides. Do a Google search for “Beijing hotels” and you’ll see what I mean. If you’re planning your first trip to Beijing, keep a few things in mind:
- Look for a hotel within walking distance of a couple of the sites you want to see. The city is incredibly spread out, and this will save some hassles with the subway/taxi/bus.
- Look for a hotel that’s near a subway station. Lines 1 and 2 are most convenient to the tourist sites, but if you’re willing to brave the subway (which is surprisingly straightforward once you figure it out), your options increase exponentially.
- Look for something comfortable, and don’t be afraid to splurge on a bit of luxury. Days in Beijing will be long, hot, and tiring, and having a comfortable place to return to at night will go a LONG WAY to keeping your sanity intact.
Red Wall Garden Hotel met all three of these criteria… and then exceeded all of our expectations. That’s actually selling it short. It blew our expectations out of the water. (Check here for rates and availability.)
(Disclosure: We were guests of Red Wall Garden and provided with a night’s stay in return for our honest opinion of the property.)
Also: advance warning that a LOT of pictures are included below.
The hotel is located in one of Beijing’s most historic hutong neighborhoods: Shijia Hutong. Walking off the main street is like stepping back in time. The narrow alley closes in on both sides, stone architecture recalls an earlier era, and the noise and chaos of the city fade away. Step past the gates into the hotel, and you might forget all about the city.
It truly is an oasis in Beijing’s insanity.
The layout of Red Wall Garden echoes the traditional structure of hutong family compounds; there’s a central courtyard surrounded by the hotel on three sides. Each floor of the hotel also mirrors this same traditional layout. Central lounge areas serve as common spaces and are beautifully decorated with traditional Chinese furniture, art, books, and artifacts. Guest rooms line the perimeter of the lounges.
Each floor (and room) is unique, and I can pretty much guarantee you that you’ll want to spend some time exploring. The 4th floor (where we stayed) also has a table set up to practice calligraphy. Paper and ink are provided, and our kids almost skipped breakfast so they could perfect their Chinese characters.
Five different room types are available, suitable for 2-4 guests. We stayed in the gorgeous Red Wall Suite, which consists of two separate bedrooms (and bathrooms) and a phenomenal view over top of the neighborhood. All rooms come with all the standard amenities you would expect, but it’s the decoration and attention to detail that elevates the room to an Experience.
You might just not want to leave your room. The details that pervade the rest of the hotel also saturate the guest rooms. Nothing here is “off the rack.” Lamps, chairs, bedspreads, wardrobes, even the tray that holds the teacups–everything has a story to tell.
It was, by far, the most comfortable–and memorable–room we had in all six weeks of our trip.
I’d be negligent if I didn’t say something about the food. The courtyard is home to outdoor dining–the Courtyard Bistro–and evening cultural performances. There’s also an indoor dining room (where breakfast, which includes both Chinese and Western fare, is served) and a bar. The food is, in a word, delicious. The menu changes with the season, and it reflects and is inspired by several different regional cuisines from across China. (Yes, Western food is also available.)
I’m a big fan of local street food, and my kids go nuts over noodles from streetside vendors, but we can still recognize and appreciate a fine meal when we see one. Dinner at the Courtyard Bistro isn’t cheap, so I wouldn’t necessarily recommend eating there every night–especially with all of Beijing literally at your doorstep–but it does make a fantastic splurge during your stay.
During our stay, evening guzheng performances (a traditional stringed instrument) accentuated the experience and added a welcome cultural depth to dinner. These cultural performances also vary with the season, so check the website or with the hotel before your visit to see what’s in store.
So, let’s recap: Location? Couldn’t be better. Decor and ambiance? Traditionally Chinese with heavy doses of luxury. Guest rooms? Decadent and incredibly comfortable. Food? Delicious and absolutely splurge-worthy.
And the staff? Let me just put it this way: I’ve been to 33 countries, and the people in China are the friendliest I’ve ever met. And I’ve been nearly everywhere in China, and the staff at Red Wall Garden are top of the list. They went above and beyond and were super friendly, attentive, and helpful.
Unless you make it a habit of staying at five-star luxury resorts in every city, Red Wall Garden Hotel will likely be the touchstone property that you compare every other hotel to. It’s just that good.
I will absolutely be staying here again next time I’m in Beijing.