You might say the road to Beijing lodging has been paved in silk and Olympic gold. In ancient times, the trade route known as the Silk Road brought an influx of international travelers to the imperial capital, coaxing the construction of roadside inns and royal guesthouses alike. The most recent burst of construction came in 2008, when the anticipation of visitors for the Olympic Games triggered mass development of sleek, modern hotel properties. In today's Beijing, checking into your hotel room could send you either spiraling back multiple centuries or hurtling up 60-plus floors in a high-speed elevator.
Can't decide whether you'd prefer old world or new world quarters? Don't get your chopsticks in too much of a tangle. This being China, the best Beijing hotels provide a yin and yang of amenities: either historic settings with up-to-the-moment luxuries or contemporary properties with ancient references.
At Aman at Summer Palace, you can lodge like an imperial guest -- the secluded compound is part of the Summer Palace, a meticulously restored guesthouse where the Empress Dowager hosted personal visitors back during the Qing Dynasty (the unparalleled service rivals anything those royals might have enjoyed). Wander through the property's tranquil series of interconnected courtyards, and you'll see why this one-of-a-kind hotel set 45 minutes outside Beijing's hectic center is prized as an ultimate retreat.
You'll want to spend at least a little time in the heart of it all, however, to get the full flavor of Beijing. Why not combine your trip to the imperial past with a few nights at the Park Hyatt Beijing, a jetsetter launch pad which zooms into the city's future. Stretched through a striking skyscraper in the hub of the booming central business district, this chic hotel offers sweeping views of the cityscape, with most of the major amenities like the Tian Spa and China Grill (one of the highest restaurants in the city!) set above the 63rd-floor lobby. Another good choice for centrally located modern luxury is The Peninsula Beijing, where Beijing's past (the Forbidden City is a stone's throw away) and its present (à la the onsite couture shopping arcade) are both equally accessible. For those looking to stay in the western part of the city, The Ritz-Carlton Beijing, Financial Street, with its business-friendly address and artful Chinese touches, might be just the ticket.
And then there are properties we adore principally for their amazing feng shui -- the aesthetic philosophy that characterizes Chinese design. Smack in the middle of Sanlitun -- a hopping 'hood favored by Westerners -- the distinctive Opposite House sparkles like an emerald. Japanese architect Kengo Kuma designed the green glass exterior to evoke the latticework of a traditional Chinese screen, and filled the open atrium interior with abundant natural wood and light. The boutique hotel's cutting-edge design is matched by a forward-thinking approach to service, like the choose-your-own check-in/check-out times, and a "fun-friendly" attitude, with a lively bounty of shops, clubs and eateries in the surrounding village.
Almost two hours outside the city, yet definitely worth the detour, the cluster of modern villas at Commune by the Great Wall was designed by a star-studded team of Asian architects. If you stay here, make like a Silk Road traveler and pack good walking shoes -- the villas are arranged along a private section of the Great Wall which is ripe for exploration.
No matter how ancient Beijing's roots, the modern tourism sector here is still relatively new, especially when compared to cities like Shanghai, where pampering comes at a price. What does that mean for you? Some of our favorite luxury hotels in the city can be reserved for under USD 300 -- in other words, you can enjoy lots of "silk" for considerably less gold.
Jennifer Garcia-Alonso and Rachel B. Levin, www.thepurplepassport.com