(CNN) — As Beijing marches ahead in the global power stakes, its armory of world-class hotels strengthens year on year, if not month on month.
It’s not all flashy five-star high-rises either; the city’s timeworn alleyways are home to secluded boutique boltholes and restored courtyard residences fit for an emperor.
Rosewood Beijing became the first Rosewood hotel in China when it opened in 2014.
Courtesy Rosewood Beijing
Rosewood ruffled a few hospitality feathers when it shook up Beijing’s hotel scene in late 2014. From the staff’s individually tailored suits to the hand-picked books and objects adding personality to the 240 guest rooms and suites, no expense was spared and every detail pored over.
Discreetly dazzling design throughout comes courtesy of Australia’s BAR Studio, whose hotel client list reads like the ultimate round-the-world luxury vacation. Gorgeous digs aside, food is another strong suit: rustic-chic northern Chinese fare at Country Kitchen, Red Bowl’s hip hot pot, and fine French at Bistro B.
The Peninsula Beijing
The Peninsula Beijing, formerly known as the Palace Hotel, reopened last year after a $123 million renovation.
Courtesy The Peninsula Beijing
After a lavish refit, Peninsula Beijing became an all-suite property in 2016, its revitalized guest rooms offering palatial bathrooms, walk-in closets, Chinese artworks and tablet-operated technology throughout.
The advantage of being one of the first ultra-luxury hotels to open in the capital is getting to choose your location: The Forbidden City (not to mention the city’s best Peking duck restaurants) are a short stroll away. A rooftop bar slated for 2018 (with views of the aforementioned palace) promises to be the jewel in the crown.
Waldorf Astoria Beijing
The 176-room Waldorf Astoria Beijing is located in the former site of the Xianliang Temple.
Waldorf Astoria Beijing
Fifth Avenue’s legendary Grand Dame made it to Beijing in 2014, settling just across the street from the Peninsula and a short sedan chair ride away from the Forbidden City.
While the Peninsula is all 1980s nouveau China white tile, the Waldorf is housed in a stunning latticework of copper and bronze that, architecturally, outshines all around it. Approachably boutique in scale, its silk-lined, sculpture-strewn corridors exude privilege and class, while the 175 rooms boast art deco accents, Ferragamo amenities, and, if you can bag an upper, west-facing floor, views towards Beihai Park and the Forbidden City.
Four Seasons Beijing
Four Seasons Beijing features 247 guest rooms and 66 suites.
Courtesy Four Seasons Beijing
Four Seasons touched down in Beijing’s embassy district in 2012, far from the sights but handy for the bright lights (and late nights) of Sanlitun. Each of the 313 guest rooms boasts a deep-soaking tub with a view, ceiling-mounted Bose speaker system, espresso machine, and welcome fruit.
And though room design is somewhat conservative, it’s in the restaurants where Four Seasons lets its hair down. Mio, for modern Italian, seduces with colored glass and clever gastronomy, while Cai Yi Xuan’s delectable dim sum and club-lounge ambience is another head-turner. Highly regarded, the Spa has earned a following for its east-west therapies and lavish treatment suites.
NUO Hotel Beijing
The design for the NUO Hotel Beijing was inspired by the Ming Dynasty.
NUO Hotel Beijing
Made in China and proud of it, NUO Hotel Beijing is the flagship property of a new Chinese ultra-luxury hospitality company, taking full advantage of being the home team.
That means priceless sculptures and paintings by contemporary art superstar Zeng Fanzhi in the lobby, its own tea plantations supplying Yuan Tea House (and the in-room tea ceremony sets), and hands-down the glitziest (and booziest) Sunday champagne brunch in the capital, or anywhere for that matter, served at its stunning N’Joy restaurant.
Up in the leafy Lido district, it’s a schlep from the sights but handy for the 798 Art District and the airport.
The Opposite House
The Opposite House opened a week before the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.
Courtesy The Opposite House
A survivor of Beijing’s 2008 coming-out party, The Opposite House has managed to stay at the top of its game while other Olympic-era luxury hotels have faded from view.
Partly this is because the hotel was so well-designed the first time around that it still seems to do effortlessly cool, well, effortlessly. It’s also testament to Swire, the switched-on Hong Kong operator dedicated to restless innovation.
The hotel’s restaurant portfolio was enhanced in 2015 with the addition of Jing Yaa Tang, serving perfect Peking duck from beautiful brick ovens, and delectable dim sum at lunchtime. A favorite of media types and celebs, it’s also the best situated hotel in the city for night owls.
VUE Hotel Houhai
VUE Hotel Houhai is situated on the edge of Houhai Lake.
Courtesy VUE Hotel Hou Hai
Housed in a renovated 1950’s government complex on the shore of Houhai Lake, Vue is potentially the most exciting thing to happen to Beijing since the Yongle Emperor started work on a crash pad that would come to be known as the Forbidden City.
Still in soft opening at time of writing, 80 gorgeously-attired rooms come with an assortment of extras: some have circular hot-tubs, others voyeuristic windows that peek out on to neighboring courtyards where hutong locals hang out.
Throw in a rooftop cocktail bar with pool and DJ booth, a warehouse-like Spanish eatery and a superb bakery, and you’ve got the recipe for serious fun.
Hotel Eclat has individually-themed floors (and rooms), including a Harry Potter suite.
Courtesy Hotel Eclat Beijing
On paper, this hotel simply doesn’t add up. For a start it’s inside a shopping mall (albeit Beijing’s trendiest, with fabulous restaurants), and has individually themed floors (and rooms) a la Disney, including one lined with bicycles.
And yet, Eclat is also a staggering depository of contemporary art including works by Warhol and Dali, has some of the most playfully-hip rooms and suites anywhere (if you’ve got the cash), not to mention a staggering 20 private swimming pools in the hotel’s aptly named “Lagoon Suites.”
And there’s the incongruous sensation of kicking back on your balcony surrounded by plants in a sub-zero Beijing winter, warm and toasty within your space-aged glass pyramid. Only in China, as they say.
Aman Summer Palace
Aman Summer Palace was the first of Aman resorts’ hotels to open in China.
Courtesy Aman Resorts Beijing
An unlikely metropolis for Aman junkies more used to Bali or Thailand, Beijing’s uber-luxe resort is outside the center, housed in an annex of the capital’s second most prized historic treasure, the Summer Palace.
Imperial splendor it has in spades: gardens, courtyards and pavilions graceful with symmetry, ornate flourishes in every nook, and its own private backdoor to the aforementioned palace grounds.
Rooms, though still palatial, have lost their sheen in the years since 2008 when it opened to the masses, and the tired restaurants are anything but historic. Lest you need to be reminded, you are living in an actual palace. Still worth a splurge.
Hotel Jen Beijing is part of the Shangri-La Group.
Courtesy Hotel Jen
Opened in 2017, this is the 10th property in luxury hospitality giant Shangri-La’s mid-range Jen brand, targeting media-savvy millennials. It’s also the fanciest, offering spacious five-star digs and facilities despite a four-star price tag.
Occupying 22 floors of a CBD skyscraper, Jen has all the cool you need, from a slick co-working space and cafe to its own on-site brew pub serving a range of craft beers alongside ribs and burgers.
The ace in the pack is Train Yard, a vast gym with pool spread over two floors, boasting enough space-age fitness gear to get an Olympic team into shape. The best guest rooms offer floor-to-ceiling views of the Rem Koolhaas’ landmark CCTV Tower opposite.
Located in the historic Hutong area, The Orchid hotel contains just ten rooms.
Courtesy The Orchid
Orchid is the original hip hutong hotel, dating back to the dark days of 2010 when beards and fixed-gear bikes still weren’t a thing.
The good news is this 10-room boutique locale has stayed more than relevant with innovations like Toast, a terrific Middle-Eastern small plate restaurant and brunch destination, along with a range of private serviced apartments in tantalizingly rustic locations throughout Beijing’s warren of hutong alleyways (but within walking distance of the main hotel and its excellent breakfast).
The choicest rooms are those with private terraces overlooking the Drum and Bell Towers, so check before you book.
Aimed at business travelers, East Hotel is full of flexible meeting spaces.
Courtesy East Beijing
East is the kind of business hotel you hope your company books for you — clean, comfortable and well-equipped, but with enough style and personality to make coming back after a day’s worth of meetings a genuine pleasure.
If you can, get a corner studio for extra space and better views. Throw in an excellent bar (with wood-fired pizzas), affordable seafood buffet, decent gym and elegant interior design that go beyond its price tag, and East is hard to beat.
The only issue is the location on the far east of town — but if you’ve got business in this ‘hood there’s no better choice.
Courtyard 7 is the first courtyard hotel in Beijing to implement the geothermal heat pump system.
Courtesy Courtyard 7
Beijing’s hutong alleyways used to be home to traditional quadrangle mansions called siheyuan, but these were mostly broken up in the years since the Communist revolution.
Only a tiny handful remain relatively intact, including Courtyard 7, 1800 square meters of restored courtyards and traditional buildings hidden behind grey hutong walls.
For history hunters, there’s no place better to drop your bags, and the Qing dynasty-inspired rooms, with wooden beds and furnishings, are homely and cosy.
The only downside is its close proximity to Nanluoguxiang, once a funky backwater of bars and boutiques, now a crush of snack-munching tourists.
China Great Hall Hotel
The China Great Hall Hotel, on the surface a rather standard Chinese four-star affair, was strictly cadres-only until 2012, because it’s attached to no lesser pile than the Great Hall of the People, the center of absolute power for the Communist Party of China.
What this means, providing you book a “Square viewing room,” is that when you draw back the drapes you’ll see the concrete expanse of Tiananmen Square, Mao’s mausoleum, and the National Museum of China — China’s most precious real estate — unfold before your eyes.
With plenty of subways nearby, travel connections are handy too, and the big sights are, quite literally, on your doorstep.
Former schoolhouse Cote Cour is a hidden haven close to the Forbidden City.
Hotel Cote Cour Beijing
For several years a solid choice for those on the hunt for a boutique courtyard hotel in an atmospheric alleyway location, Côté Cour has upped its game considerably since it underwent a full refurbishment in 2016, and is looking all the better for it.
Capacious rooms (for a courtyard hotel) tread a decorative line between east and west, and are arranged around a delightful water feature with al fresco courtyard seating and bags of greenery.
Service has been upgraded too, with excellent English spoken by the front desk staff.
Grand Mercure Beijing Dongcheng
Grand Mercure Beijing Dongcheng has two onsite restaurants, a nightclub and a fitness center.
Courtesy Grand Mercure Beijing
A steal for the price, if only for its location in hip Dongcheng District, the Grand Mercure is a short walk to a horde of hutong alleyway bars, eateries and sights including the Drum and Bell Towers and Houhai Lake.
Rooms are sizable enough, clean and well-appointed (the hotel opened in 2014 in a refurbished building), and if you shell out a few more renminbi for the executive floor you’ll get more space and complimentary evening cocktails and canapés.
Tianan Rega Hotel
Guest rooms are decently sized though somewhat underlit at this mid-sized hotel, but the location — steps from The Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and Wangfujing — can’t be beat. Best of all by far, though, is what’s on top.
Quite simply the most fabulous roof terrace in Beijing, with a monumental view taking in almost every historic hotspot in the capital, from the Drum and Bell Towers in the north to Tiananmen Square in the south.
None of the eight rooms at Graceland Yard are quite the same, but all are decorated with Buddhist-themed stylings.
Courtesy Graceland Yard Hotel
The definition of a hidden gem, this rustic courtyard hotel occupies the 500-year old remains of the Zhengjue Temple, in a terrific alleyway location squeezed between ramshackle local residences.
Traditionally furnished rooms have decorative Zen Buddhist features and present a palpable ambience of old China you probably thought had long disappeared.
All the rooms are different, so ask to see a few before deciding. Unfortunately, there’s no restaurant, which means no breakfast, but the hotel is a quick stroll from Mianhua Hutong and Huguosi Hutong, both bustling local food streets.
Graceland Yard, 9 Zhengjue Hutong; +86 10 8328 8366
Shichahai Shadow Art Performance Hotel
Shichahai Shadow Art Performance Hotel features minamilst rooms, but offers activities like shadow art painting classes and dumpling making.
Courtesy Shichahai Shadow Art Performance Hotel
An atmospheric alleyway location close to Houhai Lake and Beihai Park, and a daily program of free cultural activities (including making and performing with Chinese shadow puppets) gives this quirky hutong hotel an edge over its rivals.
Rooms are compact, but modern, spotless and air-conditioned, and wrap around an attractive central covered courtyard. A respectable level of English is spoken among the staff; the only real downside is awkward taxi access.
161 Lama Temple Courtyard Hotel
161 Lama Temple Courtyard Hotel features Chinese-style accommodation and is situated near to the Summer Palace.
Courtesy 161 Lama Temple Courtyard Hotel
A characterful budget choice, this courtyard hotel has gracious staff with good English skills, and a funky location in the heart of Beijing’s hutong alleyways (as well as being conveniently close to the subway). Rooms are compact but functional, the hotel is relatively quiet, and the Wi-Fi works.
There’s also a small bar-restaurant with craft beers and simple Chinese and western dishes, housed in a pleasant, wood-beamed building.
Tom O’Malley is a food and travel specialist who has written for The Guardian, Travel & Leisure, Fodor’s, Time Out and the South China Morning Post.