Beijing is all about breakfast. It’s a town that’s early to rise, and even at 7am you might find your favourite morning snack is all sold out. Northerners are hardy folk, not ones to let bone-cold weather – when even the sun doesn’t want to rise – stop their morning routines. There’s something inspiring about a city where you’re always one step behind a white-haired granny: not only did she edge you out of the bus queue, she also snatched up that last youtiao (Chinese stick donut) and soy milk because you were five minutes late tumbling out of bed.
There are two words for morning in Chinese: “zaoshang”, which means, roughly, “pre9am” and “shangwu”, meaning “9am to noon”. And morning is two-words kind of important, with zaoshang the one you want to be hitting. Well before 8am, the city is in full swing and the unrelenting, beautiful chaos that Beijing can be has begun.
While weekend champagne brunches might be trending, the traditional Beijing breakfast is steamed buns stuffed with pork and fennel, towering in steamers at a roadside stall at 7am; it’s long, savoury dough sticks served with bowls of warm unsweetened soy milk in the neighbourhood eatery at 6.30am; it’s doufu nao (“tofu brain”), pillow-soft silken tofu served soupy with soy sauce and assorted toppings when your eyes are still groggy with sleep. And it’s jianbing.
Beijing’s iconic on-the-go breakfast is this eggy crêpe sold at roadside carts and street stalls. At its most basic, a thin layer of batter – often made of coarse grains or legumes such as millet, mung bean or purple rice – is poured onto a hot skillet, an egg cracked and spread on top, minced scallions and coriander sprinkled, chilli sauce and fermented soybean paste applied, and finally a crisp, deep-fried cracker called a baocui delicately folded into the middle. If you’re looking to up your jianbing game, add anything from an extra egg to pickled vegetables or one of the ubiquitous tiny hot dogs wrapped in pink plastic.
Like New Yorkers and their bagels, everyone has a favourite jianbing spot, generally determined by some complex equation of average distance from home and work crossed with price and level of banter with the vendor. Tucked away in a hutong, Dahua Jianbing is universally loved. Here, for four short hours each day, jianbing are executed with mastery. Plump and filling with a bit of everything going on in all the right amounts, they’re moreish and highly addictive – often with the queue to prove it.
Rising at the crack of dawn – well before, actually – might not be at the top of everyone’s holiday to-do list, but it is on the schedule for most Chinese visitors to Beijing. As part of their pilgrimage to the capital, visitors from all over the country flock to Tiananmen Square every day at sunrise to witness the raising of the flag. You might not feel the same heart swells as the sea of people around you, but there is still something inherently stirring – or perhaps provocative – about an event that can evoke such patriotism. It’s no small thing to be smack in the centre of a square so historical, facing the ancient Forbidden City and its grandeur, as the sun rises in the east and the scene transforms from darkness into light.
Pre- and post-flag-raising is a raucous affair, with hundreds of people milling about, jostling for prime real estate and generally relishing their time in the capital. Expect to get pulled into a few photo sessions, where you’ll probably turn up in someone’s holiday album to be shown to friends and family back home. All in all it’s a great morning out – plus you’ll be up in time to catch the best breakfast.
Neighbourhood wet markets are a centrepiece of traditional daily life – and an institution. Local residents buzz about, squeezing this tomato or that one, inspecting leeks and commenting on this year’s astronomical cabbage prices. It’s where you imagine the best gossip in the history of the world must have happened, and where you will almost certainly find a vegetable you’ve never seen before.
Across the city, these often-chaotic markets have been slowly (and tragically) shuttered, in a quest to ‘civilise’ the capital. But Chaowai Morning Market remains. Tucked in the shadow of the colossal Workers’ Stadium, this small, open-air wet market starts early in the morning and lasts only a few hours. Colourful umbrellas over vendors’ stalls punctuate the scene, and while the produce is almost certainly not organic, the selection is broad. Marvel at the tofu, which comes in endless varieties, or wander towards the perimeter where merchants peddle speciality items including freshly pressed sesame oil. The market’s name translates to “morning convenience market”, and indeed there is a small assortment of daily sundries and small trinkets on offer. A handful of stalls slinging noodles, jianbing and other local snacks will whet any early-morning appetites.
Once an imperial garden, Beihai Park lies northwest of the Forbidden City. At 171 acres, the grounds are sprawling, and a large lake stretches across half of it – nearly as vast as the park’s 1,000 years of history. The early hours of the day are the best time to visit, when older city residents practice tai chi or water calligraphy in the stillness of the morning. Stroll though the endless Chinese gardens, which imitate other famous grounds from around the country, and saunter under low-hanging tree branches along the shore of the lake.
A striking 40-metre high temple, White Dagoba, sits perched on a knoll on an island in the middle of the lake. Also on the island is Fangshan Restaurant, which dates from 1925 when the park was first opened to the public, and despite a turbulent past, it has continued to dish up elegant Qing dynasty imperial cuisine. Lunch and dinner are served here, and the stunning and opulent building is worth a peek – it may be better than the food itself. For breakfast, take a more populist approach and order a selection of baozi (steamed dumplings) from local chain Qingfeng Steamed Buns, who have secured a spot in the park.