With 12 months to go until the Olympics, the countdown clock is ticking in Beijing. We look at the immense changes and new offerings in the Chinese capital.

As the 2008 Olympics draw ever closer, visitors to Beijing can now experience just how important the Games will be - not only for the host city, but for the whole of China. The capital city of a nation steeped in thousands of years of imperial history, Beijing is undergoing one of the world's most comprehensive urban makeovers ahead of the moment at 20:08 on 08.08.2008 when the Olympic flame will be lit in the new National Stadium.

New sporting infrastructure, hotels, retail malls, office towers, roads and subway lines are springing up, and the airport is being completely remodelled and enlarged. At the same time, new restaurants, bars and clubs are creating a vibrant night-time energy.

Old and new

Most visitors make a beeline for Tiananmen Square. This cavernous public space is flanked by Beijing's signature municipal buildings: on the west side is the imposing Great Hall of the People, to the east the National Museum of China. To the south is Chairman Mao's mausoleum.

The centerpiece attraction, however, is located at the north end. The famously expressionless portrait of Chairman Mao marks the entrance to the Forbidden City (website: www.dpm.org.cn). This colossal palace, with more than 800 buildings, was once the exclusive preserve of China's emperors and their courts. 

From the steps of this historic symbol, you can also view the shape of Beijing's modernist future. Tucked behind the Great Hall of the People is Paul Andreu's controversial egg-shaped National Theatre, which looks rather dazzling when reflecting the sun's rays. 

Beijing's imperial legacy is also showcased at the recently refurbished Summer Palace, a grand retreat from the city's notorious summer heat. Another tourism magnet is the Ming Dynasty-era Taoist Temple of Heaven, once the largest sacrificial temple in China.

Beijing's greatest attraction, however, is a two-hour drive north. Meandering across magnificent mountain valleys, the Great Wall of China is one of the world's new Seven Wonders. Most hotels arrange transport to the nearest Badaling and Mutianyu sections. More adventurous travellers can arrange to hike on ‘wild' unreconstructed sections of the Wall.

Today, Beijing's ancient heritage blends with more modern attractions, exemplified by the Dashanzi art district. This compound of former industrial factories is now home to Beijing's flourishing contemporary arts scene. Some of the country's most expressive artists, photographers and sculptors have galleries and studios here, including the 798 Art Space (website: www.798space.com). 

For a taste of old-meets-new, Nanluo Guxiang is a charming shopping and dining district in a restored hutong neighbourhood. Among the low-slung lane houses, red lanterns and arched doorways, you'll find cool courtyard cafes, hip bars and artsy stores.

Olympic Beijing

The impending arrival of the Olympic Games is evident across the city. 

Large countdown clocks greet visitors at Beijing Capital Airport, and another stands on the steps of the National Museum of China in Tiananmen Square. Video screens showing Olympic-related videos are springing up in retail districts, and buses and hoardings are emblazoned with Olympic-related advertising.

The Games will take place in some of the most spectacular sports arenas ever built. A visit to Olympic Park just north of the city is an enlightening experience. Here you can see the 91,000-seat ‘Bird's Nest' National Stadium, created by architects Herzog & de Meuron, and Australian practice PTW's luminescent ‘Water Cube' Aquatic Centre (website: http://en.beijing2008.cn/cptvenues).

Olympic fever is also infusing consumer goods. Beijing's central Wangfujing shopping street boasts several stores selling Olympic merchandise bearing the five Fuwa mascots. The cartoon figures of a giant panda, Tibetan antelope, Olympic flame, a fish and a swallow are called Beibei, Jingjing, Huanhuan, Yingying and Nini. Take the first part of each name and put them together, and you get: ‘Beijing Huanying Ni' or ‘Beijing Welcomes You'. For more information on the Games, visit the official Beijing 2008 website, at http://en.beijing2008.cn.

After dark

Beijing's nightlife and hotel scene used to be vastly inferior to its great rival, Shanghai. No longer. Several new restaurant, bar and club openings are raising Beijing's after-dark profile. 

Beijing's hottest lounge bar is Lan, a visual collage of Parisian art chic and Mao-era influences created by Philippe Starck. The hottest dining table is at People 8, which serves a finely fused blend of Japanese and Chinese cuisine in an acutely stylised, granite-grey interior. Much awaited (and due to open in early 2008) is The Legation, a carefully arranged cluster of upscale bars, shops and restaurants near the Forbidden City that will include NYC-based, Michelin-starred French chef Daniel Boulud and Florence's Enoteca Pinchiorri.

Few cities worldwide can match Beijing's rate of five-star hotel openings. Recent additions include the Ritz-Carlton and Westin, both on Financial Street in the western financial district; Raffles Beijing, near Tiananmen Square; and The Regent, near Wangfujing shopping street. The Mandarin Oriental Hotel & Spa (inside Rem Koolhaas' stunning CCTV HQ building), Aloft, Conrad, Banyan Tree, a joint JW Marriott-Ritz-Carlton development at China Central Place and Park Hyatt, will soon join the list.

Boutique hotels are also en vogue. Recent openings include Kapok Hotel (website: www.kapokhotel.com), near the Forbidden City, and Côté Cour SL (website: www.hotelcotecoursl.com), in a renovated hutong courtyard. Coming soon is the 80-room Angsana Hotel Beijing, plus new boutique hotels by two of Beijing's classiest restaurants, Face (website: www.facebars.com) and Green T House (website: www.greenteahouse.com.cn).

For visitors to the Great Wall, staying in style is made easy at Commune by the Great Wall. Located in the Shuiguan Valley, 60km (37 miles) north of Beijing, Commune features 11 uber-eclectic villas by leading Asian architects, an Anantara Spa, café bar - and a private stretch of the Great Wall (website: www.commune.com.cn).

Getting around

Though its wide streets, monolithic buildings and dispersed geography can initially seem a little daunting, Beijing is great fun to explore. The subway system is cheap, fast and efficient, with more new lines opening next year. Taxis are ubiquitous and good value - though you'll need your destination written in Chinese characters.

Most visitors arrive at the large, modern Beijing Capital International Airport, which is undergoing extensive upgrading. Next year, a new terminal designed by Lord Norman Foster will be added, as well as a subway link. The journey into the city, by bus or taxi takes around 45 minutes.

Visa and passport information is updated regularly and is correct at the time of publishing. You should verify critical travel information independently with the relevant embassy before you travel.