Beijing is a sprawling city and continues to reach out in every direction, swallowing up more of the surrounding former farm areas to incorporate into its bulging frame. The city is organized by several large concentric circles of roads called “ring roads”. The original city center was the Imperial Palace, or Forbidden City. The first ring road surrounds this ancient structure, which is still used to center the city’s roads and directions. There are now six ring roads surrounding the city, with the villa suburbs lying past the northeast fifth ring road. Depending on the time of day, driving from the city center to the northeast villa area can take at least 45 minutes to an hour or more using ring roads and expressways. Beijing’s north, south, east, and west directions are often referred to in relation to the Forbidden City, which serves as the center of the city’s “compass”.
The large Chang’ An Jie (Chang An Avenue) runs along the city’s east-west axis just south of Forbidden City and north of Tiananmen Square, separating the two structures. The traditional business center, called Central Business District (CBD) remains between the east second ring and past the east third ring road along Chang’ An Jie, but continues to creep eastwards towards the fourth ring road as the business district expands. West of the Forbidden City around the west second ring road is the new Financial District, where many of the large investment banks have made their home. The north-east part of the city between the second and fourth ring roads is the most international and cosmopolitan, with Chaoyang District being the most popular residential and entertainment area for expats living in the city and for the well-heeled Chinese. The northwest part of the city houses many of the largest and most well respected universities in China, as well as many of the new technology-related companies. Large swaths of the southern and the northern parts of Beijing are the least developed areas of the city although that is starting to change. The Olympic venues were built in the north part of the city and the southern part of the city is seeing developments of villa areas much like the ones that are currently popular with expats further outside the northeast part of the city.