Perpetually wrapped in a sinister blanket of smog, Beijing is often seen as a difficult, impenetrable city, especially compared to its southern sister Shanghai.
“It’s a city of walls, boundaries, and compounds, from the smallest courtyard house to the Ring Roads that encircle it,” says Philip Tinari, a longtime resident and the director of the Ullens Center of Contemporary Art (UCCA, 4 Jiuxianqiao Lu). Located in the 798 Art District, about a twenty-minute cab ride from downtown, UCCA is one of Beijing’s most exciting art institutions.
While it has long housed some of Beijing’s top commercial galleries, including Beijing Commune, Pace, Galleria Continua, and Magician Space, 798 recently transformed itself into a veritably self-contained art town when Hong Kong hospitality giant Swire Properties opened EAST Hotel (22 Jiuxianqiao Road) on the fringes of the district in 2012. On weekends after gallery openings, the art crowd can be spotted milling about EAST’s swish Japanese restaurant Hagaki, or the hip ground floor bar Xian.
One of the top events on Beijing’s cultural calendar is Art Beijing. Running at the National Agriculture Exhibition Center from April 30 through May 3, this year’s fair features an expanded lineup that includes both contemporary and classical art, antiques and crafts, plus a new, dedicated Design Beijing section.
A brisk, 15-minute walk away from the Exhibition Center is one of the city’s most walking-friendly neighborhoods. Sanlitun — or just “the Village” to its loyal denizens — is the closest Beijing gets to Greenwich Village, Covent Garden, or Aoyama. Tucked between Martin Margiela, Balenciaga, and Alexander McQueen boutiques in the sprawling, open-plan Tai Koo Li mall are trendy terrace cafés, bookstores, and older walk-up apartment blocks. Beijing’s cool fuerdai (‘wealthy second-generation’) kids can be spotted window-shopping at Dover Street Market before heading to Moka Bros (Nali Patio A-105, 81 Sanlitun Lu) for healthy wraps, warm noodle salads and fresh juices, or Transit (N4-36, Taikoo Li North, Sanlitun Lu) for bracingly spicy Sichuan fare.
And for discerning travelers who can’t stand being too far from the hippest quarters, there is only one choice when it comes to bedding down for the night: Opposite House (11 Sanlitun Lu), the minimal-chic Kengo Kuma-designed property with a hushed, cavernous atrium that displays Chinese antiques and custom-made artworks.
A bit further west of Sanlitun, past the procession of flashy superclubs around the Worker’s Stadium (“Gongti” for short), is a newish commercial gallery called Ginkgo Space (40 Xinzhong Street). Its next show, opening May 8, is devoted to the meditative canvases of abstract painter Chen Yufan.
Another emerging hotspot for the jet-setting art crowd is the 100-room boutique Hotel Eclat, and its adjoining megamall and office complex Parkview Green (9 Dongdaqiao Lu). Owned by Hong Kong property mogul George Wong, the hotel’s corridors are adorned with an eclectic — some would say clashing — assortment of artworks by Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol, and Zeng Fanzhi scattered among vintage designer furniture by Arne Jacobsen and Tom Dixon.
While Beijing’s endless, grand boulevards can often dwarf a lone tourist keen to explore it on foot, the city does have pedestrian-scaled neighborhoods filled with hidden discoveries. One prime example is Wudaoying Hutong, located near Yonghegong (Lama Temple) and the Confucius Temple, a quiet street lined with both old-style residences and trendy cafés and shops that are just beginning to gentrify the area.
Jianchang Hutong, located just off Wudaoying, is another interesting thoroughfare where you’ll find homemade sausages at Stuff’d (9 Jianchang Hutong), a tiny French deli and cheese shop called Chez Gerard (40 Jianchang Hutong), and select shop and café combo at Station (20 Jianchang Hutong). Don’t miss Arrow Factory (38 Jianchang Hutong), a “storefront for art” measuring only around 15 square meters that hosts rotating exhibitions visible through the glass doors (visitors are not allowed to enter).
Another gem that could only be found buried deep in Beijing’s signature hutongs is Temple Restaurant Beijing (23 Shatan Beijie, off Wusi Dajie). Located on the grounds of a 600-year-old Qing Dynasty temple complex, Temple serves innovative European cuisine to diners sitting on modern Scandinavian furniture beneath ancient wooden beams. There’s also an eight-room boutique hotel in what used to be monks’ quarters and prayer halls, now outfitted with opium beds and other antique furniture pieces, and complemented by outdoor contemporary art installations by Chinese artist Wang Shugang.
EAST, No. 22 Jiuxianqiao Road
Located just on the outskirts of the 798 Art District, EAST is the honorary art-world hangout in this part of Beijing, whether it’s the elegant izakaya-style small plates at Hagaki, or the cozy in-house bar Xian.
Hotel Eclat, 9 Dongdaqiao Lu
This over-the-top, 100-room hotel, as well as its attached megamall Parkview Green, are the grandiose pet projects of Hong Kong property mogul George Wong. The hotel’s corridors are adorned with an eclectic — some would say clashing — assortment of artworks by Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol, and Zeng Fanzhi scattered among vintage designer furniture by Arne Jacobsen and Tom Dixon.
Opposite House, 11 Sanlitun Lu
Hong Kong developer Swire Hotels hired Japanese architect Kengo Kuma to design this minimal-chic hotel in a prime location smack in central Sanlitun. Its hushed, cavernous atrium displays Chinese antiques and rotating art installations, while Jing Yaa Tang serves both regional fare and dishes inspired by the classic Beijing roast duck. In-house bar Mesh is where Beijing’s smart young set comes to preen and sip bespoke cocktails.
Transit, N4-36, Third Floor, Taikoo Li North, Sanlitun Lu
One of the toniest addresses for authentic, bracingly spicy Sichuan fare in “the Village,” Transit is perfect for dates or small groups, who can just slink over to the attached lounge, Cicada, for post-prandial cocktails.
Moka Bros, Nali Patio A-105, 81 Sanlitun Lu
This airy, ground-floor café with a small front terrace is a hub of social life in Sanlitun, dishing up steak and avocado wraps, warm soba and vegetable bowls laced with peanut sauce, and zesty lemon squares to a young, good-looking crowd.
Temple Restaurant Beijing, 23 Shatan Beijie (off Wusi Dajie at the end of the lane)
Nestled in an assuming hutong north of the Forbidden City is this Qing Dynasty temple complex repurposed as a smart European restaurant where diners sit on vintage Scandinavian furniture beneath ancient wooden beams, and an intimate, 8-room boutique hotel furnished with opium beds and other antiques.
Arrow Factory, 38 Jianchang Hutong
Housed in a former vegetable stand that measures a mere 15 square meters, this alternative “storefront for art,” viewable through glass doors 24 hours a day, has shown works by many top Chinese artists including Liu Wei, Hu Xiangqian, Lee Kit, He An, and Liang Shuo.
Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA), 798 Art District, No. 4 Jiuxianqiao Lu
Founded by Belgian collectors Guy and Miriam Ullens in 2007, the UCCA is a nonprofit art center that stages around 15 exhibitions annually. Past shows include solo exhibitions by top Chinese artists like Xu Zhen, Liu Wei, Gu Dexin, as well as global talents like Olafur Eliasson, Tino Sehgal, and Sterling Ruby.
Ginkgo Space, No. 40, Xinzhong Street
Opened in 2014, this fairly new addition to Beijing’s commercial gallery landscape is located just outside the west gate of the Worker’s Stadium. Gallery director Jiang Wei oversees a rotating program of younger Chinese artists that includes Aaajiao, Tan Ping, Tan Tian, Wang Yuyang, and Chen Ruobing.