It’s been 10 years since I last visited the immense city of Beijing, and in that short time the city has changed beyond recognition. All eyes are now looking East to China, for economics, for global leadership, and even for a stance on climate change. Despite being a world leading capital, Beijing is still uncompromisingly Chinese. The absence of Facebook, Whatsapp, Google etc keep it somewhat inward looking, however that hasn’t affected the art, culture and style which has flourished. Forget Shoreditch and Soho, London and NY – Beijing is the trendiest place to be right now, and these are just 5 of the must see places.
1. 798 (Dashanzi) Art Zone
My favourite place in Beijing, the Dashanzi Art Zone, is made up of a complex of 50 year old decommissioned military factory buildings in the Chaoyang District of Beijing. These buildings and factories have become the home to a thriving artistic community. The streets are littered with beautiful and thought provoking sculptures, while shops, art galleries and studios are blended in between. It’s hip, it’s modern, and it’s still very much China!
Originally known as ‘Joint Factory 718’, it began production in 1957 with an extravagant opening ceremony to display the brotherhood between China and East Germany.
The factory quickly became known as one of the best in China, which offered very good social benefits to its 10,000 – 20,000 workers, especially when you take into account the poverty of the country during this time. The factory gave workers the best housing available to workers in Beijing, extracurricular activities such as dancing and swimming, athletics, football and basketball teams for men and women, a fleet of German motorbikes which performed races and stunt demonstrations, an orchestra that played revolutionary tunes as well as classical Western (German) music, literary club and both Chinese and German books, and a hospital with German equipment which offered the most advanced dental facilities in Beijing.
In the 1980s, Beijing’s artists needed a new place to work and by word of mouth, artists and designers slowly started trickling into these vast spaces.
Despite the lack of any conscious aesthetic in the Bauhaus-inspired style, which grounded architectural beauty in practical, industrial function, the swooping arcs and soaring chimneys had an uplifting effect on modern eyes, a sort of post-industrial chic. At the artists’ requests, workers renovating the spaces preserved the prominent Maoist slogans on the arches, adding a touch of ironic “Mao kitsch” to the place.
In the last few decades there have been a number of notable exhibitions in the Art Zone including the Beijing Biennale and the Dashanzi International Art Festival (which started in 2004). One of the most famous shows at the Festival was performance artist He Yunchang having himself cemented shut in a wooden box with only two pipes for ventilation, and staying there for 24 hours before being chiseled out, prompting the question “Is it art?”. “Shock” exhibitions have since become increasingly common in the Art District.
The Area is now home to the ‘BoBo’ – Bohemian Bourgeoisie of Beijing, such as Ai Wei Wei who owns a home in the district.
Head to D Park to see the Beijing Ace cafe, part of which is situated on an old train carriage attached to a historic steam engine, once used to transport material and goods to and from the factory complexes. The iconic Ace Cafe brand is famous as a destination for all those who share a love for speed, thrills and rock’n’roll. You’ll be sure to spot some beautiful Harley’s outside as this area maintains the history of motorbikes with a number of shops selling bikes and mechanics in the area.
Also keep an eye out for some of the jewellery workshops where you can see artists hard at work soldering metals to make pretty designs to adorn your fingers, arms and neck.
2. 1949: The Hidden City
1949 Hidden City is one of Beijing’s chicest areas filled with restaurants, bars, gardens, art galleries and private members clubs. Billed as a ‘commune for the connected’, it’s the place to see and be seen!
DUCK DE CHINE
While all the restaurants in 1949 are exciting, my recommendation would be to head straight for Duck de Chine. This elegant spot offers the best roast duck you’ll find in the city, served with style with their homemade hoisin sauce (a great souvenir to take home with you!)
Afterwards, wander out of the Hidden City to the nearby areas which are all vibrant and alive with buzz.
Just around the corner from the main area is the stunning red lantern lit cafe and bookshop known as The Bookworm. You walk up a flight of book spine stairs to find yourself in this cozy Aladdin’s Cave of literary treasures. A place to eat, a place to drink and a place to read unlike no other.
POP UP BEIJING
Near 1949 is Pop Up Beijing, a little cafe and restaurant and event space. Not only does it sell some very enviable interior design pieces, it runs classic movie screenings every week!
3. Ch’ien Men 23
Just across the road from Tiananmen Square and the Mao Mausoleum is the former American Legation compound, now known as Ch’ien Men 23.
Following the aftermath of the Second Opium War, this general area to the southeast of Tiananmen was given to a number of foreign countries, including Belgium, Portugal, and the United States. With the resentment that spurred the Boxer Rebellion, the Legation Quarter was besieged by Boxers.
Despite the intense fighting and raging fires, the area was once again captured by foreign troops, who were rumored to have crawled through the drainage ditches to get in. In retaliation, the area was quickly walled up and considered off-limits to Chinese citizens. However, with the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937, as most foreign powers left Beijing, the area was handed back to the Republic of China’s government.
The buildings we see inside Ch’ien Men 23 today were actually reconstructed in 1903 because of the damage from the rebellion. In an area fraught with history, you can wonder what the walls would say if they could talk. Inside one of the buildings, one can only imagine what U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger may have said to Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai during their secret meeting to plan President Richard Nixon’s monumentally historic trip to China.
The whole compound has now been converted into a luxury restaurants and shopping area with shops like Patek Philippe facing the Blue Note Jazz Cafe. The jewel of the crown here is Lost Heaven, a restaurant committed to preserving the dishes and heritage of ‘lost’ regions of China.
The concept and design behind the restaurant Lost Heaven is drawn from artistic and cultural elements of minority tribes in Yunnan. The original patterns, handiwork, and embroideries of Tibetan, Yi, Na Xi, Dai, Miao, and Yao tribes are visible in every corner of the restaurant. Inspiration is also gathered from local religious beliefs, ancient poems, song, and dance, and countless stories and legends from the ancient Tea Horse Road.
The founders of the restaurant continuously search for indigenous recipes and cooking techniques from the Yunnan region. They combine what they learn with Western and Southeast Asian cuisine to bring more inspired dishes to their customers. This unique approach has made Lost Heaven a one-of-a-kind restaurant serving Yunnan folk cuisine.
Make sure to try the Burmese tea, a sweet, milky and gently spiced iced tea. I can also recommend the Burmese lamb samosas, the 9 spice chicken (especially if you love coriander), the tea leaf salad, and finally the steamed cod with Dai tribe salt black bean.
This restaurant is truly unique, and something I have never seen the likes of in the UK or even elsewhere in Europe. Every single detail of the decoration and presentation has been so carefully thought out and arranged, from the fresh lilies to the beautiful paintings, wooden serving plates and brass food covers. Make sure to pay special attention to the walls of the restaurant which are made of pressed green tea!
4. Wudayong Hutong
Skirting the edge of the Confucius Temple is Beijing’s hippest, hottest hutong! Wudayong is a charming little street filled with hipster shops, coffee bars and even fixie bike bars! With more coffee shops than any other area of Beijing, this hutong even has its very own Costa with a stunning courtyard, the trendiest Costa Coffee around? However it’s prime location has not inspired it to try any new decor, so I’d say give it a wide berth and go to one of the individual cafes! From Mexican, to Greek to a vampire themed bar, this hutong has everything. I particularly loved the creative style that infuses this whole street.
A love of cats has taken over the world and Beijing is no exception with one shop on Wudayong reserved just for painting tiny cat clay sculptures!
Wudayong isn’t just home to chic Beijing-ers but also to the chicest dogs in town, although this poor Samoyed living in the Mexican restaurant looked a little too hot.
The last on my list of trendy haunts is the ultimate Beijing expat hangout: Sanlitun! Home to all the rip off DVD shops (which recently got moved from the streets to actual buildings on the side of the roads) as well as a big trendy shopping mall, filled with restaurants. Sanlitun is a delightful mix of old and new. A classic example of the old is the little Mojito shack across the road, the new, the colossal InterContinental Hotel which lights up the sky in a daily light show!
Sanlitun is all glass and lights and shiny new buildings. Elsewhere I look for the old and historic, in Beijing you can’t help but get excited by the sheer scale of the new. I don’t usually seek expats when travelling, in fact I never do. However I’ll come clean and say I don’t love Chinese food, so evenings spent on the roof terrace of the Blue Frog enjoying happy hour and a blue cheese burger were incredibly appreciated! If you’re in Beijing and are in need of a dose of Western food and drink, make sure to stop by here. Make sure to look out for Bruce too – an older American gentleman who has spent his whole life photographing China and eats almost daily in the Blue Frog! He has so many stories to tell and such wonderful travel advice.