today’s city guide is devoted to the bustling city of beijing, china. i regrettably know very little about chinese design and would love to take a trip and explore the art and design being produced by local artists. until that day, i’m going to hold on to d*s reader may’s beijing guide. may is a world traveler and today has been kind enough to share an edited list of her favorite places, shops and eating/drinking spots in the city. i hope they’ll be helpful if you’re planning a trip there in the future- and as always, if you have a local favorite that we’ve missed, please feel free to add it in the comment section below. thanks to maya for taking the time to share this guide with us! [image above via conor & kellee]
[i also wanted to add in a link to this great beijing home/decor shopping list from beijing notebook. i didn't feel drawing from it without permission so i figured i'd link to it in its entirety instead]
CLICK HERE for the full beijing guide after the jump!
I love traveling and have lived in quite a few places: Indonesia, Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Canada and the US. I was smitten with Beijing and would like to share my best Beijing experiences with Design*Sponge readers. I have always enjoyed the city guides and hopefully mine will help you navigate the chaos that is Beijing today.
Beautiful Busy Beijing
Beijing is crowded, loud and overwhelming but it is also exciting and full of beautiful ancient Chinese architecture and mouth-watering food. Beijing has been the capital of China since 1644 and is now the bustling metropolis with the best of China has to offer.
Beijing is huge so the best way to navigate this is to visit one area at a time. This guide will describe the main sights, fantastic interior design, unique architecture and yummy eats in each. The city is bursting with historical monuments and modern architecture. Unique restaurants and bars allow visitors to enjoy gorgeous interior design and fantastic food. Remember to ask the hotel concierge to write down the name in Chinese and have a phone with a local sim card ready so the driver can ask the restaurant/shops for directions.
Nan Luo Gu Xiang, North Beijing
A pretty tree-lined lane full of siheyuan (traditional Chinese courtyards) converted into cozy cafes, lounges and creative boutiques. It is also home to the China National Arts Academy and as such, creative types and hip Beijingers can be seen sipping lattes or beers all day long. Have a meal in one of the courtyard restaurants and then stroll down Nan Luo Gu Xiang for after dinner drinks, a bit of shopping and people watch.
Shop: Plastered Shirts (website)
A really fun selection of t-shirts (including kids’ t-shirts) playing on Chinese imagery and icons. They also sell awesome retro Chinese designed notebooks, coasters and other items which would make great gifts.
Shop: Pass by Bar and Café Shop (website)
Another creative ironic t-shirt store on Nan Luo Gu Xiang, famed for its ‘Passby Bar’ shirt that is a real indicator that you have been to Beijing.
Shop: Toy shop on Nan Luo Gu Xiang, North Gate
Located about 5 minutes’ walk from the North Gate (‘Beimen’ in Chinese) of Nan Luo Gu Xiang, this tiny toy store sells retro tin robots and cars at reasonable prices (under RMB100).
Shop: Figurines Shop, middle of Nan Luo Gu Xiang
You will see a craftsman (think a young guy in jeans rather than a little old man in a traditional Chinese costume as you would probably expect) working on colorful little figurines. There is a whole miniature scene on display in the store window.
Eat: Dali (Tel: 010-84041430)
A small restaurant located in a siheyuan, this Sichuan restaurant features a set menu priced at RMB100. The food is delicious and not too spicy as Sichuan food could be and you will be asked beforehand if you have any dietary concerns. Sit in the cozy courtyard when the weather is nice.
Houhai Area, North Beijing
At the end of Nan Luo Gu Xiang is Houhai (literally translated as ‘back lake’) where you will find plenty of Beijingers chilling out. Noisy karaoke bars may open in the evening but there are plenty of laid-back options to make your Houhai experience a pleasant one. For those who absolutely cannot visit a place without getting some of the standard tourist souvenirs (you know who you are), the alleys leading to the lakes are full of shops offering them.
Play: Boating in Houhai lake
Pedal boats and motor boats for hire at one hour intervals – really fun. Tip: Do not fall for the cute duck-headed pedal boats because you will be spinning helplessly as the motor boats zoom past you at the bottleneck! (Don’t ask me how I know).
Eat: Nuage (website)
Comfort Vietnamese food served in an exotic wooden building facing the lake. Sit on the roof in the summer to take advantages of the Houhai views. RMB100 for dinner.
Drink: No Name Bar (website)
A relaxed bar with hippie décor along Houhai lake.
Dong Cheng Area, Central Beijing
Plenty of important landmarks within walking distance to each other in this area: Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and the stunning egg-shaped National Centre for the Performing Arts.
Shop: Beijing Foreign Language Bookstore (website)
This old-school store stocks many English titles cheaper than you can get elsewhere as well as a wide selection of translated Chinese books. Lots of interesting reads for those curious about the Chinese view of their own history. After you purchase the books, the moody staff will wrap your books with pink tissue paper and tie it up with a brown string – sweet.
Do: Try exotic snacks at Wangfujing
It may be touristy but it is still fun. Have a taste of fried starfish on a stick or for the less adventurous, fried tofu.
Eat: Made in China, Grand Hyatt Hotel (website)
No trip to Beijing is complete without a taste of Peking Duck – where you use a tissue-thin pancake to wrap around a piece of juicy duck meat and crispy skin, spring onion and sweet sauce. This beautiful restaurant in the Grand Hyatt is a bit fancy but worth the price if you sit by the bar facing several of the kitchens. RMB250 for dinner.
Eat: Domus (website)
The most beautiful French restaurant located in a converted siheyuan next to Tiananmen Square. Good food and absolutely stunning furniture to match. RMB400 for dinner.
Drink: Emperor Hotel (website)
Watch the sun slowly set over the Forbidden City on the rooftop bar of the Emperor Hotel.
Drink: Ch’ienmen 23 (website)
The former US embassy compound has been converted into a set of very posh and stunningly beautiful restaurants. The rooftop Moroccan bar Fez is quite romantic.
Chaoyang Area, East Beijing
On the outskirts of Chaoyang is the famous 798 art district which is a concentration of Beijing’s art galleries and design shops. For those of you interested in picking up an art piece, lots of galleries do have experience shipping internationally and while still not ‘cheap’, prices are surprisingly reasonable compared to what can be found in the West. However, if you want to buy pieces from established artists, it will still cost you. For the rest of us, the design shops located in the area provide a more budget-friendly way to take a piece of Beijing design home. Downtown Chaoyang is more of an upscale residential/commercial area with the highlight being Sanlitun Village and Worker’s Stadium where a lot of the nightlife is located. Also nearby is small but pretty Ritan Park. Expect to spend half a day wandering around the 798 Art District and the evening hanging out around the bars/restaurants/clubs/shops at Sanlitun Village and the surrounds. Chaoyang is also home to the amazing CCTV Headquarters building.
In the 798 Art Area:
Shop: Beijing Commune (website)
For those of us who are willing to spend some real money, this gallery is a notable one of the 798 Art District and has hosted sculptures of one of the most famous Chinese contemporary artists today: Yue Minjun.
Shop: Bandi Panda (Tel: 010-59786949 / website)
Artist Zhao Bandi’s has created ‘Panda Couture’ and his shop in the 798 Art District offers a wide selection of his famous panda tee-shirts and gift items, many of which are controversially themed e.g. ‘prostitute’ and ‘corrupt official’ – interesting gifts. These are not your standard panda items.
Shop: 798 Art Space (website)
Besides the gallery itself offering artwork for sale, the gallery bookstore of 798 Art Space (the original gallery that sparred the proliferation of galleries in the area) has a huge selection of books on design and artists. The corridor leading to the main exhibition space also has plenty of design goods, including red-background, yellow-starred posters that proclaim humorously, (loosely-translated) ‘Ambition and no action – the Will of the Young’.
Shop: Best Time for Tea, 798 Art District (Tel: 010-59789161)
Identified by the giant birdcage right outside, the store/teahouse/cafe sells beautifully delicate teapots and cups, as well as Chinese art. The adjoining teahouse serves specialty teas – the staff will help you identify your favorite tea.
Shop: Art Post (Youjing Mandi) (Tel: 13693503649)
Most people nowadays are used to doing everything over the internet. Youjing Mandi is dedicated to the art of snail mail. You can buy a postcard or a greeting card from the huge selection for the storekeepers to mail at a specified month in the future – an interesting idea for birthdays and anniversaries. The rest of the shop is filled with goods and small exhibits dedicated to postal mail and on busy days, people could be seen doodling their thoughts into notebooks while listening to music provided by the store.
Shop: Café Flat White Store (Tel: 010-64322798)
Originally a café from New Zealand, this cafe offers a shelf of 798-inspired design goods including beautiful tin mugs. The café also serves delicious coffee and sandwiches.
Shop: Ullens Center for Contemporary Art Shop (website)
UCCA is a non profit art center and was founded in Beijing by collectors Guy and Myriam Ullens. Besides a high-profile gallery and great restaurant (see Super Gan Bei below), UCCA also offers a shop selling a carefully curated selection of prints and design goods.
Eat: Super Gan Bei, 798 Art District (website)
Located in the artsy 798 district, this bright and airy space serves good western food (freshly tossed salads and crispy peking duck pizza). A welcome break from walking around the 798 area.
In Sanlitun Village:
Shop: The Village at Sanlitun (website)
The modern, quirky buildings that characterize the Village at Sanlitun may be a glorified shopping mall but it is also the place to get some contemporary Asian brands like Izzue, b+ab and trendy Japanese fashion brand Uniqlo which has established a store in a striking building there. For smaller independent boutiques, head over to the 3.3 mall right behind Sanlitun.
Eat: Spice Spirit, The Village at Sanlitun (website)
The place looks sleek and is located in hip Sanlitun Village, but do not be fooled, the dishes are Sichuan style (Chinese province) and extremely, extremely spicy. Drop by if you are looking for a challenge and cool back down with their yummy lime drink.
Rest of Chaoyang Area:
Shop: Panjiayuan Antiques Market (website)
Whether the ‘antiques’ are authentic or not is another issue but Panjiayuan is a great place to explore and get some fun knick-knacks. Once in awhile you may happen towards a prized old sewing machine or an antique camera. As usual in these markets, be prepared to bargain a bit and unless you are a real antiques dealer, its better to assume a lot of the ‘antiques’ are not really so old. Remember to go during weekends since it is kind of dead during the week.
Shop: Spin (website)
Originally from Shanghai, this store offers beautifully minimalist ceramic items.
Shop: Silk Street Market (Xiushui) (website)
Maybe worth going just to see for yourself the mind-boggling array of goods for sale, this large complex occupying several floors sell clothes, toys, electronics, eyewear, jewellery and everything else, including a very creative iphone wannabe. Worth noting are the stalls selling some communist design inspired tees and motorcycle helmets.
Eat: Lan Club (website)
It may be worth coming here just for the sheer drama of the Philippe Starck designed space. Dinner prices are expensive so lunch is a good deal (and a welcome refuge from noontime heat of the city). Choose from the western set menu or the modern Chinese fare that is offered at half off the menu prices during lunchtime. RMB130 for lunch.
Drink: 1/5 at 1949 The Hidden City (Tel: 010-65011949)
Recently opened in 2008, this sleek compound in a small yard in the business district is a sexy place and a chat with friends al fresco with a glass house café, a brick house and a glowing bar in the middle. Also home to fancy and expensive Duck de Chine.
Drink: Stone Boat Café, Ritan Park (Tel: 13501216156)
A simple café situated on a small picturesque lake in Ritan Park. Good for afternoon tea or pre-dinner drinks.
Shop: Homegrown Chinese Brands
There are many homegrown Chinese brands that are unavailable outside of China. These brands often offer insight into both traditional and modern takes on Chinese design. The products and packaging were developed to suit local Chinese taste, so the products often make fun (and budget!) Chinese design goods to take home.
Shop: Two Girls Skincare (website)
Two Girls still deserves an honorable mention although there is no physical shop in Beijing (you can shop this brand online). The ‘Two Girls’ skincare brand started in 1889 in Shanghai. The packaging is amazingly retro, and the recent redesign still kept some of its images from the glamorous days when Shanghai was the trend-setting trading port of China.
Shop: Yue Sai (website)
Representing modern Chinese beauty, Yue Sai is a large Chinese skincare brand and products are made with herbal ingredients in modern minimalist Chinese packaging. Available all over Beijing.
Shop: Blanc de Chine (website)
Favored by Jacky Chan (for no China travel guide must be complete without a Jacky Chan mention), this luxury Chinese retailer offers beautiful Chinese inspired jackets and dresses.
Shop: Shanghai Tang (website)
Described as the ‘first luxury international Chinese brand’, Shanghai Tang offers a modern update to traditional Chinese fashion and home accessories. There are plenty of items here which would make ideal gifts.
Shop: Dao Xiang Cun (website)
This famous old-school food store began as a grocery store in Beijing in 1895. It now sells cakes and other snacks in traditional Chinese packaging (lots of red, yellow and gold). Makes delicious souvenirs if your country import laws allow you to take the cakes back home.
Shop: Li Ning (website)
Most of us have heard of this major sportswear brand chaired by China’s former Olympic superstar Li Ning (who could forget him ‘flying’ around the stadium during the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing Summer Olympic Games?). The brand currently offers contemporary sportswear and sports accessories. Many shop locations across China, including several in Beijing.
Shop: Lane Crawford (website)
This trend-setting high-end department store began in Hong Kong and has since expanded to Beijing. Basically the Colette of Beijing, the department store offers a fantastic selection of designer goods and the Hong Kong branch has hosted student design events. Hopefully the Beijing store will follow suit.
The Great Wall – A proposed itinerary
Expect to spend an entire day and arrive early to avoid the noontime heat. Most sections of the Great Wall accessible from Beijing are 1 to 3 hours drive out of town. A private car (RMB500-RMB700) will allow you to follow this itinerary:
- Depart at 8 am for the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall (less crowded than Ba Da Ling section and less strenuous than Simatai section. If you are hardcore you may try Huanghua section). At Mutianyu, you can take the cable car up, walk along the wall a bit and take a toboggan ride down – fun!
- Have the driver take you to lunch and a tour at The Commune By Great Wall Hotel by the Ba Da Ling section featuring villas designed by several prominent Asian architects. The modern Chinese food is delicious (chicken with pineapple and kiwi and sprinkled with almond flakes anyone?).
- Coffee break in the lounge area of the hotel and head back into the city at 5 pm for dinner and a good rest.
- Mr Wang is a trustworthy and a safe driver in a old but clean VW.
- Pamper your feet after the Great Wall with a reflexology session from upscale chains Oriental Taipan or Dragonfly.
Other Must Sees
- Summer Palace – Summer resort of Empress Cixi who spent way too much money restoring it to its former glory,
- Temple of Heaven,
- Olympic Green – as of the end of June you could swim in the Water Cube pool! If you go in the evening, the buildings look stunning lighted up.
Splurge: The Opposite House (website)
A stunning modern hotel designed by a prominent Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, it is the frequent host of art exhibitions and is located in very trendy Sanlitun Village with plenty of dining and nightlife options. The pool is absolutely gorgeous and a welcome respite from Beijing summer heat.
Save: Peking International Youth Hostel (website)
A siheyuan right next to Tiananmen converted by a Chinese interior designer into a youth hostel with a pretty garden and a cozy lounge with free wifi. A two person room (RMB380) will give you a petite, bright, cheerful and clean bedroom with your own private bathroom.