A Design Lover's Guide to Beijing

A Design Lover's Guide to Beijing

Elizabeth Licata
Jul 31, 2012

Beijing's skyline changes more often than some cities change weather. One day you might be photographing a centuries-old hutong, the next it'll be a giant hole surrounded by signs announcing an ambitious new project of some kind or other. The capital is continually changing with an eye towards contemporary art and cutting edge design by boldfaced names like Koolhaas and Starck, but old Beijing still has something to offer fans of history and traditional design. And the food is some of the best in the world. So if your travels take you to Beijing, check out our Design Lovers' Guide for some of the best ways to spend your time.


Forbidden City: The Meridian Gate facing Tiananman Square is the real entrance, but the gardens and most of the decorated living rooms are towards the Gate of Divine Might at the back, and you can enter through there as well. A few of Empress Cixi's rooms are still decorated, and the lady had amazing taste. The guard in those rooms seems ever eager to tell passing tourists about her multicolored Italian chandeliers and mirrored fireplaces from Israel.

Houhai: One of three lakes in the center of Beijing, Houhai is most famous today as a nightlife spot. Circle the lake and watch some boats, then pick a rooftop bar and spend dusk enjoying the view. The area is surrounded by hutong, so it's an excellent place to wander. When you're ready to walk, just pick a direction and go.

The Summer Palace: The Dowager Empress Cixi did not do things by halves, and her summer resort was no understated retreat. (She famously embezzled 30 million taels of silver from the Chinese navy to build it.) The three-kilometer park has a variety of palaces, gardens, and museums. There's a tiny village full of artisans, installed along a river so she could go shopping, and the stores today are filled with souvenirs and traditional crafts. (It's a little Epcot, but still good.) She even had a marble boat.


Hutong: Beijing's hutong, narrow streets and alleyways formed by lines of courtyard houses, are something of an endangered species, as they're constantly being demolished, seemingly at random. But there are still enough to tour, and they should not be missed while in Beijing. Hire a guide to take you through the hutong around the Drum and Bell Towers in a two-seater bicycle cart and tell you about the area and the buildings.

798 Art Zone: For a fun real-life drinking game, walk through 798 and take a sip any time a passerby says, "This place used to be cool." But even with the winds of gentrification blowing through it, 798 is still pretty cool. The decommissioned factories in this former industrial zone have been turned into art studios and galleries, and a lot of them still have their early industrial trappings and machines around. Seemingly every door is a gallery, club, or restaurant.

Hike the Great Wall: OK, you won't be able to hike the entire Great Wall, but an experienced guide can take you around various sections and the surrounding environs. Hikes are ranked by difficulty, and they can get really difficult.


Panjiayuan Antiques Market: The antiques market at Panjiayuan is a massive panoply of dealers of art, crafts, and antiques of varying quality and authenticity. Most of the place is laid out like a giant flea market, with jewelry stores along the front and the classier antique shops along the east side. Not everything is real, though, so keep your wits about you and don't expect to come back with a Ming vase for $10.

Affordable Art Beijing: The Chinese art boom created its own mini bubble economy where students would hang out in front of art schools and offer to paint things for $100,000. AAB holds regular contemporary art fairs to provide a platform for emerging artists and whet the appetites of potential new collectors.

Nanluoguxiang: The entire street of Nanluoguxiang gets a mention because young foreign hipsters will never, ever want to leave this place. It's lined with cute hipster bars, food stands, and shops for clothing, souvenirs, and small home décor items. Stop by the Suzhou Embroidery Store, NLGX Design Store, and Plastered T-Shirts.

Pearl Market: Pearl Market is kind of an everything market. Need an iPhone cover or a tube of mascara? You'll find it here. Good jewelry deals can be found on the top floors, where you'll find lots of vendors specializing in different kinds of pearls. Nancy's Pearls on the third floor specializes in Tahitian black pearls and has excellent prices. If you find a vendor you really like, he or she can sometimes help you with other vendors. If you buy pearls from Nancy and mention that you're also in the market for jade, she'll send a runner off to another shop to bring back an assortment.

JNBY: This Hangzhou-based contemporary clothing brand is the product of a young design collective. Their signature is loose, convertible clothes that fold around the body in architectural drapes. Sweaters and outerwear are key.


Peking Duck Private Kitchen: Every non-vegetarian who visits Beijing is going to want a duck at some point., and when it comes to choosing a restaurant, there are several vying for "best in Beijing." Quanjude is the traditional champion, and Da Dong is the current darling, but Chef Zhang Lu Jun at Peking Duck Private Kitchen (a 20-year Quanjude veteran out on his own) turns out some of the most consistently beautiful ducks in Beijing. As a bonus, it has a glassed-in open kitchen so everyone can watch.

The CourtYard: Housed in a former imperial court building updated with modern fusion design, the CourtYard has amazing views of The Forbidden City. The downstairs Gallery Lounge displays Chinese contemporary art and is an excellent stop for a pre- or post-dinner cocktail.

Room! Beijing: Chef Brian McKenna's restaurant has some cracked-out, crazypants décor. The hostess stand is made of Lego, the walls are covered in a rotating program of contemporary graffiti and sculpture, and you'll never find the bathroom because it's hidden in a wall of hot pink books. It's a hoot, and the food is lovely.

Yellow River Shaanxi Noodles: I'm a sucker for knife-cut noodles (daoxiaomian), and this place is open 24 hours, right between the clubs at Worker's Stadium.

Fatty Wang's Donkey Buns: There's a saying "In heaven there is dragon meat, and on Earth there is donkey meat." I don't know of a dragon restaurant to recommend, but Fatty Wang's is widely considered the best spot for donkey in Beijing. The braised meat is chopped and stuffed into a split flatbread with green peppers and cilantro, then doused with the braising broth for maximum juiciness.


The Opposite House: This emerald green boutique hotel from architect Kengo Kuma is one of the coolest hotels in the world. The lobby is an art gallery, the restaurants are clubby, and the rooms are spacious, lofty, and luxurious.

Raffles Hotel Beijing: To feel like an old-school billionaire, stay at the Raffles. It was built in the early 1900s as "the only deluxe hotel in the Far East," and it's hung onto its golden age opulence ever since. Complete the picture with a Cuban cigar at Writers' Bar.

Bamboo Garden Hotel: On the other end of the price spectrum is the Bamboo Garden Hotel, in a classical courtyard building convenient to the Drum and Bell Towers and Houhai.

Please help us out and add to the guide in the comments - what are your recommendations for Beijing?

(Images via: 1. Shutterstock, 2. Shutterstock, 3. Wikimedia, 4. Shanghai Focus, 5. , 6. The Opposite House)

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