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Artistic and surprising Beijing

When you think of Beijing, images of the Forbidden City and the Great Wall of China come to mind; but this modern metropolis also has a thriving art, fashion and underground scene. After visiting the popular attractions, explore Beijing’s many other surprising sights. Delve through the traditional facade of this fascinating city.

A modern metropolis

Artsy Beijing

Hip since the imperial days

Many large tour groups often skip the collection of small antique and calligraphy shops in the cultural street of Liulichang. Guides feel that the merchandise isn’t interesting enough to the average traveller. However nothing could be further from the truth: here you will find the best souvenirs to take home.

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Yadid Levy / Alamy Stock Photo
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It is a joy to peruse the messy stacks of paintings and calligraphy tools. Many of these shops have been run by the same families for generations. The ambiance is a rare echo of artistic life in imperial China.

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Tony Vingerhoets / Alamy Stock Photo

A massive art district

The 798 Art District is the heart of trendy Beijing. Once the site of an Eastern European military factory complex, the area was transformed into the incubator of artistic China by the end of the 1990s. Today the workshops and galleries in the brick factory buildings are surrounded by cafes,

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Sirio Carnevalino

boutiques, restaurants and art galleries. The communist atmosphere is proudly preserved – albeit with much irony – with Maoist slogans and logos. Prices, however, are purely capitalist so bring a hefty wad of cash.

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    Tony Vingerhoets / Alamy Stock Photo

    Artistic luxury

    Because the 789 art district is too extensive to do justice in one afternoon, it's good that there is only one “artistically luxurious” Grace Hotel.

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    Even non-hotel guests will enjoy the Yi House, the renowned hotel restaurant where the kitchen specialises in Mediterranean-Asian fusion food. The interior is an interesting composition of styles, combining Ming Dynasty with modern, monochrome photography.

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      robertharding / Alamy Stock Photo
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      Hutong cuisine

      The hutongs, Beijing’s traditional neighbourhoods, consist of attached rows of siheyuan houses with spacious courtyards tucked away behind narrow alleyways. These locations often offer surprising finds. Take the hutong area in the Dongcheng District for example.

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      Here, a partnership between Chinese and expats organises walking tours and cooking classes. After a guided tour to a local market, participants learn how to turn the fresh local ingredients into a typical hutong dish.

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      An artist village

      The artist village of Caochangdi is just an hour away from Beijing. The community is much less commercially oriented than in the 798 Art District. Many artists welcome the public in their studios.

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      dpa picture alliance / Alamy Stock Photo
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      The most interesting resident is the world-famous and, according to Chinese standards, highly-controversial artist Ai Weiwei, whose studio and exhibit space are named 258 FAKE.

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        Music and barbecue

        The former drive-in cinema across from the northern entrance to Chaoyang Park is not easy to find, but those who manage to find the legendary Dos Kolegas will be more than rewarded for their efforts.

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        The lively bar at this ‘clandestine’ location has no neighbours, so bands (with names like Beijing Beatles) can really let it rip. On summer evenings you will find fresh snacks on the grill, pool tables in the garden and mojitos made with home-grown mint.

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        Stylish cocktails

        Many creative Beijing residents value hip and affordable over chic and exclusive. It is no coincidence that the friendly and accessible Dada Bar is popular with the young and fashionable from Beijing. The nightlife hotspot was named Beijing's best alternative club of the year twice in a row.

        Critics praised the club’s eclectic programming of music and film nights. The club is also involved in organising local vintage markets and clubbers enjoy wearing retro outfits.

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