Beijing’s 798 Art District just might be my new favorite place in the world. Tucked away in the northeastern corner of the city, the 798 zone is a former factory complex that is now packed with contemporary art galleries, chic cafes, boutiques, and exhibition spaces. Interspersed among the converted warehouses and modern buildings are massive sculptures and public art displays, making every street a surprise for the visitor.
With one day in Beijing between Ulaanbaatar and London, I took the advice of my cousin, who works at an architecture firm in New York City, and went with three friends to explore the 798 Art District. We arrived in the late afternoon under a slow drizzle, which meant that we had the area almost all to ourselves.
Hopping from art galleries to ceramics shops to book stores and plazas, we explored as much of the art zone as we could. Giant red dinosaurs in cages gave way to cavernous warehouses full of thick red paintings. An exhibition of Socialist Realism from North Korea transitioned to a courtyard full of menacing clay wolves.
Galleries featuring delicate porcelain tea sets stood side-by-side with larger-than-life soldier sculptures as the aroma of sweet food emanated from nearby cafes. It was amazing to see how much the area had evolved from its previous life as a manufacturing district.
The sky was almost dark by the time we finished exploring the 798 Art District, so we took a taxi to the hutong of Nan Luogu Xiang in Beijing. A narrow street lined with traditional low-rise buildings, the hutong took us several centuries back in time. A world away from the contemporary art of the 798 zone, this was old Beijing at its historical finest.
But not everything about Nan Luogu Xiang was old. In fact, most of the buildings housed fashionable boutiques, bars, and restaurants and the place was alive with shoppers, diners, and denizens of the local watering holes. We stopped at a Chinese restaurant for dinner, where we enjoyed an excellent meal of black pepper beef and mustard greens.
From there we strolled north along the hutong, stopping at a few shops along the way. At one point we came across fried scorpions for sale at a street food vendor’s window. None of us was adventurous enough to try them, but we did take a few photos.
At the end of the hutong we found a taxi to take us back to our hotel in Haidian. As we drove by the Forbidden City, I couldn’t help but think of all of the amazing places I had seen both that evening and the week prior. And yet there were still so many I didn’t have time for. If I had known how much I would love Beijing and the 798 Art District, I would have booked a few extra days there. Some day I will return to see the rest, and I can’t wait to see how much both the old and new parts of Beijing evolve in the interim.
This post appeared in the Lonely Planet Blogsherpa travel carnival “Favourite Places” on Sophie’s World in September 2010.