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Asia travel

Doing it in style: the best of Beijing’s art scene and how to navigate it

Your guide to where to stay in the Chinese capital, from the opulent to the eye-popping, the visual arts highlights and some places to wind down afterwards

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 November, 2015, 6:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 November, 2015, 6:00am

Bernardo Bertolucci's vision of rouge-saturated splendour and gilt-burnished pomp in the Beijing of his The Last Emperor may have been replaced by a fog of pollution, but don't let that put you off.

The Chinese capital still has plenty of spangles, from its awe-inspiring architecture to its flourishing contemporary art scene and showstopper dining, to keep you smiling.

First off, you'll need somewhere to rest your head. Those in search of imperial opulence need look no further than the secluded Aman at Summer Palace (aman.com), a 60-minute skip from the capital.

This Ming marvel, set across the former cooking quarters of Yiheyuan palace, comprises traditional yet teched-out pavilions, each decorated in muted creams with wooden beams and heavy Oriental latticework. (Tip: guests with deep pockets should plump for a spacious Courtyard Suite.)

It being Aman, there's also an expansive spa with age-old Chinese herbal treats, Jacuzzi and plunge pools, plus private palace entry. You'll leave feeling more pampered than Emperor Pu Yi himself.

For a more cutting-edge vibe and central locale, bed down at Hotel Éclat (eclathotels.com), Beijing's ode to the Louvre pyramid, just east of Tiananmen in hip-happening Chaoyang.

This bonkers five-star bower, perched atop luxury retail romp Parkview Green, is stuffed to the rafters with eye-popping art (from the likes of Andy Warhol, Shen Jingdong and Gao Xiaowu), and hosts private pool suites and indoor terraces.

Not far from Éclat is the 798 Art District (or Dashanzi), an East Berlin-inspired, Soviet-funded, former military factory turned hotbed of commercial arts and epicentre of Beijing's creative youth culture.

Avoiding Mondays, when everything is usually closed, have a taxi drop you at the caged red dinosaurs by resident artist Sui Jianguo, just past gate No. 4. Here, you'll find the celebrated non-profit Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (ucca.org.cn), which is one of the best curated spaces in all of China. Exhibitions, performances, workshops, film screenings and forums abound.

While there, ensure you pop next door to the UCCA Design Store - it's a cracking souvenir pit stop, with a raft of local craft, plus some global bobs, from handmade leather bags to bicycles to limited edition books, prints and sculpture.

Also within this compound are standout stores Yin Shu + EA West, for statement jewellery and locally designed duds; and Fei Space, an eclectic stash of homewares, porcelain, clothing and trinkets.

If you still have the wherewithal, and a wad to blow, just five minutes away from 798 is Caochangdi, a gaggle of galleries for the serious collectors, best navigated by taxi.

Three Shadows Photography Art Centre (threeshadows.cn) offers unusual snapshots inspired by the ICP in New York, as well as a cute cafe for that all-important caffeine charge; Lucerne-bred Galerie Urs Meile (galerieursmeile.com) works with the China Art Archives & Warehouse to showcase homegrown talent; and Pekin Fine Arts (pekinfinearts.com) is Meg Maggio's magnificent space showcasing Asian art, and frequent US museum collaborations.

If navigating this alone sounds daunting, hire a guide from Bespoke Beijing (bespoketravelcompany.com). These bilingual pros offer the inside track on buying art and will even take you into the artists' studios for a meet and greet.

By now you'll be wiped out, so it's time for a refresher. To escape the city bustle, nip up to Green T House Living (green-t-house.com), a former teahouse and spa, now a serene and fantastical culinary retreat with waiters in period garb and theatrical menu to match.

Or, for a set supper as painterly as the art you've been ogling, slink into upscale, inventive gastro temple King's Joy (kingsjoy.cn), where “veg whisperer” Pan Jianjun's organic produce will sate even the most hardened carnivores.

For further insight and insider tips, visit luxecityguides.com