Political, cultural, and economic combustion have created an edgy, fascinating contemporary art scene—in Beijing. The city's most thorough primer is at Dashanzi 798 Art District, a sprawling neighborhood of Communist-era factories and warehouses converted into art galleries, boutiques, coffee shops, and restaurants. Go to buy, or just to browse.
Ask to be dropped off on Jiuxianqiao Lu, near the Dazhong Electronics Market. Take an overpass across Jiuxianqiao Lu, and walk past the market and nearby Hongyuan Apartment complex. The neighborhood will begin to thin out. (Note: the numbered lanes aren't necessarily labeled or easy to differentiate. Luckily, there are many business signposts to help you out, and most spots are within two or three blocks.)
Stop in the (1) Long March Space (www.longmarchspace.com) on Jiuxianqiao Lu no. 4, a rambling gallery with multiple rooms and exhibits and a fun sensibility. Exhibitions run the gamut from videos, sculptures, and paintings, to commercial art forms—media, magazines, BMW art cars.
Turn right upon exiting Long March Space, and take another right at the next intersection. Mid-block, on your right, you will see (2) Chinese Contemporary (www.chinesecontemporary.com), up a flight of red stairs. The focus of this small (3,300 square feet) but significant gallery is on established or fresh mainland artists with ardent, often political messages. The roster reads like a greatest-hits list, from avant-garde (Huang Rui) to political pop (Wang Guangyi), performance stuntsmen (Zhu Ming) to iconic realists (Zhang Xiaogang).
Continue to the end of the lane, and you will see (3) Time Zone 8, a bookstore. Order a cappuccino and browse through the art books. "This is 798's cultural heart," says Jonathan Haagen, a guide for ArtWALK Beijing. This deep, well-stocked bookshop—run by longtime Beijing expat and avid collector Robert Bernell—has been around since 798's auspicious beginnings in 2001: The adjoining café and photo gallery hosts occasional performances and lectures.
Cross Jiuxianqiao no. 4 and turn left. You'll see a hulking complex to your right: Factory 798. Enter (4) 798 Photo Gallery. The curators of this gallery are well aware of 798's purpose as a destination for both tourists and serious collectors; last year, it garnered massive attention for a quiet, riveting exhibit of photographs from the Cultural Revolution.
Just inside the entry of Factory 798 is a small tangle of boutiques. Find floor-length coats and gowns with kitsch Mao-era patchwork at (5) Feng Ling, or the less dramatic linen blouses and trousers in (6) Ying's Studio, next door. To your left, go into (7) 798 Space (www.798space.com), one of Dashanzi's largest galleries, a yawning concrete space with red writing on the walls. Not all Chinese contemporary art is political. "The world vision of the 35-and-under generation is all about economics," says Karen Smith, author of Nine Lives: The Birth of Avant-Garde Art in New China.
Once you've surveyed the exhibit, go up to the mezzanine and relax, or visit the small bookshop toward the back of the gallery, leading to Old Factory Café. Walk out the front door of the café to a narrow lane—a draw for Beijing's art cognoscenti.
There are two good dining options here: (8) At Café ( 86 10 6438-7264) to the left, a wild space of bombed-out brick walls and a small terrace, with great salads. The more spirited choice is (9) Sichuan Restaurant, to the right, where you can take your mind off the vivid images you've seen with mala beef stew—literally, "numbing" and "hot."
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