Photo: Berlin's Mitte district

Berlin's Mitte district includes outdoor spaces and museums.

Photograph by Oliver Hartung, The New York Times/Redux

By Lawrence Ferber

From the November/December 2010 issue of National Geographic Traveler

Who says there’s no money for the arts? A cornucopia of annual arts fairs, including Art Basel and PULSE Contemporary Art Fair, both in Miami, attracts worldwide attention in early December.

Yet one needn’t wait for an art show for a cultural energy boost. Many large cities have vibrant clusters of galleries and contemporary art spaces: Miami’s Design District, London’s East End, and New York’s West Chelsea are among the best known. Here are four other buzzing art zones to stroll through.

Beijing, China: 798 Art District

As Beijing labored furiously to complete dazzling sports facilities for the 2008 Olympics, a complex of East German-designed, 1950s Bauhaus-style munitions factories to the city’s northeast emerged as one of China’s most exciting new tourist attractions. Conveniently accessed by bus or taxi from the city center, the 798 Art District, located in the area known as Dashanzi, is home to more than 70 galleries, plus studios, cafés, shops, and a 30-room boutique hotel (Yi House Art Hotel).

Easily perambulated by foot, the landscape is studded with startling, surreal, and sometimes shocking outdoor sculptures and installations that exemplify contemporary Chinese work such as Li Wei’s photographs of gravity-defying individuals and Li Yibing’s whimsically cute, yet subversively trouser-free cherubs.

Check out the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art for its multimedia exhibitions, live performances, and a design-centric store that spells trouble for impulse buyers. 3818 Cool Gallery showcases innovative, emerging artists, while 798 Photo Gallery is dedicated to the photographic arts. Though much of the 798 emphasizes Chinese work (designer Zhao Bandi’s quirky Bandi Panda shop features panda-themed merchandise including cheeky printed T-shirts), its dining venues lean toward Western and international cuisine.

Copenhagen, Denmark: Bredgade

Cutting straight through Denmark’s capital from the lively Nyhavn waterfront area to the Kastellet district, Bredgade (pronounced “bretd-gath”) is by no means young or edgy. It’s downright posh, the venerable home to tony auction house Bruun Rasmunssen, the country’s equivalent to Christie’s. Yet a majority of the city’s freshest contemporary arts spaces are clustered around Bredgade and its side streets, offering a taste of radical creativity from regional siblings—and fellow design powerhouses—Norway, Sweden, and Finland.

The city center is an eminently walkable, bicycle-friendly area, with dedicated bike lanes throughout. Monthly online arts magazine Kunsten Nu publishes a helpful map and exhibitions calendar. Younger Scandinavian artists, such as painters John Korner, Kathrine Artebjerg, and Norway’s Ida Ekblad, are flexing their muscles with installation projects that range from minimalist (i.e., a room containing a seemingly random item) to stunningly complex multimedia creations.

As an introduction to the world-renowned Danish design aesthetic, from Arne Jacobsen’s iconic curvy chairs to Halskov & Dalsgaard Design’s range of household products (as seen at Ikea), the Danish Museum of Art & Design is a compulsory first stop. Housed within the former King Frederik’s Hospital, an 18th-century rococo complex built during King Frederik V’s reign, there’s also a café, shop, and outdoor garden. Bredgade Kunsthandel is dedicated to a wide array of modern Danish artists including Per-René Larsen, whose biology-inspired glass sculptures evoke equal parts awe and queasiness. LARMgalleri skews younger and trendier, emphasizing up-and-coming Scandinavian and European talents. Peter Lav Gallery is Copenhagen’s first space devoted exclusively to contemporary photography.

Danes reportedly spend the most money on interior design in the world—perhaps because they spend so much time indoors—and form and function alike inform Bredgade’s retail stores. (Fair warning: They’re not cheap.) Jorgen L. Dalgaard specializes in 20th-century Scandinavian decorative arts, including angular, one-of-a-kind bowls by Bodil Manz. As an antidote to Danish avant-garde, order
coffee and kiksekage (a cake-like creation of vanilla biscuits layered with dark chocolate ganache) at homey café Mormors, just like grandma (mormor in Danish) used to make.

Berlin, Germany: Mitte

Approximately one-third of Berlin’s whopping 500-some art spaces are concentrated within the heart of the city—“Mitte” means middle, after all. The neighborhood also houses popular tourist attractions; hip retail flagships; the striking Holocaust memorial; and Museum Island, the northern half of a narrow isle on the Spree river occupied by five museums. “Mitte’s a good place to be because it has an international audience,” says Urs

Küenzi of Substitut, a gallery showcasing Swiss art. “So many people are walking up and down and popping in.”

Streets on the must-stroll list include Heidestrasse, Brunnenstrasse, and Augustrasse. Thanks to an abundance of inexpensive housing, Berlin is one of the world’s foremost go-to cities for artists and bohemians. Their output is well represented in galleries and shops such as the local design outpost, Box Off Berlin, also known as bob.

While the era of Checkpoint Charlie and the Berlin Wall is long gone, you can relive those Iron Curtain days at the interactive DDR Museum, which features a mock-up of a typical East German living room, simulated drive in a Trabi automobile, and clips from inadvertently kitschy TV shows. Berlin’s history as the junction between East and West continues in its arts scene. At best obscure to the world at large, Polish poster art receives a spotlight at Pigasus, which also stocks CDs from throughout the erstwhile Eastern Bloc. Also check out Redspective for exhibitions and fashion by street artists and designers. Hello, cool T-shirts.

There’s a bargain-priced boutique hostel in the district. The Circus Hostel boasts free “crazy tours” of off-the-beaten-track sites and beds starting at $25. If craving bistro fare and local company, Altes Europa remains a Berliner’s favorite.

Miami, Florida: Wynwood

Located a mere block south of Miami’s renowned Design District and a figurative million miles away from South Beach’s sunglasses and bling-bling beach set, this raw industrial neighborhood has transformed itself from eyesore to eye-opener over the past few years.

Wynwood’s first seed of renewal was planted in 1993, when New York art lovers Don and Mera Rubell installed their sizable private collection in a former federal Drug Enforcement Agency warehouse for confiscated goods (its roof was riddled with bullet holes, they recall), and opened it to the public the following year.

Über-developer Tony Goldman, who groomed NYC’s SoHo and Philly’s Center City into thriving entities, swooped in a decade later along with other enterprising collectors and gallery owners.

Today, at 70-some galleries and a growing number of shops and restaurants, the district has become an open-air museum of sorts: The peeling, decrepit exteriors of most buildings have been replaced by avant-garde murals and graffiti, including 2009’s specially commissioned Wynwood Walls, an enclave of warehouse walls painted by renowned street artists including Shepard Fairey and Os Gêmeos.

Wynwood is best accessed by car or taxi. Once there, the district is easily traversed by foot with free maps and guides available locally and online.

The doors to most galleries require a buzz-in for entry. A must-see, The Rubell Family Collection encompasses both the establishment (Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman) and newer names, including Miami-based Cuban-American painters José Bedia and Hernán Bas. Many Wynwood galleries—PanAmerican ArtProjects, Fredric Snitzer Gallery, and Rosa de la Cruz Collection among them—devote significant space and exhibitions to Latin American work, making the district the de facto pipeline of art from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, and other south-of-the-border countries.

Italian café Joey’s serves up tasty, thin-crusted pizzas, while gallery-lounge Cafeina stirs up evenings with live DJ sets and artisanal tapas and cocktails.

Homing in on the arts vibe, nearby hotels Four Seasons and Hotel Urbano at Brickell—the latter a former motor lodge turned sassy, budget-minded boutique—each feature a gallery’s worth of work.

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