Beijing is the soul of the country and hands-down, China’s under-the-radar capital of cool.
Beijing is the soul of the country and, hands-down, China’s under-the-radar capital of cool. The sprawling city of over 21 million is ground zero for artists and designers from around the country—art galleries have sprung up in hotels, courtyard houses, shut-down factories, and even in an ancient watchtower. This is also where serious Chinese musicians come to make it or break it and even no-nonsense business people see Beijing as a mecca because the challenges—and the rewards—are greater here. The capital city’s to-die-for culinary scene can send a gastronome into cardiac arrest.
Discover China’s Most Exciting Underground Rock Scene
Beijing’s indie and punk rock scene is a gloriously grimy world to dive into, and the best place to break its surface water is at School Live Bar. This small sweatbox venue is to Beijing what legendary rock dive CBGB’s was to New York, featuring local bands, cult foreign acts, floors sloshed with beer, and walls plastered with posters. Also check out the similarly spit-and-sawdust Temple Bar, which has free late-night gigs, or the courtyard venue Dusk Dawn Club.
Scuba Dive the Great Wall of China
In terms of non-mainstream daytime activities available from Beijing, diving the Great Wall of China has got to be at the top of the quirk list. In 1976 a section of the Wall was submerged in the Panjiakou Reservoir, a few hours’ drive north from Beijing, following an earthquake, and now the SinoScuba company runs dive trips to the site. It’s an eerie, cold dive with low visibility, but swimming through a Great Wall turret window is a once-in-a-lifetime experience (unless you turn around underwater and swim through it again).
Shun Mega-Clubs for Cult Nightlife
In the gaudy, bling-boring mega-clubs of Sanlitun, Beijing’s main shopping and nightlife area, champagne bottles pop and EDM music thumps incessantly. Dada, a cult Beijing nightlife institution, is the flipside: a super-cool nightspot that punches above its size to attract some of the most respected cult DJs in the world. The larger Lantern club has similar vibes in a larger setting and, similarly, none of the super-club tackiness.
See Art in Atmospheric Residential Lanes
A visit to Beijing’s 798 Art Zone is a must for anyone visiting Beijing, to discover what is widely considered the artistic heart of China, and to get a lifetime’s worth of color-blast selfies. There are less famous artistic gem mines in the city, though, such as Salt Projects: a tiny one-room gallery tucked into an atmospheric hutong residential lane in the Gulou area. More serious art heads can make appointments to see the super-cool and somewhat secretive DRC No. 12 and The Bunker art spaces.
…And in a Massive Shopping Mall
Parkview Green is a huge shopping mall in central Beijing with high-end clothes shops, restaurants, and a cinema. But its most intriguing features are the incredible art pieces found throughout the building, from massive original Dali statues to huge, weird crumpled-up car sculptures. The uniqueness of the place is the result of owner George Wong’s obsession with art, and his mission to turn his mall into a fairy tale for similarly-minded people.
Seek out the City’s Best Hidden Bar
In 2017, the Beijing government clamped down with a clean-up campaign that saw loads of the city’s best backstreet bars closed, but thankfully Capital Spirits, a brilliant, secretive watering hole, remained. Found beyond an unassuming doorway on Xinsi Hutong, the bar made its name serving cocktails made with baijiu, China’s most popular, throat-scorching liqueur, but its classic cocktails are just as good. Check the venue’s website for directions—it’s tough to locate but worth the effort.
Break Out Into the Countryside
Blocky government buildings, grand palatial structures, and shiny malls are usually what come to mind when envisioning Beijing. But just a short drive north of the capital, a world of mountains, green fields and blue skies opens up. The Serk Cycling company provides bikes and arranges weekend group day trips to explore the likes of Xishan National Forest Park and Miaofengshan. Perfect after a few days in the urban sprawl.
Eat Vietnamese Food in a Secret Courtyard
Like many of Beijing’s best venues, Susu, perhaps the city’s best Vietnamese restaurant, takes a bit of finding so it’s best to study the venue’s website. Once you’ve headed down the charming residential lanes and discovered the restaurant, you’ll be rewarded with sublime curries and noodles, served up in a lovely enclosed courtyard. For similar courtyard vibes find Dali Courtyard, which serves top class Yunnan province food from a fixed menu.
Clink Glasses at Beijing’s Friendliest Pub
China is behind many Asian countries with regards to equal rights for LGBT people, but Beijing has an energetic queer scene. Whatever your sexuality, Adam’s, a small, super-friendly bar on an otherwise horrible Sanlitun bar strip, is a great hangout, featuring fun drag shows and an all-inclusive vibe. The bar touts itself as the capital’s first fully-out gay bar, proudly displaying the rainbow flag and opening onto the street. Other larger, more discreet LGBT venues such as Destination are also popular.
Uncover a Hidden Boutique Store
Another “behind every Beijing door lurks a surprise” venue, Triple Major is an unmarked boutique not far from Tiananmen Square that is a huge haven of cool clothing. With its style inspired by Traditional Chinese Medicine shops, it’s one of the city’s sleekest stores. While you’re on Yangmeizhu Xiejie check out the fascinating Beijing Postcards history center and grab a coffee on the rooftop balcony of Soloist café.