Beijing Urban Planning Exhibition Hall
Want to get a taste of Beijing past, future and present in just a half an hour? Then stop by the little-known showplace dedicated to the city’s ongoing urban planning efforts. The four-floor space sits next to Tiananmen and was created to map Beijing’s achievements and debut plans for the future. The highlight is a floor-wide scale model of the city, complete with aerial photographs on the third floor. This map/model uses lights and holograms to point out different sites and neighborhoods, like the Forbidden City and major monuments like the Olympic Stadium. To see how much the city has grown in just 60 years, check out a bronze model of Beijing in 1949 on the second floor.
(No. 20 Qianmen St.; www.bjghzl.com.cn)
The National Grand Theater
Since the Olympics came to town, Beijing has become a Mecca for architectural marvels, but a few major buildings stand out in the city skyline. Called the “egg” by Beijingers, this theater was designed by leading French architect Paul Andreu and truly represents Beijing’s “rebirth” as a fully modern city. To the west of Tiananmen Square, right next to the Forbidden City, the all-titanium-and-glass structure sitting atop its own “lake” gave its first opera performance in 2007, but no need to sit for a show—the spectacular sight alone hits the perfect note on a survey of the city’s futuristic buildings.
(No. 2 West Chang’an Ave.; www.chncpa.org)
The National Art Museum of China
If there’s any doubt about China’s upcoming prominence in the world stage, look no further than the newly reopened free-to-the-public history museum. After 10 years of planning and a $400-million investment, it’s now the largest in the world at 2 million square feet, trumping the Louvre.
Though it contains lavish exhibitions from China’s history through the present-day Communist Party, some are concerned with what the museum has left out—notably periods from the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen Square. Still, its two new permanent exhibitions—“Ancient China,” which carefully catalogues the country’s long history, including the fossil remains of “Yuanmou Man,” from Yunnan, and “The Road to Rejuvenation,” which helps put the past 150 years into context, beginning with the Opium War of 1839—show it’s ready for its moment in the spotlight.
(Tiananmen Square, East Side; www.chnmuseum.cn)
The Imperial Treasure Gallery in the Forbidden City
Although the Forbidden City is probably Beijing’s biggest tourist draw, many people don’t know about this small, yet special grouping of exhibitions. These private courtyards and pavilions cost a nominal fee to enter—but they’re secreted away from the throngs, near the back. You can view many exquisite pieces of pearl, jade and coral jewelry, as well as the Mourning Chamber of Concubine Zhen, a famous consort from the late 19th century, who was famously drowned in a small well here at age 24. While most of the Forbidden City’s buildings are large-scale and grandiose, these small, quiet quarters bring a more personal feel to the experience.
The Red Gate Gallery
As the center of culture in China, Beijing has a thriving modern art scene. The Red Gate Gallery is the first private contemporary gallery to be established in China, offering displays of exciting young Chinese artists, such as Li Xiaofeng, who sculpts ceramic shards into breathtakingly beautiful life-size mosaic dresses inspired from Han Dynasty burial suits. The space itself is a unique mix of old and new China: artwork fills the walls of an old Ming Dynasty watchtower. The gallery also offers an artist-in-residence program that draws painters, sculptors, photographers, and mixed-media artists from all over the world, so chance encounters with people at the forefront are likely.
(Levels 1 & 4, Dongbianmen Watchtower; www.redgategallery.com)
There’s no better way to get a true taste of traditional Chinese culture than by exploring the many hutongs, or narrow streets or alleyways linking together traditional courtyard residences, storefronts and small food stalls. One of the oldest, Liulichang, dates back to the Yuan and Ming dynasties and is known for its colored-roof-tile-glaze factory at the epicenter.
At number 19, Rongbao Zhai is a treasure trove of calligraphy and painting tools—you can still see traditional methods being used first-hand and find wood-block prints and reproductions of historic paintings. Running about six blocks east to west are all sorts of art supply and book shops selling new and used books, scrolls, hand-made paper, rubbings and ink sticks. Stop in for a delicious bite of steamed pork and wild vegetable buns at Goubuli Baozi Dian, or Huji Beijing Old Noodle House restaurant for authentic Peking duck.
(Rongbao Zhai, No.19 Liulichang West St; Goubuli Baozi Dian, Da Shilan 29; Huji Beijing Old Noodle House, 58 Nan Xinhua St.)