Insider's Guide to China
T+L’s guide to three of China’s most dynamic cities with tips from our network of in-the-know locals.
A burgeoning cultural scene is giving a new dimension to this fast-paced city.
Four noteworthy galleries and neighborhoods to explore.
Wong Chuk Hang: Cutting-edge art spaces are colonizing the former industrial zone. Veteran gallerist Dominique Perregaux opened the 5,000-square-foot, loft-style Art Statements, bringing in international artists such as Australian painter Dale Frank.
Aberdeen: Newcomer Yallay Space showcases up-and-comers from Asia and the Middle East; this month spotlights Hong Kong artists Gavin Au and Vivian Ho.
Sai Yung Pun: Indie-minded 2P Contemporary Art Gallery is devoted to experimental indigenous talent, such as performance artist Morgan Wong.
Wanchai: Five-year-old Red Elation Gallery represents emerging and established international names, with an emphasis on the contemporary landscape in Asia.
With its well-curated, globally-minded boutiques, this area in the Wanchai district is Hong Kong’s of-the-moment shopping destination.
Kapok: Owner Arnault Castel sources street-smart looks and accessories from Hong Kong designers as well as from his native France.
Tsuchiya Bag: Sturdy leather satchels, totes, and wallets handcrafted by Japanese artisans are displayed on stark-white shelves at this minimalist space. 6 Sun St.; 852/2745-6821.
Russell Street: Opened by a group of fashion insiders, Russell Street is known for its bright dresses and one-of-a-kind pieces by indie brands from Australia, the U.S., and Europe.
The Principal: Need a break? This light-filled restaurant offers modern European dishes including arroz caldoso (saffron-infused rice with artichokes). $$$$
Dee Poon: My Hong Kong
The creator of bespoke PYE men’s-wear line and daughter of Harvey Nichols owner Dickson Poon shares her hometown spots.
Made to Order: “For standout cheongsams, head to Barney Cheng (Worldwide Commercial Bldg., 12th floor, 34 Wyndham St., Central; 852/2530-2829). He’s able to combine an old-world sensibility with a modern aesthetic.”
Hidden Gem: “Visit the Flower Market (Flower Market Rd., Kowloon) to see more flower and plant species than you can imagine, from orchids to bonsai trees and bamboo.”
Sole Soother: “Everyone in Hong Kong is obsessed with foot massages. There are places all over the city, but two of my favorites are Happy Foot (50-minute foot massages from $26) and Ten Feet Tall (50-minute foot massages from $34).”
Accessories Fix: “If you’re looking for something super special, drop by Yewn Heritage Jeweler (Shop 303, level three, The Landmark, 15 Queen’s Rd., Central; 852/2868-3890), the flagship store of local jeweler Dickson Yewn. It’s rare to see such beautiful work—each piece has a story and an auspicious meaning behind it in the Chinese tradition.”
Day Trip: “Hong Kong has lots of great islands, including Lantau; take the 40-minute interisland ferryand spend the day visiting the Big Buddha and Po Lin Monastery.”
Trending Now: Private Kitchens
A wave of talented chefs is elevating the city’s underground restaurants.
Model turned restaurateur Esther Sham serves refined tasting menus (duck à la cocotte; sea-urchin-infused pasta) at Ta Pantry ($$$$), which has moved to a stunning new space in a converted warehouse.
Former hotel executive chef Eddy Leung tends his own organic garden on the balcony of Chef Studio by Eddy(40 Wong Chuk Hang Rd.; 852/3104-4464; $$$$). Recent seasonal offerings include salmon confit with wood-smoked cherry tomato.
At Fa Zu Jie (20A D’Aguilar St., Central; 852/3487-1715; $$$$), Paul Hui marries French techniques with flavors from his native Shanghai—think wontons stuffed with slow-cooked beef.
You only get the door code to the 20-seat TBLS Kitchen Studio ($$$$) after you book. Once there, watch Que Vinh Dang and his team prepare signature plates such as braised octopus with squid ink rice.
Avant-garde museums, restaurants, and boutiques are defining this history-rich metropolis.
The City’s Unique Museums
Housed in a former cinema studio in Xuhui, the six-month-old Shanghai Film Museum (595 Caoxi Bei Rd.; 86-21/6426-8666) has interactive installations that spotlight the city’s rich moviemaking history. With its enameled glass façade, the Baoshan district’s Shanghai Museum of Glass shines like a beacon amid its gritty industrial surroundings; inside are exhibits detailing glass techniques from the ancient world to the present day. Xintiandi’s Shikumen Wulixiang Open House painstakingly re-creates life during the 1930’s in a restored lane house. At the Shanghai Museum of Arts & Crafts (79 Fenyang Rd.; 86-21/6437-2509), set in a French-colonial mansion in Xuhui, traditional artisans show off their skills in lantern-making, embroidery, paper-cutting, and more.
Bring It Back
Blogger Sandy Chu of Shanghai Style has the inside track on the city’s shopping scene. Here’s what’s on her lust list.
“I love Lawless’s luxe leather evening bags—they’re gorgeous and eye-catching.”
“The teas at Song Fang Maison de Thé come in pretty robin’s-egg-blue tins—they make great gifts.”
“William the BeeKeeper stocks independent brands as well as vintage threads. My pick: the sexyfrocks from proprietor Cairn Wu’s own label, Kaileeni.”
Spotlight: The French Concession
The best of Shanghai’s most famous historic district.
Where to Eat: Located near Xiangyang Park, Xin Dau Ji (47 Xinle Rd.; 86-21/5403-5777; $$$) serves dim sum in a lacquer-accented dining room. American classics (chicken and waffles; sweet potato fries) are paired with molecular cocktails at the Public (174 Xiangyang Nan Rd.; $$$). Nearby, Le Café des Stagiaires has a warm atmosphere and a long list of Belgian beers.
Where to Shop: Homegrown shoemaker UT.Lab’s striking designs are splashed across the sneakers and suede ballet flats at Among (36-2 Taian Rd.; no phone). A DJ spins electronic tracks at Alter, which sells international labels such as House of Holland. Dip into Shanghai’s red-hot vintage scene at the Back Room (144 Fumin Rd.; no phone), opened by fashion editor Tang Shuang. We love the delicate tea sets.
What to Do: Sycamore-shaded Fuxing Park is where residents practice tai chi and ballroom dancing. For a taste of the city’s art world, head to Art Labor known for its glamorous opening parties. Take a breather at Ferguson Lane, a pedestrian complex with cafés and restaurants including the French-bistro-inspired Franck ($$$).
A Chef’s Tour
Paul Pairet of Ultraviolet, Shanghai’s hottest table, takes us on an after-hours crawl.
7:30 p.m.: “Fortify yourself in Xintiandi, where Crystal Jade ($$), a well-regarded Singaporean chain, is famous for Cantonese standards as well as Shanghai’s signature xiao long bao (soup dumplings).”
9:30 p.m.: “Unico ($$$), Argentine chef Mauro Colagreco’s tapas lounge, has terrific cocktails—my personal favorite is the passion-fruit-and-cayenne pisco sour. Don’t miss the snapper ceviche.”
12:30 a.m.: “Hit the dance floor at Bar Rouge, a favorite of the beautiful people. Order the Burning Glass Tower—Kahlúa, Baileys, vodka, and Grand Marnier, served on fire.”
2 a.m.: “Join fellow night owls at my French restaurant, Mr. and Mrs. Bund-Modern Eatery ($$$), which stays open until 4 a.m. End the evening with a candied ‘lemon & lemon’ tart.”
China’s capital is upping its game with new takes on old traditions.
The city’s tastemakers open their little black books—and reveal where the locals go.
Vega Zaishi Wang, Fashion Designer: “I love my friend Liu Ke’s quirky shop Mega Mega Vintage, in Dongcheng. He’s always bringing back unique pieces—retro T-shirts; costume jewelry—from his travels.” 241 Gulou Dong Dajie; 86-10/8404-5637.
Philip Tinari, Director, Ullens Center for Contemporary Art: “Fodder Factory is a restaurant in the Caochangdi arts district that doubles as a furniture store. The food is great, but the real reason to go is to see young artists at ease.” 123 Caochangdi; 86-10/6431-9580. $$
Warren Pang, Co-Owner, Janes & Hooch Bar: “Choshuriki, a 10-seat yakitori place in Chaoyang that’s filled with photos of Japanese baseball players, has got real character. Order some chicken-liver skewers and sake.” 32 Xiaoyun Rd.; 86-133/9177-2936. $$
Sophie Guo, Event Planner: “D Lounge, in the Sanlitun entertainment district, is where you’ll find Beijing’s trendsetters. The cocktails are terrific; try the Campari mojito at the mod white bar.” Gongti Bei Rd., Chaoyang; 86-10/6593-7710.
The best markets for souvenirs—arm yourself with endless patience and a willingness to bargain.
Bypass the stalls packed with Cultural Revolution kitsch, cheap electronics, and knockoff handbags, and head straight for the trusted jewelry merchants on the fourth floor of Hongqiao Pearl Market (8 Tiantan Rd., Chongwen). Ling Ling (Shop 4334; 86-10/6713-6900) sells gorgeous strands and is beloved by the expat crowd. Mingle with locals picking out fresh blooms on the first floor of the Laitai Flower Market (9 Maizidian Rd., Chaoyang). The basement is a maze of shops selling ceramics and glassware; pop by Karolina Lehman (86-10/8454-0387) for teapots, cups, and saucers with hand-painted designs that play off of traditional motifs.Go with a Mandarin speaker to Maliandao Market, where tea-growing families from all over China display their leaves. A top vendor? Hong Zhi Cha Zhuang (10 Maliandao Rd., Xicheng; 86-10/6328-6015), which sells cult favorite Monkey Chief, from Taiping Lake.
How To Navigate The City
With its crowded subway cars, scarce taxis, and language barrier, Beijing can be hard to get around. Spare yourself the hassle by hiring a car and driver. Tour operator Bespoke Beijing has a reliable roster on call; budget extra time for the traffic jams, and $187 per eight-hour day ($115 for four hours). If you do take a taxi, ask your hotel concierge to write down your destination in Chinese (cost: $2 for the first two miles and 40 cents per half-mile following that).
Tastes of China
Thanks to the latest crop of restaurants, you can sample diverse regional cuisine in sleek surroundings.
Karaiya Spice House: Food from the south-central province of Hunan is famously fiery, so it’s no surprise that chili-spiked dishes rule at this Sanlitun restaurant from Chinese-American restaurateur Alan Wong. Order the tender pork ribs topped with spices and peanuts. Building 8, Tai Koo Li South, 19 Sanlitun Rd., Chaoyang; 86-10/6415-3535. $$
Transit: Expect a subtler side to the ma-la (hot and numbing) flavors from the southwestern province of Sichuan. Dan dan mian—wheat noodles in a red-chile sauce—have a lemony tang. Reservations are essential. N4-36, Tai Koo Li, 11 Sanlitun Rd., Chaoyang; 86-10/6417-9090. $$
Lost Heaven: Carved wooden chairs and hill-tribe textiles set the stage for the delicacies of the southwestern province of Yunnan. Try refined versions of marinated beef salad, wild-vegetable pancakes, and Burmese tea-leaf salad (Yunnan shares a border with Burma). $$$
Nanjing Impressions: Decked out with rough-hewn tables and paper lanterns, this lively restaurant celebrates the duck-obsessed cuisine of the southern city of Nanjing. The duck dumplings are wildly popular, but it’s the slow-braised chicken that steals the show. Shimao Department Store, 13 Gongti Bei Rd., Chaoyang; 86-10/8405-9777. $$
Great books set in the capital city.
Beijing Coma by Ma Jian: In this powerful novel, a student wakes up 10 years after being shot during the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square.
The Last Days of Old Beijing by Michael Meyer: An elegiac look at the city’s ancient (and disappearing) hutong neighborhoods.
Midnight in Peking by Paul French: Into mysteries? Pick up this true-crime thriller about the murder of a young British woman in 1937.
The New Frontier
T+L’s top specialists highlight where to go next.
Jiayuguan and Dunhuang, Gansu Province
Recommended By: Gerald Hatherly, China specialist, Abercrombie & Kent
Best For: Great Wall and Chinese-history buffs.
Highlights: Marking the western end of the Great Wall, the 14th-century JiayuPass is a well-preserved military fortress.
The Wei-Jin Dynasty Tombs, 12 miles northeast of Jiayuguan, were built between the third and fifth centuries. Only one, that of a low-level official, is open to the public, but the murals’ depictions of everyday life are incredible.
Dunhuang is famous for the Mogao Caves, a series of Buddhist temples, the oldest of which dates back to the fourth century; the intricate wall paintings deserve half a day.
Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Qinghai Province
Recommended By: Mei Zhang, Founder, WildChina
Best For: Adventurous types interested in Tibetan traditions.
Highlights: About 12 miles from Yushu City, the prayer-flag-enshrouded Princess Wengcheng Temple offers stunning views of the nearby Leba Gorge.
Gyanak Mani Temple, three miles from Yushu City, has the region’s largest collection of mani (hand-carved prayer stones).
More than 10,000 people gather in July for the Qinghai Yushu Horse Racing Festival, a weeklong spectacle where nomads show off their equestrian skills. WildChina can arrange for a luxury camping experience during the events.
Shaxi, Yunnan Province
Recommended By: Sarah Keenlyside, Founder, Bespoke Beijing
Best For: Culture lovers who want a glimpse of old China.
Highlights: Shaxi is one of the most intact caravan towns on the ancient tea route. Soak in the local scene by walking Sideng Square, where native Yi and Bai farmers in colorful dress sell their handicrafts.
Six miles from Shaxi lies Shibaoshan, a nature reserve filled with ancient Buddhist temples and grottoes. Don’t miss Baoxiang Temple, which has a dramatic cliffside setting.
Feast on hearty Bai dishes such as fried goat cheese at the family-run Old Theatre In ($), in the nearby village of Duan.
Huangshan, Anhui Province
Recommended By: Guy Rubin, Managing partner, Imperial Tours
Best For: Hikers and naturalists.
Highlights: The Huangshan mountain range—a Unesco World Heritage site—has served as the inspiration for many a classical Chinese painting. If you’re experienced, climb the precipitous Western Steps for the best views. The less ambitious can be ferried up by cable car or, for a throwback, via sedan chair.
The surrounding region is known for its beautiful time-capsule like villages. Among the best: Huangcun and Hongcun, which appeared in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
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Maliandao Tea Market
Look no further than Maliandao if you’re looking to buy China’s most famous export. The hundreds of stalls at this collection of markets offer white tea, black tea, pu’er tea, oolong tea, green tea, dark tea, tea cups, teapots, tea accessories, and more.
Although located on the second floor of the Xintiandi shopping mall, this restaurant is far from the typical food court options found in malls. Bright red poles line the entrance, and noodle crafters can be seen shaping noodles from dough in the La Mian style. Influenced by Canton and Shanghai, Jade serves dishes from various regions, including dim sum in Cantonese fashion. Menu options include pan-fried Shanghai pork buns, xiao long bao (a flour-based dumpling filled with pork), turnip pastries, and crispy eel.
Abercrombie & Kent
The Abercrombie & Kent travel agency began as an African safari company, founded by Geoffrey Kent and his parents in 1962. Today, the company organizes trips to more than 100 nations across all seven continents, with destinations ranging from Antarctica to the Galápagos Islands. Chosen by Travel + Leisure as one of the Best Adventure-Travel Outfitters of 2010, the agency caters to experienced travelers seeking “extreme adventure.” In addition to the signature African safaris, travel options include a Norwegian dog-sledding excursion, a river cruise along the Nile, and a turtle rescue expedition in Australia. T+L Trip Pick: Wings Over the Migration. Follow the Great Migration, view a private Masai dance performance, and camp near the Ngorongoro Crater.
With interiors that channel Scandinavian aesthetics, this concept store is the epitome of urban cool. On the shelves are a host of it-brands from around the world, from Sweden's Sandqvist to Hong Kong's Nudité. The store also collaborates with the likes of Mismo and Teddyfish for an exclusive range of backpacks and totes. Keep an eye out for the adjacent Kapok outlet that sells last season's wares at a deeply discounted price.