When people think about trendy art neighborhoods, Soho is more likely to come to mind than Beijing, but Chinese Contemporary Art could be the next big thing.
Works from Chinese artists Ai WeiWei and Wenda Gu are flying off the shelves, and Christie's and Sotheby's can't get enough. Art prices are growing even faster than China's explosive economy, and the 798 is at the center of this boom.
The 798 thrives on irony. Tiny shops sell kitschy Maoist junk, or T-shirts displaying "Obamao." The greatest irony of all, though, are the buildings itself. The entire complex is built in a Cultural Revolution-era warehouse district, with the Moaist slogans still emblazoned in big red letters in some of the gallery spaces, urging the proletariat to work hard for Mother China. The factories give the area a gritty feel, and the district was actually almost closed by the government in 2003. Mao was a great patron of the arts, but he probably didn't have this in mind.
The actual district is a mixture of galleries, museums, shops, and cafes. it is large enough that it would be hard to see everything in an afternoon, but it is great for perusing and exploring. There are events and openings frequently, and you can try and check their website to see what's happening during your visit.