Amongst the giant tourist attractions—Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square—and sprawling freeways travelers to Beijing often find themselves wishing for an escape from the bustle of the city. However, in central Beijing—the most unlikely of places—visitors can find a tranquil peace of the city’s historic past.
Hutongs are the name given to a type of traditional small streets or alleyways, which are usually surrounded on both sides by shop houses and traversed primarily by bicycles. At one time most of Beijing consisted of residential areas and hutongs, but modernity and China’s rapid industrialization have taken their toll and now the city’s hutongs are limited to a few concentrations east of the Forbidden City.
Start your exploration with a nice walk or bike ride through the Beixingqiao Hutong. This is one of the city’s biggest hutongs, as it spans more than 20 turns. Not far away the Qian Shi Hutong is the narrowest of the city’s hutongs and at its smallest point the alleyway is only 16 inches wide!
Of course there’s more to do in the hutongs than just walking around appreciating the tranquil history of Beijing. The Dali Su Restaurant (+86 10 8404 6913) is a Yunnan-style restaurant in the historic Xiaojingchang Hutong. The restaurant doesn’t have an a la carte menu, but instead patrons are served a set menu chosen by the restaurant’s excellent chef.
For a more low-key dining experience check out the Islamic/Chinese restaurant inside the Nan Dou Ya Mosque (4 Douban Hutong) in the Douban Hutong. This restaurant’s house specialty is roasted lamb and lunch/dinner is very affordable.
Don’t miss the chance to explore the Yan Dai Xie Jie Hutong. This famed hutong’s name roughly translates as “tobacco pouch street,” as historically it was known for its opium-pipe shops. Today the opium-inspired shops have been replaced with cafes, tea houses and bars. Visit at night to see a sea of colors.
Can’t get enough of the hutongs? Spend a night or two immersed in the residential neighborhoods from the comforts of the Red Wall Garden Hotel. Situated in the Shijia Hutong, this charming hotel is surrounded by the historic hutongs but also incredibly close to the Forbidden City, which makes it a great base for sightseeing.
Stepping away from the immediacy of the hutongs for a bit, to the northwest of the Forbidden City and the hutong district visitors will find the Shi Chi Hai historic district. This area is situated amongst three small lakes and its streets are lined with historic temples and mansions. The big attraction is the Prince Gong Mansion (17 Qianhai West Street). Built in the 18th century, this mansion is a great example of Qing-Dynasty architecture and has some pleasant gardens