Exploring Beijing's Hutongs

Beijing’s ancient alleyways, called hutongs, offer history, culture and charm By: Gary Bowerman
Street food for sale on the historic, mile-long street, Nanluoguxiang // © 2012 Gary Bowerman
Street food for sale on the historic, mile-long street, Nanluoguxiang // © 2012 Gary Bowerman

The Details

China National Tourist Office

Back in 2004, some friends in Beijing proposed to take me to what they called “The Disney Hutong.” I was enthralled.

“What might they mean?” I wondered.

As I discovered, Nanluoguxiang was a historic mile-long street of low-rise, gray-brick houses converted into restaurants, bars, backpacker hostels and boutiques. It was a little rough around the edges but great fun. In the intervening years, Nanluoguxiang — and the ancient hutongs (alleyways) snaking from it — have become increasingly commercialized. A major tourist attraction, Nanluoguxiang will even get its own metro stop later this year.

During the pre-2008 Olympic years when swathes of the Chinese capital were razed and recast, Nanluoguxiang was a palpable link between past and present. It represented hope that Beijing’s ancient alleyways had a future in a rapidly globalizing city. The good news today is that, while Beijing continues its transformation into a sky-rise metropolis, hutongs continue to be fascinating places to pass the day.

One of the benefits for clients of Beijing’s hitherto patchwork approach to urban renewal is that intriguing hutong neighborhoods are dotted across the old city. Chancing upon a good one offers unique, colorful insights into traditional Beijing architecture, culture and living. From boutique hotels and pickle shops  to ancient calligraphy stores, there is plenty to explore.

A hutong courtyard home may not be the place you might expect to find a microbrewery owned by a Cleveland native. But close to Nanluoguxiang, Great Leap Brewing is a small, friendly bar serving inventive craft beers (one includes Chinese oolong tea as an ingredient). Also nearby, just a short walk northeast, is The Orchid, a charming 10-room boutique hotel occupying a formerly derelict hutong home — run by a Canadian and a Tibetan. There’s also a cute top-deck terrace with superb views of the Drum and Bell Towers and the hutong rooftops that surround them.

Strolling west of the three conjoined lakes of Houhai, which freeze over during the cold winter months and become Beijing’s favorite outdoor ice skating rink, I took a turn along the winding Daxiangfeng Hutong. Several old courtyard houses line the street, with drum stones, door-guarding lions and lintels above the doors (the more lintels a house has, the higher the rank of the original occupier). Numerous local cafes and restaurants add flavorful aromas and colors — it really feels like journeying into another era.

Three must-see attractions in this district represent the diverse culture and history of this part of old Beijing. The Mansion of Prince Gong is the finely preserved courtyard estate of a mid-19th century regent to the Manchu emperor. The residence is impressive, but clients should look in particular for the beautiful lanterns hanging from the wooden beams of the theater building and the exquisitely landscaped rock gardens.

Nearby, along a pretty street called Dingfu Jie, is the former Fu Ren University building. Two Chinese Catholics, with the help of the Roman Catholic Church, founded Fu Ren as Beijing’s first privately funded university in 1925. Completed in 1930, this fine stone building features Chinese-style upturned roof eaves.

Continue ahead, and on the corner of Huguosi Jie is the Mei Lanfang Museum. Occupying the home of the legendary Peking Opera star who traveled the world in the 1920s and 1930s to try and popularize the genre, the museum boasts an excellent collection of photos, posters and memorabilia detailing his performances and travels.

Ancient Qianmen Street, south of Tiananmen Square, was recently refurbished. This time-honored commercial street was widened and given a modern makeover, bringing in global brands and boutiques alongside the traditional Chinese tea, foodstuffs and medicinal stores. A faux-historic tram even runs down the middle of the street.

Head east from Qianmen Street, however, and you enter an exciting warren of hutong lanes. Immediately leading east is Dashilan, a frenetic street of old Chinese brand stores. Duck inside Liubiju on the left-hand side, a century-old food store with a counter selling pungent pickles and sauces. Further along is the Old Cinema Cafe, a stylish cafe and mini-museum tracing the history of Chinese cinema — the first Chinese-made movie was shown here in 1905.

Continuing west leads into what is perhaps Beijing’s most appealing hutong street for visitors, Liulichang. Historically a gathering place for artists, writers, musicians and calligraphers, this narrow street is flanked by small stores selling inkstones, rice paper, paper seals, books and musical instruments. Glazed porcelain is also a specialty, as the street is named after the kilns for making glazed tiles that existed here in the 13th century. Clients should also have their cameras ready: The oversized calligraphy brushes hanging in the store windows, colorful traditional architecture, street-side artists and street food vendors all make great photo memories of a walk through old Beijing.

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