By: Terry Ward
In the middle of Beijing – not far from the tourist masses that flock to the Forbidden City and the contemporary crush of humanity transiting the city’s endless ring roads – you can walk the quiet narrow streets alongside locals in the world-renowned hutong neighborhoods.
Hutongs are the last remaining traditional villages of Beijing where winding alleys are lined with courtyard homes. For visitors, that means endless fascination in watching everyday activities, such as grandmothers doing the grocery shopping at a local wet market, housewives sitting around to gossip or children kicking a ball on their way to school. You might see locals walking the streets in their pajamas on their way to brush their teeth in the public bathrooms (life is still very much communal here) in the mornings, or teenagers gathering to flirt over a snack at a street food stall after school.
In the hutongs, community is truly everything and the relationships between neighbors are often tighter than family bonds.
History of Hutongs
Beijing’s original hutongs date to the 13th century and were mostly built during the Yuan (1206-1341), Ming (1368-1628) and Qing dynasties (1644-1908). The gray brick structures are just one-story high and quadrangle in shape, with several houses surrounding an interior courtyard. When the hutongs were originally built, family life within retained a strong sense of privacy behind the brick walls of individual homes (often shared by several families), while public life played out in plain view in the courtyards and narrow alleys connecting the hutongs. And while hutong areas are quickly disappearing due to Beijing’s frenetic construction rate, life continues much as it has in the past to this day.
A taxi can be arranged right where you disembark from the ship. Ask to be dropped at the Drum Tower, a 150-foot-high building in a prime hutong area that dates to 1420, where you can start your hutong tour with a bird’s eye view of the residential courtyards, most of which remain hidden at street level behind hutong doors. Then make your way on foot through the zigzagging maze of hutongs surrounding Houhai Lake.
Once there, rickshaw tours are readily offered. But walking through the hutongs – either with a private guide or just serendipitously wandering on your own – is a very rewarding way to spend your time during a port of call.
Must see and taste
The pedestrian-friendly area of Nanluoguxiang is the most famous hutong street in Beijing and has thrived as a popular hangout for Chinese, expats, and visitors since the 1990s thank to its abundance of small shops and cozy cafes. Grab a courtyard table in a pretty setting at Dali Courtyard (67 Xiaojingchang Hutong) for tongue-numbing Yunnan-style food from China’s lush southwest region.
The hutong area surrounding the Lama Temple, Temple of Confucius and Imperial University is another popular place to explore and the Wudaoying hutong area near here is particularly appealing, with its mix of trendy boutiques, cafes and restaurants that have recently risen in traditional courtyards. If you’re craving something more, say, Mediterranean, visit Saffron Restaurant (64 Wudaoying Hutong, Dongcheng District), known for its authentically rendered Spanish tapas and divine breads.
Explore even more
- Browse mid-century furniture for unique only-in-Beijing finds at Lost and Found Boutique (42 Guozijian, Chaoyang District) in Wudaoying hutong.
- Pass on the cheap scarves at the Silk Market in favor of luxurious cashmere pashminas from Woo Scarves (110-1 Nanluoguxiang).
- Beer fans should detour to Great Leap Brewing (Doujiao Hutong #6, Dongcheng District), too, where you’ll be surrounded by Beijing’s nascent microbrew fans (and a good dose of expat aficionados, too) in the heart of another area packed with traditional hutongs.
Freelance travel writer Terry Ward is based in Florida but frequently on the road (or at sea!) to report stories. Her work has been published by such outlets as Travel Channel, the Washington Post, Travel+Leisure and Cruise Critic. Her favorite travel destinations are France, Norway, Morocco and Indonesia and she speaks French, Dutch, Spanish and German. Visit her website to learn more, www.terry-ward.com