Find the daily pulse of Beijing in its abundant hutongs, foods and markets.
Like a bowl of its intensely flavored noodles, Beijing is a tangle of contradictions. Wander the twisting lanes in a few hutongs to feel the timeless pulse of daily life.
Like a bowl of its intensely flavored noodles, Beijing is a tangle of contradictions.
For centuries, the dragons painted on its ancient temples’ red and gold façades have watched the city serenely. Yet now, ultramodern high-rises spring up at the speed of light. Gigantic public spaces, such as the regal Forbidden City, stunning Summer Palace, and historically significant Tiananmen Square, display the still-proud face of Beijing’s past. Yet the narrow alleyways of those traditional neighborhoods known as hutongs preserve its cultural soul.
While bustling Beijing boasts 3,000 years of tumultuous history, wander the twisting lanes in a few hutongs to feel the timeless pulse of daily life.
On Huguosi Street, merchants sell fruit and hot yams, locals line up for freshly made dumplings, and snack shops feature traditional pastries. The street is dotted with old signboards depicting noodle sellers and tea merchants.
Glitzier Nanluogu Xiang features bright lights, inviting shops, and high-end goods such as jewelry made from shards of Ming dynasty porcelain. But its side streets reveal the unexpected, such as charming Grandma Creative Kitchen, a restaurant with tasseled pink lamps, treadle sewing machines, and homey meals that taste like those a grandmother actually would cook—and perhaps, in this case, does.
This city of 22 million is not without challenges: steamy-hot in summer, freezing cold in winter, its streets a cacophony of honking horns and zigzagging drivers. Expect tedious traffic jams and the heavy haze of air pollution. Pray for the winds that can reveal blue skies; bring face masks in case they don’t.
An extensive subway system is convenient but packed during rush hours. Taxis are plentiful, but drivers speak only Chinese. A professional guide is a good investment if you don’t know the language.
No trip to Beijing is complete without a day’s foray to the Great Wall. At 13,000 miles long, it’s the world’s largest human-made structure. Construction began more than 2,300 years ago; today those sinuous stone ramparts are simultaneously an awe-inspiring marvel and a bittersweet reminder of the human cost of hard labor: Hundreds of thousands of soldiers, peasants, and prisoners carried out the backbreaking work of building the wall. Thousands died doing so. You can visit several sections in various states of repair. Mutianyu is reasonably accessible and fully renovated. Get there by taxi, bus, gondola, and foot.
To get a feel for Beijing’s art beat, visit the 798 Art Zone, where a renovated factory has been transformed into a community of contemporary artists, galleries and hip cafes.
If you’re a flea-market fan and hotshot haggler, you’ll love Panjiayuan Antique Flea Market: In 500,000 square feet of covered stalls and open-air stands, 4,000 dealers offer a huge variety of folk antiques and handicrafts from all regions of China, laid out in eye-pleasing arrangements: Check out carved furniture, calligraphy, jade jewelry, snuffbottles, porcelain ware, tiny teapots, Mao memorabilia, mountains of beads, and huge statuary in the back.
It’s only natural that, as China’s capital, Beijing abounds in restaurants representing the nation’s diverse regional cuisines. You’ll find fiery Szechuan dishes, delectable Cantonese dim sum, Shanghainese seafood and much more. But be sure to sample Beijing’s own specialties, such as Peking duck, which is not just a meal; it’s a ritual. At the popular Siji Minfu restaurant, chefs carve ducks in the dining room. Diners receive trays arrayed with condiments. First, they dip morsels of the crispiest duck skin into petite piles of sugar. As thin pancakes arrive, servers demonstrate how to roll these up into bite-size packets of duck, sauce, and scallions.
On a chilly night, try a DIY dinner at a hotpot spot. A divided pot boils two broths in the center of the table. Order platters of lamb or beef sliced paper-thin; add tofu, vegetables, mushrooms, and greens. Cook these quickly in the broth; dip them into spicy sesame sauce, then enjoy.
To soak up some culture, catch a night of spectacular Beijing Opera or savor the less-language-dependent acrobatic antics of graceful contortionists, amazing jugglers, and/or gravity-defying crowds of performers perched atop single bicycles.
Another ancient but still popular traditional art form is shadow-puppet theater. For an intimate cultural experience, stay at the Shichahai Shadow Art Performance Hotel, a charming boutique inn in a hutong near the lively Houhai lake district, where you can see a show, paint your own shadow puppet, and learn from a master puppeteer.
Don’t leave Beijing without trying its quintessential sweet tanghulu, piquant red hawthorn fruits dipped into shiny, sugar syrup, then threaded onto bamboo skewers, sold by street vendors for less than a dollar each. Since hawthorn is reputed to have digestive benefits, the long-ago creation of allegedly-good-for-you candy might rival China’s three proudest inventions: papermaking, gunpowder, and movable type.
Shichahai Shadow Art Performance Hotel, No. 24 Songshujie, Xicheng district, www.ShadowArtBoutique.com.
Siji Minfu Restaurant, 1/F, Donghua Restaurant, No.32 Dengshikou West Street, Dongcheng district.
Grandma Creative Kitchen, No. 6 Fangzhuanchang Hutong, Di’anmen Wai Main Street, Dongcheng district.
Panjiayuan Antique Flea Market, No.18 Hua Weili, Chaoyang district, www.Panjiayuan.com/market/Eindex.html