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Guide To Beijing's Hutongs: History, Map and Itinerary

Updated: Jun 4



Hutong, Beijing


Have you ever looked at Beijing on Google Maps? If you try and zoom in on the area surrounding the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, you will notice a tangled web of neighbourhoods, streets and alleys that together recall a chessboard - it's the famous chessboard plan based on which the capital of China was built since ancient times.


Today, the narrow alleys that compose this plan are one of the highlights of Beijing and are called hutong - if in the capital, this is a sight you cannot miss!


In this guide, you will find some useful information to understand what a hutong is, a brief history of these little streets, an interactive map that you can check and use during your stay in Beijing, a full itinerary with all the main areas and best hutongs to visit, and much more!



 

In this article:


Beijing's Hutong: History and What To Know
Beijing's Hutong: Itinerary
Beijing's Hutongs: Useful Info
Beijing's Hutongs: What's Next

 


Beijing's Hutongs: History and What To Know



WHAT IS A HUTONG


Every travel guide you may have with you in Beijing will no doubt have a section dedicated to the hutongs - one of the absolute main attractions in the capital!


But what exactly is a hutong? Hutong (胡同) literally means alley and refers to a specific kind of narrow street found in Beijing. These alleys are all formed by lines of grey-brick houses arranged side by side together. The houses are themselves called siheyuan (四合院, literally quadrangle or courtyard residence).


A siheyuan is an ancient type of Chinese residential architecture and consists of 4 sections of rooms built in a north-south orientation that naturally creates a central courtyard. Typically, the siheyuans are one-storey so any exception you may encounter is likely very recent or was subject to recent modifications.


Structure of a siheyuan
Structure of a siheyuan | Image Credits: chinatourguide.com

Normally, only the smallest and narrowest alleys were called hutong, while longer and wider ones could be called xiang (巷弄, lane). However, today the name hutong encompasses all kinds of antique residential streets in Beijing!


Why are hutongs typical of Beijing? You won't find many other examples of hutongs around China (a few can be found in the Shanxi region) and may want to know why. In fact, since remote times (the hutongs' history is 700+ years old) the capital was built following strict rules in terms of urban planning, and the shape of the siheyuans provided the kind of neatness and order that was needed for the heart of political and spiritual power of the country. Although that order was later lost and hutongs were created more randomly and clumsily, this specific "chessboard plan" formed by the quadrangular siheyuans and the straight alleys remained a characteristic of Beijing.


Where does the word hutong come from? The most popular theory is that the word should come from the Mongolian term "quddug", meaning "water well". This would be explained by the Mongolian origins of the Yuan Dynasty, ruling over Beijing and China when the hutongs became popular. Water well would refer to the custom of having a water well in the central courtyards of the siheyuans or along the streets. ➜ Actually, this theory is not widely accepted anymore among Chinese scholars, as there would have been no reason for the population of Beijing to introduce a foreign term for a thing, the water well, they knew and used already. Therefore, the name hutong could derive from an ancient Northern Chinese dialect.


Dashilan, Hutong, Beijing
View of a hutong in Dashilan


HISTORY OF THE HUTONGS


Quick note: In China, history before the 20th century is punctuated by dynasties. So while in the West time is divided into centuries and epochs, in China everything is defined by the dynasty it belonged to. The Chinese quickly connect dynasties to events, customs and traditions so for them this system is quite immediate, but for us it can be confusing. I will always include years and references but you may not find them on labels/guides while in China!


➜ You can learn more about this here: Guide to the Dynasties of China


The history of the hutongs of Beijing began during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). Mongolian of origin and founded by Kublai Khan (1215-1294), the Yuan Dynasty reunified a then-divided China and created the largest empire of the time.


Before unifying, the Mongols of Kublai Khan razed several urban centers, including Zhongdu, the capital of the north. Therefore, when they rose to power they had to build a substitute, which they called Dadu (大都, the "great capital"). Dadu roughly corresponded the the ancient core of modern Beijing and was chosen by the Yuan Emperors as their capital because closer to Mongolia.


Having to start from scratch, the Yuan decided to create a perfect city, entirely based on precise urban planning rules and made of circles in which important buildings were inscribed and that were surrounded by residential areas. This way, they wished to recreate the Heavenly order on earth.


➊ READ NEXT: if you want to discover more about the cult of Heaven and the role of the Emperor in China, do not miss the complete guide to the Temple of Heaven in Beijing!


This is when the siyehuans were introduced to Beijing and together formed the first hutongs: the quadrangular shape of these houses (which were originally an aristocratic rural residency) and the ordered lines they created when put side by side were deemed perfect for the project. The first siheyuans were built around the Forbidden City, with the upper-class nobles living as close as possible to the Emperor and settling east and west of the Palace, while south and north were left to the middle classes.


The siheyuans of the aristocrats were grandiose, lavishly decorated and had adorned gardens. One family often owned more than one and controlled one or several hutongs. Of this kind of siheyuans and hutongs not much survived to this day. The most common types of siyehuans belonged to the middle class and the poor and must have looked similar to what we see today in Beijing.


In a matter of years, the capital Dadu had assumed the shape of a chessboard, thanks to the intricate but perfectly-ordered web of hutongs that had popped up around the Palace and had naturally expanded the city. During their heyday, hutongs in Beijing are said to have reached several thousand in number!


However, the bigger the city became the harder was to maintain that order. The new dynasty, the Ming (1368-1644) introduced more relaxed regulations and the hutongs started growing a bit more recklessly, although the capital still looked pretty much shipshaped and was divided into precise districts and sections.


The Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and the 20th century were fundamental in creating the idea of hutongs we still have today, but also represented the darkest and most threatening period for these ancient alleys.


Throughout the years of its last dynasty, China (and its capital, now called Beijing) had begun to decline and urban living conditions had become quite poor. Life in the hutongs was affected: the siheyuans of the nobles deteriorated and lost much of their original splendor, while the houses of the poor entered a phase of squalor that would characterize them until recently.


The situation got worse when the Empire fell and China became a Republic: in the years 1911-1948 the country's balance was so unstable that very few families could afford to keep an entire siheyuan all for themselves. The houses began to host several households until dozens of people were living together. Also, to make space or address some needs, works were repeatedly done on the buildings with any available material, disrupting their original appearance and threatening their stability. Many new and poorly-made hutongs were built on the outskirts of the capital.


These conditions left a negative mark on the hutongs and their houses: by the mid-20th century they were steadily associated with poverty, discomfort, dirt and lack of hygiene and linked to the lowest sections of the society. Particularly, the hutongs were conceived at a time when in-house toilets did not exist and this could be a serious problem when dozens of people were living in the same small space. Stories of public dumps or holes and no privacy became the norm and spread fast.


Old picture of Hutong, Beijing
Photo by Zhang Haipei on China Daily (chinadaily.com.cn)

Not surprisingly, as soon as China entered the economic boom phase with both feet, the hutongs and their siheyuans were the first targets of the urban renovation projects for Beijing (80s, 90s and 00s): their inhabitants, forgetful of a traditional lifestyle that seemed too far to be revived, happily gave up their old and derelict residences for the now-so-common tower block houses.


Hutongs began to disappear rapidly and in a matter of years they were more than halved. Their demolition rate grew so quickly that in 2004 the government had to step in to slow down the trend - people were finally starting to realize that an important and historic part of the city was fading away. The intervention, not too impactful, was repeated in 2017 and this time succeded in putting several hutongs under protection and turning many others into tourist attractions, thus preserving them.


Today, only a small part of the hutongs survives, all scattered around Beijing and particularly in the proximity of the Forbidden City. Protected by the Beijing Urban Master Plan (2016-2035), they cannot be demolished or changed and they are gaining back their role as irreplaceable symbols of life in the old city and of the history of China.


Beijing, Hutong


Life in the Hutongs

The hutongs have never been just alleys where people lived but much more.


Starting from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Beijing was divided into districts, each of them called after one element in Daoist culture (wood, fire, earth, metal, water). Each district was then divided into several fang (坊, a ward), which were divided into pai (牌, a neighborhood) and each pai into pu (堡, small quarter) and, finally, each pu into several hutongs (normally 8 or 9)!


This complicated division was actually handy and was used to put local residents in charge of basic duties: a few selected inhabitants of a hutong were chosen to guard over the others, make sure the area was protected from fires and other hazards, and surveil the life in the alley. They were, in turn, looked over by selected inhabitants of the pu, then the pai, the fang and so on. This probably won't sound new to any Chinese today: this kind of surveillance is still practised in China, especially in rural areas, and facts about it reached the people in the West during the pandemic a few years ago.


Thus, the hutongs were only the smallest examples of streets and alleys that one could find in the capital. Normally, they would run east-west and were made for walking. Larger streets accommodated carriages and would run north-south.


The hutongs and their siheyuans favoured a tranquil, reserved and protected lifestyle, where everyone in the neighborhood could always stay close to each other and communicate but also return to the safety of their household at night or when needed: siheyuans, especially the most sophisticated, were naturally surrounded by their walls and shut by gates (today, a few of them with their high doors and lions to protect them are still visible!).





THE HUTONGS TODAY: WHAT TO EXPECT


Today, visiting a hutong can have several meanings but in most cases, it takes the form of a stroll around the capital.


The hutongs that survived the systematic demolition of the 20th century are often again inhabited by locals, whose slow life may still remind you of ancient times. Their clothes hung out, small chairs and stools forever set up for the next mahjong tournament, open doors that if you look through them you feel like disturbing the peace of a family and their privacy, even if you are doing nothing more than simply walking. Intricate lines of grey walls with red and gold decorations, electricity wires, old bikes and the sounds of everyday life - forgetting that you are visiting the capital city of one of the world's superpowers is easy here.


Hutongs are not always occupied by local families though. To survive, many hutongs and their siheyuans turned into cool neighbourhoods bursting with chic restaurants, Western-fashioned bars and cafés, and vintage shops. Some others specialized in a sector and only sell related goods (such as calligraphy material, which is fascinating). Lastly, there are hutongs that were turned into veritable tourist attractions and can be either visited or host full lines of souvenirs or "traditional" shops.


A few hutongs today are available for rent or purchase - some upper-class families from Beijing or other parts of China now wish to walk into their ancestors' shoes once again, no more scared by the reputation of the ancient hutongs. Also, tourists or temporary residents are of course fascinated by these narrow alleys with their houses and the market has adjusted to their needs: today, it is not hard to find some siheyuans among the options of holiday-rentals websites.



Hutong, Beijing
Life in the hutongs today


Beijing's Hutongs: Itinerary



OVERVIEW AND MAP OF THE HUTONGS


Let's start this itinerary with a very important premise: visiting the hutongs is a discovery and the best way to do it is to simply lose track of where you are heading and get lost in between the many alleys, houses and shops!


That said, with a population of 21,5 million Beijing is huge and in order not to waste time changing zones until you find the best spots a little preparation is needed! This is why in this itinerary I selected a few districts or major areas where you can be sure to come across some of the most important or characteristic hutongs in the capital by just walking around.


Hutongs are disseminated all around the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven, however, some areas are more interesting than others and there your experience can be more intense.


Here is a map where I marked the main districts I will cover in this guide and the most fascinating spots on the way so that before you go you can check it and be sure not to miss anything:




The areas we are going to cover are:



Important note: the map is based on Google Maps but Google Maps does not work in China unless you have a VPN turned on. Also, even if you use one, Maps will not provide any info for metro, bus and taxis but is very useful if you walk. My suggestion is to reach the closest metro station (I will mention one for every area) and then rely on Google Maps from there if needed. In this complete guide for travelers in China, you can find all the information you need for transportation, useful apps, VPN and more.



Hutong, Beijing
A narrow hutong opening on a wider one


DONGCHENG DISTRICT: THE LAMA TEMPLE AREA


Where: North of the Forbidden City

How To Reach: Metro Lines 6,8 - Stop: Nanluoguxiang or Line 8 - Stop: Shichahai

Come Here For: Street food, souvenir shops, historical buildings, bars and cafés

Time To Spend Here: half a day to 1 full day


If someone says hutongs, the first thing that comes to their mind is likely the Lama Temple area! Probably the most popular destination in a hutong tour of Beijing, once you exit the metro station you just have to walk a few meters to meet the first typical alleys.


Being so popular, this district has much of the tourist hype and therefore it's easy to find it crowded. Souvenir shops, street food spots and "traditional" stores are what you should expect to see, together with some famous Western chains such as Starbucks or KFC (which are actually omnipresent in Beijing). If you move a bit further from the main alleys you can walk through some residential hutongs, where the vibes are more relaxed and everything feels more authentic.


Here is an overview of the hutongs you may check in the Dongcheng district:


  • Nanluoguxiang (南锣鼓巷): most famous hutong approx. 1km / 0,62mi long. Full of restaurants, bars, cafés, street food stalls, and souvenir shops. Often crowded but worth a visit - food, especially in restaurants that are spacious enough to have a second floor, is very good, but avoid any chain.

  • Guozijianjie (国子监街): a scenic entrance gate welcomes you to this alley. Everything is more spacious here, but the atmosphere is typical of the hutongs! Find both down-to-earth and more sophisticated shops and bars here.

  • Mao'er Hutong (帽儿胡同): this is where your walk through the hutongs can turn into a real visit! Mao'er Hutong is one of the most popular spots in the capital and is famous for having been the residence of several nobles in the past (especially during the Ming dynasty). Today, here you can look for some tasty local cuisine and the perfect examples of Beijing's high-class architectural style and old lifestyle. Check the nearby Wanning Bridge.

  • Yandaixiejie (烟袋斜街): nearby Mao'er Hutong is this ancient-looking street which happens to be one of the oldest in the city. Its name in Chinese has a meaning similar to smoking pipe and it refers to the peculiar shape of this alley but also to the many pipe and tobacco sellers it used to host. Today, it's renowned as a cultural center and here you can find calligraphy shops, bookstores but also teahouses, street food stalls and restaurants.

  • Yu'er Hutong (桔儿胡同): this hutong is part of the Chinese Architectural Heritage List for the extraordinary relics it contains. Here is where the design of the siyehuans really captures the visitors' attention and is more appreciable. Also, Yu'er (or Ju'er) Hutong is where urban renewal programs that aim to safeguard the hutongs for the future have been based, with more or less successful results so far.

  • Jinsitao or Dajinsi Hutong (北京前门胡同): check this place for a mixture of hutongs and religious architecture - around this hutong is where you can find temples and the 1800s Fengtai Nunnery.

  • Baochao Hutong: small restaurants, market stalls and lots of motorbikes - this hutong is the perfect spot for a traditional view of Beijing, but you can tell is also a tourist destination for the many rickshaws going on all around and the boutique hotels you may encounter. Also, some of the siheyuans here have been recently renovated and given a modern vibe.

  • Wudaoying Hutong (五道营胡同): the cultural stop in this itinerary around Dongcheng district. This hutong has recently turned into a place packed with libraries, artistic cafés and bars, and galleries, all nicely curated and flowery. You can also see some locals living here.

  • Shichahai (什刹海): more an entire scenic area than a hutong, Shichahai is flanked by the lake and its proximity to the Forbidden City means it was populated by influential figures in the past. Here, check the numerous examples of Chinese traditional architecture, the bridges and the temples, the gardens.




Dashilan, Hutong, Beijing
Lively hutong near Dashilan Street


DASHILAN DISTRICT


Where: South of the Forbidden City

How To Reach: Metro Line 2 - Stop: Qianmen (exit C)

Time To Spend Here: half a day to 1 day

Come Here For: Specialized sellers, art galleries and shops, posh restaurants, residential areas, Western-inspired cafés


After Dongcheng, the Dashilan area is definitely the most popular destination for the perfect hutong experience in Beijing.


What to expect here? The main street, Dashilan, is large and spacious with imponent entrances and the right choice if you are looking for souvenirs, shopping options, posh restaurants, and.... modernity. It's nice but not really traditional and can get overcrowded in peak seasons (I was there in August and saying it was packed is an underestimation).


But if you take Dashilan Street as your starting point and you proceed from there, the web of beautiful hutongs you will encounter is amazing and holds a few fascinating surprises. Here are my suggestions, based on my own experience:


  • Shijia Hutong: just a few meters distance from Dashilan is this nice little hutong. This and all surrounding alleys can be explored to find residential areas, a few small shops and cafés. Here everything is decorated and if not too crowded check the flooring: you may see beautifully carved plaques. Siheyuans here are often very new or recently fully renovated.

  • Zhujia Hutong: Michelin-starred restaurants and fancy spots for dining out - this is what you can find in Zhujia Hutong, but even if you are not into stopping for dinner here you can enjoy a peaceful stroll without the crowds of the nearby Dashilan.

  • Dongnanyuan Hutong (东南园胡同): the atmosphere gets more traditional here and the hutongs show fewer signs of renovation and are sometimes even decadent - this is where I stopped for a coffee at a nice Western-fashioned café (coffee is mostly available in these places only here, no Asian chains around) and where I found rows of vintage and ceramic shops. Don't end your tour here though: get lost in the nearby streets for one of the best examples of residential hutongs.

  • Xingsheng Hutong: the experience in Xingsheng Hutong and around it is unpaired and strolling here was one of my favorite moments in Beijing. My suggestion is to just walk until you exit the hutong area because everything is just worth a moment of your time. Don't go here at lunchtime, these alleys are not for foodies! What you can find are lots of beautiful calligraphy stores, design and art studios, small temples and Tibetan vendors.

  • Liulichang Street (琉璃厂文化街): your tour continues with Liulichang, also known as Cultural Street and packed with bookstores, calligraphy, ceramic and pottery shops. Keep your nose up for some minutely decorated houses and typical Chinese architecture.




  • Yanzhi Hutong (胭脂胡同): I mention this place here because is part of the so-called Bada Hutong, the "Eight Great Hutongs" (八大胡同). Together they form the old red light district (18th and 19th centuries), either because they hosted houses of pleasure or because they used to sell related goods. In this case, Yanzhi Hutong hosted cosmetic stores and is sided by Baishun Hutong (百顺胡同), the most important among the eight alleys. Continue your walk and explore the surroundings to visit them all - today, the siheyuans look as if recently renovated and some are even two-story (a feature that did not exist traditionally) but the atmosphere feels traditional and worth a visit.

  • Guantongxiang: the shortest known hutong is here, in this area, and measures only 35m / 114ft in length.

  • Jiuwan Hutong (九湾胡同): this peculiar hutong is the curviest in Beijing and if you look at it on the map it resembles a snake. Its shape is a rarity for the city.



FENGSHENG DISTRICT


Where: West of the Forbidden City

How To Reach: Metro Line 4 - Stop: Lingjing Hutong

Time To Spend Here: 3 hours to half a day

Come Here For: Residential area - life in the hutongs


The Fengcheng District is not your typical hutong area. Located in what was one of the wealthiest quarters of Beijing (west and east of the Forbidden City were for the nobles), today is flanked by the modern Financial District.


Why coming here? Dashilan and Dongcheng are both amazing and should never be excluded from a good and complete tour of the hutongs, however, being so popular they can also get very crowded and sometimes so touristy that the many people and many noises can be a bit annoying.


If you are looking for a more peaceful and relaxed stroll, check Fengcheng District and explore some truly residential alleys where all you can find are small houses with courtyards and signs of the everyday life of the Beijingers. Of course, once you reach the main streets several shops and stores appear on your way, but here everything is mostly quiet and low-key.


Hutong, Beijing, Fengsheng
A hutong in Fengsheng District

  • Fengsheng Hutong (丰盛胡同): this alley takes its name from the district itself and is actually a very large hutong, not much what you may be used to. However, here is where I had one of the heartiest and most authentic street food experiences in Beijing, and where I stumbled upon an incredible bookstore located in the most typical siheyuan you can think of. Definitely not to miss.

  • Xianming Hutong: although beautiful and with well-preserved architecture, it's not really about Xianming Hutong but the entire area - you can easily take this as a starting point to explore all the nearby alleys and get lost in between them. Here is where I could truly see what is like living the hutong life today: lots of motorbikes and hung laundry, people chatting and children playing right on the street, but also simple yet nicely made little houses with their grey-brick walls, often decorated or carved with for-me-mysterious inscriptions. I would absolutely recommend strolling around here.

  • Lingjing Hutong (灵境胡同): with its 32m/104ft of width, Lingjing Hutong is the widest in Beijing and I believe this matches well with the overall vibe of the district, which has one foot into tradition and one into modernity. The historic sensation is almost unperceivable here but life does not feel like that of one of the greatest capital cities in the world. A must-have in your tour if you want to enjoy the full hutong experience.



QIANMEN STREET


Where: East of the Forbidden City

How To Reach: Metro Line 2 - Stop: Chongwenmen Station

Time To Spend Here: 2/3 hours to half a day

Come Here For: mixture of tradition and modernity, 20th-century residential architecture, shopping


The last area we are going to cover is that around the major Qianmen Street and on the eastern side of the Forbidden City, once considered a privileged place to live and later used for hosting embassies, customs and foreign concessions (and this is why here you can find some rare examples of churches).


Today, Beijingers and visitors often come here for the shiny billboards and high buildings of the popular Wangfujing Street, the quintessential shopping destination of the capital. However, as often in China and in Beijing, at a short distance from dazzling contemporaneity hides tradition and the historical lifestyle of the hutongs can be spotted even in this place.


  • Dongjiaominxiang (东交民巷): we mentioned before that nowadays traditional alleys with siheyuans are generically called hutongs, however, in the past, the largest or most important streets were referred to as xiang, lanes. Dongjiaominxiang is a clear example of the difference between a hutong and a xiang: the longest street of this kind, with a length of 3km / 1,86mi it hosts buildings that look monumental and that have been constructed in the last century. Formerly known as Legation Quarter, for its prominence and proximity to the Forbidden City it was chosen by foreigners to establish their headquarters during the Opium Wars period. Today, you can come here for the architecture and to find all kinds of shops and infinite places where to taste the famous Peking Duck!

  • Jinyu Hutong (金鱼胡同): a hutong that used to be the residence of dignitaries and prominent figures with a view of high-rise buildings - this is what you can expect to see when in Jinyu. Its name means goldfish and today offers many food, hotel and shopping options.

  • Beiwanzi Hutong (北灣子胡同): if you are tired of billboards, malls and noises you can use Beiwanzi Hutong as your reference to explore a more peaceful and relaxed zone in this same area. Hutongs are still recent but narrower here and feel more authentic, also, you can spot many street food options, some Western-fashioned bars, and of course lots of restaurants that offer local food.



Hutong, Beijing
Sometimes hutongs may look rather decadent but host vintage shops, curated Western-style cafés and posh bars, like in this case


SPECIAL MENTIONS


At this point, we went through all the major hutong areas in Beijing and if you have seen them all you should have a fair idea of what the old lifestyle in the capital must have looked like.


Of course, there are many more hutongs scattered all around the city and every single one can be worth a minute in your life - you may spot one when you least expect it and the discovery is one of the best parts of the experience.


To top this itinerary off, here are a few special mentions of hutongs that are particularly renowned for a specific reason:


The longest hutong: Dongjiaominxiang (东西交民巷) - located in the Qianmen Street area, we have mentioned it before for its important role as the Legation Quarter in the past. With its 3km / 1,864mi of length, this alley is the longest in Beijing.


The shortest hutong: Guantongxiang - this small alley today is often known as the shortest hutong in Beijing (35m / 114ft long), perhaps as the result of changes and renovations in the past. Find it in the Dashilan district area.


The largest hutong: Lingjing Hutong (灵境胡同)- situated in the proximity of the Financial District in Fengsheng, this hutong is the largest/widest known in Beijing (ca. 32m / 104ft).


The narrowest hutong: Qianzhai Hutong (钱市胡同) - outside the main hutong areas but extremely close to the Forbidden City, this hutong today is a tiny little thing (ca. 60cm / 1,04ft wide) but it used to be part of the wealthy financial quarter of Imperial Beijing.


The curviest hutong: Jiuwan Hutong (九湾胡同) - located within the Dashilan district area, this hutong stands out for its shape, the curviest to be known. In fact, hutongs were favoured over other urban solutions because they could provide order and create a "chessboard plan", so this one is truly a rarity, maybe the result of decades of changes and renewals.


One of the oldest hutongs: Sanmiaojie (三庙街胡同) - if you proceed west from the Dashilan district you can reach this hutong, which is considered one of the oldest in Beijing. Its origins date back to the Liao dynasty (907-1125 CE), so even before the fortune of the hutongs under the Yuan began. Today, not sure anything from the Liao remains but in Sanmiaojie you can really perceive the passing of time: rather decadent and not recently renovated, this hutong brings you right back into the past.



Dashilan,Biejing, Hutong
Tranquil (but full of shops and cafés) hutong in Dashilan District


Beijing's Hutongs: Useful Info



HOW TO VISIT


Being alleys, the hutongs have no specific opening hours and can be visited like any other street around the city. Of course, they are also free entry.


However, while you are strolling around you may find open siheyuans that today host stores, teahouses, galleries and libraries and that may follow their specific business hours. Also, there is the possibility of visiting places such as Prince Gong's Mansion in Dongcheng District.


Sometimes, guided tours allow you to access a siheyuan and take part in cooking classes or short workshops.



MOST COMMON QUESTIONS


When should you visit the hutongs? There is no specific moment of the year to be preferred for a tour of the hutongs, since they can be visited like any other street in Beijing.


Should you add a hutong tour if you are a first-timer in Beijing? Absolutely yes, the hutongs are a must-have for any tour of Beijing.


How much time should you spend visiting the hutongs? The hutongs deserve a good portion of your allotted time. Of course, some areas are larger and richer than others so they might require more time - check the single chapters above for further information. In general, in a 5-day stay in the city, leave at least 2 or 3 afternoons/mornings for the hutongs.


Is it safe to visit the hutongs? Yes. The experience may vary (very touristy areas are much different from fully residential ones) and some hutongs may look more decadent than others but it is always safe to wander through them. Also, don't forget that you are in China and cameras are everywhere!


How should you behave in the residential areas? Some hutongs may fascinate us for their traditional architecture and sense of authenticity but they are often home to many regular families that love to spend much of their free time on the streets or with their front doors open. Most of the time they won't mind you passing by but sometimes they might let you know (mainly with hand gestures) that they would much appreciate you leaving or at least not taking pictures. I think it's best to always respect their privacy.


How to reach the hutongs? There is no single way to reach the hutongs as you can find them all around the Forbidden City. Check the single areas or districts I selected in the itinerary above for more information about the closest metro stations. ➜ In case you wish to reach an area by taxi, you can show the driver the Chinese name of a hutong in the area (I included most of them in the itinerary above) or write it in the taxi-hailing app (but sometimes letters are also fine on the app). In case you need help with metro and taxis in China, you can check this complete guide for travelers in China.


Beijing, Hutong


EAT, STAY AND GUIDED TOURS


Eating Out in the Hutongs

As we saw, a tour of the hutongs can be a many-sided experience and eating out can literally be what you want it to be: you can find any kind of food and restaurants depending on where you go. Here are a few suggestions:


Breakfast: Chinese-breakfast food (baozi, dumplings, snacks, etc) can be found in every market, even the smallest ones, and is often sold at small shops that you will easily encounter on your way to any destination. Many restaurants will be open at breakfast time. Western breakfast (and especially coffee) is less popular and if you are craving it I would suggest Dashilan Street and Dongnanyuan Hutong (东南园胡同) in the Dashilan district, Wudaoying Hutong(五道营胡同) in Dongcheng, or Wangfujing Street in Qianmen Street area.


Cheap or affordable local cuisine: Nanluoguxiang (南锣鼓巷) and the Shichahai area in the Dongcheng district area, Dongjiaominxiang (东交民巷), Jinyu Hutong (金鱼胡同) and the entire Qianmen Street area.


Fancy local cuisine options: Zhujia Hutong and the surroundings of Dashilan Street in the Dashilan district area, then Dongjiaominxiang (东交民巷) and around Wangfujing Street in Qianmen Street area.


Street food: street food is ubiquitous and the Chinese eat at all hours, so you will never get home hungry! For more options prefer Nanluoguxiang (南锣鼓巷) and all surrounding alleys, Fengsheng Hutong (丰盛胡同) and Beiwanzi Hutong (北灣子胡同)'s area.



How To Live in a Hutong - Quick Guide

In case you wish to experience the hutong life right from the inside, you can opt for a stay in one of the many siheyuans (courtyard houses) that have been recently turned into hotels or holiday apartments.


Of course, note that while this can be a fascinating option, what you will be living into is nothing like the original traditional houses Beijingers used to inhabit in the past: most modern ones have private toilets and all the amenities of our contemporary world. It is anyway a great alternative to the infinite nondescript hotels you may find in the city and brings you closer to the local community so you can feel what is like living in a hutong today.


How to book a hutong stay? It's actually quite easy, you can use your regular platforms such as TripAdvisor or Booking and look for something like "hutong hotel" or "courtyard hotel" - try to check here or here.


What if you are staying for long periods? Hutong hotels, especially if booked through Western platforms, can be expensive and thus not the right choice if you are staying in Beijing for longer periods. In this case, check English websites such as The Beijinger where you can find posts with flats on rent. In every post, you will always find the WeChat contact of an agent. Agents are definitely the best option for you and can go on suggesting new places until you find your match. If you go to China for work or study, the institution/company you refer to will most likely provide accommodation or help you through the process.




Guided Tours

There are a few options for guided/walking tours through the hutongs and you can check them here, here, here and here.


The duration goes from 1 hour to half a day or even a full day and can include a bike or rickshaw ride, cooking classes, etc.


▶ Honestly, I am not sure whether I would suggest going on a guided tour of the hutongs. Once you know the history and culture of these alleys and have a map of all the main areas, the best way to explore them is to stroll around them without any precise path. Walking/guided tours tend to keep a rushed pace and include pre-determined stops, often adjusted to what are believed to be the "Western standards" - to me, it seems hard to experience a traditional lifestyle this way!




Fengsheng, Hutong, Beijing
Hutong in Fengsheng





 

References:
  • John Keay, China: A History, Harper Press, 2008.

  • Jonathan Clements, A Short History of Beijing, Haus Publishing, 2022.

  • Kai Vogelsang, Geschichtes China, Reclam, 2012.

  • Linda Javin, The Shortest History of China, Experiment, 2021.

  • Nancy Shatzman Steinhardt, Chinese Architecture: A History, Princeton University Press, 2019.


2 Comments


Guest
May 01

such a wonderful guide! a question: until what time at night is it possible to visit the Hutongs?


We will have a layover in Beijing from 17:00 to 03:00, and I'd love to see some of the Hutongs during that time. The idea would be: take the airport express to Dongzhimen station and visit your 'blue area', and then take the express (or a taxi?) back to the airport.

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Martina
May 05
Replying to

Thank you so much for reading this guide!!

Hutongs can literally be visited at any time of the day/night as they really are regular streets! Of course, if you visit them at certain hours you will find shops/restaurants/attractions closed, but if you manage to be in town from around dinner time then you will have a few hours to fully explore the “blue area” :) just one thing: in case you plan to use the metro to move around, it should stop functioning at around 11PM. But yes, you can always rely on taxis, which are fast and convenient!

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