Secret Streets That Dive Deep into Beijing's History
A look at 10 little-known hutongs, roads, and boulevards that tell a compelling story about the city's evolution.
With a population of more than 21 million people and a sprawling network of roads, Beijing's sheer scale can be overwhelming for first-time visitors. Yet the city is full of hidden gems for those who know where to look. Go beyond the packed tourist streets like Nanluoguxiang and Qianmen, to vibrant neighborhoods outside Fourth Ring Road, and you'll find several traditional hutong alleyways that give a mini history or culture lesson and make for a memorable excursion.
Bei Jianzi Xiang
From exit D of Beixinqiao subway station, walk south until you reach a small street called Xiang'er Hutong. The blue-gray apartment buildings around you represent a pivotal part of the city's history; these Socialist-era compounds were a response to the modernization drive of the 1950s and 1960s.
Find the intersecting Huageng Hutong and walk south. Take your time absorbing the various sights, sounds, and smells; this area typifies modern hutong life. Where single-family households once had an entire siheyuan to themselves, the population boom of the mid-20th century created a demand for housing that drove families to divvy up these traditional courtyard residences.
When you reach a fork in the road, head right for about 164 feet, then turn left on Bei Jianzi Xiang (北剪子巷). The latter hosts a bustling wet market where locals sell live fish, slabs of meat, fresh produce, eggs, grains, and piping hot staples like shao bing (a type of baked unleavened bread from Shandong).
This modest street was once home to diplomats, artists, scholars, poets, playwrights, and military figures—a history now documented through the new Shijia Hutong Museum, which was funded in part by the UK-based Prince's Charities Foundation. A few doors down is the Red Wall Garden Hotel, a boutique property with a beautiful courtyard space that outsiders can have a drink in.
Second Ring Road (between Jianguomen and Dongzhimen)
Travelers may wonder why we'd recommend this congested highway stretch, but Beijing has changed at such a blistering pace in the past 10 years that a survey of its modern architecture is in order. Starting at Jianguomen bridge, walk north along the west side of the road until you see the Ministry of Public Security, a cube-shaped glass building bearing the insignia of the PRC. Gray, imposing, and charmless, it typifies the style of government buildings.
Just south of Chaoyangmen Bridge is Galaxy SOHO, one of the many properties of SOHO China—the largest real estate development company in mainland China. The mall's sinuous lines and shiny exterior recall a pulsating alien spaceship.
Continuing north, there's an unremarkable office building on the northwest corner of Dongsishitiao Bridge. You wouldn't know just by looking at it, but the ninth floor houses the Poly Art Museum, which features a small-but-well-curated collection of Chinese bronze and stone carvings. Admission costs $3.20. The last stop on this architectural walk is the outsized China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), the company's headquarters that occupy 2.2 million square feet at the northwest corner of Dongzhimen Bridge.
Though largely unseen by tourists, Beijing has a vibrant Korean community clustered in the student neighborhood of Wudaokou and the tech hub of Wangjing. In the latter, Korean restaurants and shops are centered around Guangshun Beidajie. Right across from CapitaMall, look for a three-story complex with Korean groceries, restaurants, and barbershops. More are located farther down the street in different residential compounds. Just off Guangshun Beidajie is Zixiamen, one of the best Korean barbecue restaurants in Wangjing.
Next to Zhangzizhonglu subway station is an unusual gated community called the Duan Qirui compound, named after the former premier of the Republic of China. The site formerly served as the center of his government in the early 20th century but is now an extension of Renmin University. People still live in the decrepit colonial-style apartment buildings. On a mild day, the community's colony of feral cats can be spotted lounging in the sun. Be sure to stop by Peanut Café in the southeast corner of the compound for a hot drink and a waffle (every day from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.).
Just off the perenially crowded Nanluoguxiang, Mianhua Hutong is much quieter and more relaxed than its more famous neighbor. Chinese movie buffs will be interested to know that a branch of the Central Academy of Drama—the alma mater of actresses Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi—is located here, along with Penghao Theatre, a cafe and performing arts venue that frequently hosts Beijing Improv shows in English and Chinese.
Xuetang Lu (Tsinghua University)
If you visit in autumn, make the trek northwest to Tsinghua University. Sure, it's one of the country's most storied universities (along with neighboring Peking University), but the real draw are the campus' many fine ginkgo trees. In fall, they blanket the area with creamy yellow, spade-shaped leaves. Rent a bicycle at one of the campus gates and take your time pedaling through the quiet streets.
Southeast of the Forbidden City, Nanchizi was the subject of a controversial reconstruction project in the early 2000s. According to The Concrete Dragon: China's Urban Revolution and What It Means for the World, it was once part of the Imperial City itself and housed store rooms for porcelain, meat, silk, grain, and other supplies. Now, it's one of the most exclusive addresses in the city, with renovated siheyuan homes selling for more than $1 million. Talk a walk and get a glimpse of them; we were told by a former resident that many retired government officials live here.
This creative hub near the overcrowded Qianmen pedestrian street serves as the unofficial headquarters of Beijing Design Week and houses a growing number of clothing and jewelry stores, bookshops, design studios, and trendy cafés and restaurants. Notable stops include Ubi Gallery, Triple-Major, Line Eins, and Spoonful of Sugar.
This small stretch near Beihai Park is home to one of the most interesting cafes in the city: 1901 Café, a 114-year old former church annex. The nearby Xishiku Church (also known as the Church of the Savior) was the site of a dramatic siege during the Boxer Uprising of 1900. From June to August of that year, more than 3,900 people sought sanctuary within Xishiku's walls; ultimately, it was the only Catholic church in the city to mount a successful defense against the Boxers. One of the few examples of European architecture in the capital, Xishiku is worth visiting for its ornate facade and turbulent history.
Sijia Chen is based in Beijing and covers the city for Travel + Leisure.