Beijing. As the capital, it seems the obvious place to visit on a trip to the Middle Kingdom, but surprisingly, many travellers stay down in the south, and I say that missing out on Beijing is crazy. Not only because it’s the capital. Frankly many people tour Australia without stepping foot in Canberra, and many people couldn’t tell you the name of Canada’s capital city. I’d say you should visit Beijing because it has a unique mix old and new, and is one of the best places to witness the pace of change going on. Cities such as Shanghai are very modern and slick, and whilst Beijing has its shiny side, it also retains a deeply traditional edge, the hutong neighbourhoods being a great example. Ultimately, what I am trying to put forward is that on a trip to China, you definitely, certainly, must, visit Beijing.
I haven’t covered the obvious tourist attractions of which there are many – there’s so much information on all these places out there so it doesn’t make sense to go over these.
Here you’ll find some travel notes for when you are done with all the things the guidebooks have recommended to you.
Beijing’s famed Hutong 胡同 neighbourhoods
Get lost in old Beijing.
A hutong is a narrow alleyway or road typically found in northern Chinese towns and cities, particularly Beijing, made up of usually single-story homes centred around courtyards. In the case of Beijing, the hutongs generally refer to the large parts of the old city found within the second ring road, which sits roughly where the city walls were. In my opinion the most interesting hutongs are to be found east of the Drum Tower, an area known as Gulou 鼓楼 (also meaning ‘drum tower’).
Every guidebook mentions the hutongs, and covering what’s well documented in popular guidebooks is going to be a waste of time. But I must give an opinion on a few hutongs that should not be missed, and that may not be written about so much elsewhere.
There’s a lot of change going on in the hutongs right now, so I can only hope that my information is up to date. Although I no longer live in Beijing, I still visit regularly as it’s a short hop on a plane from where I am right now.
Fangjia Hutong 方家胡同
Fangjia, oh Fangjia. How this hutong has changed beyond recognition in less than a year. It used to be full of bars and small eateries – including the legendary Cellar Door, a favourite of mine. It was a hive of activity, and a popular hang out for those that find the glitz of shopping centres somewhat nauseating. Sadly its vibrancy fell victim to the recent dramatic changes currently sweeping the city. But do not think that there is now no reason to visit.
Still go there in the day or night time, its a good hutong for a stroll, and midway down you’ll happen across a big courtyard. Here you’ll find Hot Cat 热力猫 a bohemian bar, live music venue that is open in the daytime, has a small courtyard where you can sit with an beer or tea, play some guitar, and chat with the very friendly owners and staff.
Continuing along Fangjia hutong from the east, when you get to the western end, cross the road and join Fensiting Hutong.
Here you’ll find a small and cheap eatery serving up some of the best and spiciest Sichuan cuisine in the city. If you like your food laced with truckloads of chilli, you must visit. Continue west, eventually crossing North Luguo Alley 北锣鼓巷 much less crowded than its twin South Luguo Alley 南锣鼓巷 and then along Huafeng Hutong until you get to Baochao Hutong.
Baochao Hutong 宝钞胡同
Baochao hutong, some of you may know, was also hit by the recent changes sweeping Beijing, however not as drastically as Fangjia hutong. Many of the buildings that had been converted for commercial use have had their windows bricked up presumably to give a more residential and traditional appearance, however unlike Fangjia, many of the interesting businesses are still in operation, albeit a little harder to find. If following my above directions, you’ll arrive at Baochao hutong from the east, and this is a north-south running hutong. I’d recommend having a stroll in both directions.
You’ll find an interesting mix of grocer shops, what I like to call ‘everything shops’, the type of shop you go to if you need to buy a screwdriver, a ball of string, or a pack of noodles. Small eateries, and a few bars also line the hutong, and you’ll be able to soak up the atmosphere of the residental hutongs especially if you explore the hutongs running off this one. If you head north in the evening, you may wish you check out Soi Baochao, or Modernista, for some live music and drinks (I’ll cover these in the live music section). If you head south, there’s a great little shop on the right hand side that sells beers from all over the world, and has some tables out in the hutong where you can have a cheap craft beer and people watch – one of my favourite hutong pastimes.
From Baochao hutong I would recommend heading west towards Drum Tower, along no particular hutong but just exploring the area, before going up the Drum Tower, trying to time it with one of their many daily drum performances.
From here, head along the road running directly south of the Drum Tower, and after a short distance turn left into Fangzhuangchang hutong. Walk for about 5 minutes, to the end, then turn right into Nanxiawazi hutong. Continue along the straight part, and before the hutong goes around a corner, take a right down a very narrow hutong, and you’ll find one of the original Beijing hutong based craft beer breweries. Great Leap Brewing. A truly great way to finish your meander. It’s hard to find, but makes it more interesting, so ditch the smartphone and have fun getting lost in old Beijing. If in doubt, ask a local, even if you don’t speak Chinese or they don’t speak your language, if you’re in this area, they’ll probably know what you’re looking for.
Beijing’s craft beer
Hoppy IPAs and innovative ales using creative Chinese ingredients
Beijing has a very, very nice craft beer scene. Certainly the Beijing-based breweries have had to adapt recently with the changes going on in the city, and Beijing has lost some real treasured watering holes that have had to shut down, such as the greatly missed Slow Boat hutong bar, but that has not stopped the breweries themselves, they’ve just had to seek out new premises. Below are a few that deserve your business.
Great Leap Brewing. #6, #45
So if you followed the above hutong recommendations, you’ll find yourself at the original Beijing craft beer operation, Great Leap Brewing. Their original establishment, GL#6 is definitely my personal preference. It’s in a very traditional hutong building with its own courtyard and the focus is on beer only, they don’t serve food. So to that extent it feels genuine to Great Leap Brewing’s original purpose of brewing and serving great tasting and innovative craft ales.
I’d suggest getting your lips around their Honey Ma Gold, infused with rich local honey and Sichuan pepper corns, or their Cinnamon Rock Ale, very subtly flavoured with cinnamon. Try these, and more, try them all. Presumably you won’t be driving in Beijing. Just a word of warning, if you think this place was hard to find when you were sober in the daylight, imagine it after a few ales in the pitch dark. The good news is, they’ll be a bunch of patrons in the same boat as you, so you will not be alone in making your way back to the main drag.
Great Leap recently had to shut down one of its other outlets in the east of the city at Dongzhimen (my previous local) but also has another outlet on the east-side,, close to the Liangma River, which serves its beer along with New York style pizza. I recently tried the pizza, not quite Joe’s of NYC, but it’s good, and what you need to soak up their ales as you’re dipping yourself into the fifth pint you just can’t drag yourself away from. They have a nice beer garden there too.
Getting there: see here
Slow Boat Brewery
It’s hard to mention Slow Boat without lamenting the closure of their original place in Dongsibatiao 东四八条 (literally ‘east fourth, eighth alley’) a largely residential hutong south of Dongzhimen. This was a greatly loved place, albeit a little like
drinking in a submarine, or an elongated bathroom that was virtually windowless. But this did give it a speakeasy charm, and wandering along the quiet dark hutong, only to come across this place, opening the door and having the warm, bright, cheerful, beery welcome, was like happening across the warm glow of a ship’s cabin in the middle of a cold stormy sea.
So whilst every respectable beer drinker in Beijing that has called themself a Beijinger since at least 2016 surely misses Slow Boat’s hutong place greatly, I don’t wish to continue this ramble in the past tense, so kindly allow me to focus on the fact that Slow Boat is still going strong, now with their much larger brewpub premises in Sanlitun. It’s a shame it’s surrounded by the shopping centre glitz of Sanlitun and not in the atmospheric hutongs, but the beer is a strong as ever, and the food is incredible.
Slow Boat consistently come first in the annual Beijing Burger Cup, a competition run by the very useful Beijinger, which incidentally is an excellent place to check live music listings and other events. Trust me, they do an excellent burger. The last time I was there, I had one of the best burgers I have ever eaten. I’ve eaten a few burgers. I know what you’re thinking, you don’t go to Beijing to eat burgers, but I think about ever time I’ve travelled to the States, and eaten a 宫保鸡丁 in one of their many Chinatowns.
But back to the beer. If you go in the daytime, which as everyone knows is the best time to drink a beer, they may have some specials on, but avoid the lunchtime period, it can get very busy. They brew on-site, so you can smell the hops a mile off. Their Monkey’s Fist IPA is a realible option, but at 6.2% go easy on it, otherwise it won’t go easy on you. I recently tried their Koh Chang Saison, 5.4% infused with lemongrass to take you back to that Tom Yam you had on Long Beach when Long Beach was still cool and everyone was drinking out of plastic buckets.
Getting there: Head to the Sanlitun shopping area (an overdeveloped, western expat enclave area in the east, that I wouldn’t usually recommend), and it’s on Salitun South Road 三里屯南街, on the left side as you’re heading south.
Arrow Factory Brewing
The question of why so many cities grew up around waterways is one that every good geography student knows the answer to. But rarely does the subject of pleasure enter that realm. Despite this oversight, it is clear that every great city needs some kind of waterway to escape to, to find that must needed tranquility in an often crazily frantic environment. And every great city, needs a great beer bar overlooking that very waterway to enjoy that very moment of tranquility. In London you have the Thamesis Boat Bar on the Thames, in Bangkok you have countless bars and eateries overlooking the mighty Chao Praya, and in Beijing you have Arrow Factory overlooking the less that mighty Liangma river, which frankly is more like a small canal. But, it serves its tranquility-providing purpose.
In fact, Arrow Factory has two excellent outlets, this riverside one, with a rooftop and where they also brew their beer, and a hutong-based place, which is where the brewery gets its name, from 箭厂胡同 Jianchang (Arrow Factory) hutong, where you’ll find it.
The Liangma river branch
I was about to call it a brewpub, but I visited a couple of weeks ago, and they had removed all their brewing equipment which used to be on the ground floor (first floor) as you walked in, to make way for more seating. They’ll be doing their brewing at another premises, which I do think is a shame but I see the business logic. So you walk in, go up the stairs, and you have an open industrial-style bar which on a sunny day you want to walk through and proceed up the next set of stairs which takes you to an open-air rooftop bar and decking that overlooks the river.
I was there most recently in June 2018 and as the mercury climbed to a sweltering 40c/105f and with blazing sun, I only managed about 2 minutes their before I beat a hasty retreat back to the mid-level. However this is where you will usually find me on a sunny day when I’ve back in Beijing. If you don’t have work the next day, I’d recommend their Seeing Double IPA 断片儿, which at around 8% does exactly as advertised. On my previous visit, I did, so I bought a t-shirt, and opted for their less potent Guanxi Pale Ale 关系, which was a good solid hoppy ale. They also do food, and I must commend the artist behind their beer graphics. Like I did on that hot day, you can, and should buy a t-shirt. Furthermore, staff are friendly and music is good. Closed on a Monday.
Getting there: From Dongzhimen subway station, walk east along Dongzhimenwai Road for about 8 minutes until you get to Chunxiu Road, then cross the road, and walk up the diagonally placed Liangmahe South Road, where you need to follow the river until you get to the bar, located before the main junction with Xingdong Road. This is a really pleasant walk, and a good place to beat the fast pace of the city on any day. In the winter it freezes and turns into an ice-hockey pitch, in the summer it’s full of fishermen and swimmers.
The Jianchang hutong 建厂胡同 branch
Located just off the touristy but pleasant Wudaoying hutong, close to Lama Temple, this is a cosy craft beer bar decked out in wood that gives it an almost Alpine feel. They have all the beers on tap at their Liangma river branch, and the advantage of being right in the atmospheric hutongs. Although it attracts selfie stick wielding tourists, Wudaoying hutong does not have the tourist crazyiness of
Nanluoguxiang, and is worth a stroll in the evening combined with a few beers here. Afterwards, you can perch yourself on a tiny plastic stool in Jianchang hutong, and try some street-side chuanr 串 – lamb bbq skewers, washed down with a refreshing Tsingtao. Just look for the brightly lit 串 chuanr sign.
Getting there: Take the subway to Yonghegong Lama Temple, walk west along Wudaoying hutong, and about two thirds of the way along, turn south down Jianchang hutong and it’s on the right side.
The Bookworm and Secret Garden (update 2020, now closed)
A good bookshop, bar, and cafe with frequent talks on all kinds of interesting topics, but walk through on a sunny day, follow the back staircase up, and you’ll find a rooftop bar and garden with eclectic furnishing, and good local craft beers such as Monkey’s Fist IPA from nearby Slow Boat Brewery.
With the highrise cityscape of downtown Beijing in the south, and the decor, this place is a welcomingly reminscent of the rooftop bar at the Queen of Hoxton in east London, UK. An excellent place to chill out on an afternoon. I just wish they still had a hammock up there.
Getting there: It’s in Sanlitun, close to Slow Boat Brewery. Walk a short distance north from Slow Boat Brewery on Sanlitun South Road 三里屯南路, then turn right past a car park barrier into a small courtyard. It’s on your right side.
Beijing’s live music
One of the world’s little know most creative and diverse live music hubs.
So for most, the image of Beijing would not bring thoughts of live music houses, with diverse performers, from punk to folk and everything in between, music without a genre. But if you’ve lived there and been fortunate to be a part of this, this is the reality, Beijing has to be one of the world’s most creative and diverse cities for live music.
And there is something about the city’s live houses and performance spaces, that makes it a very welcoming place for any musician from a bedroom player turned occasional open-mic performer, to those more adept at being in front of a crowd. China has a good many foreigners teaching English, and for many of these people teaching is not their ultimate career choice but a way for them to experience a unique culture, and in the case of many in Beijing, to work on their first love, as performing musicians, in a creative environment that welcomes them, as well as being able to earn a good living to sustain this.
This combined with a sizeable population of local Chinese musicians and music fans interested in creating music, creates a very diverse scene, especially given the wide range of nationalities and therefore influences that comprise the musicians that call Beijing home.
A portion of the local media may like to refer to some as “Hutong Hipsters”, living within or close to the second ring-road, bearded, enjoying craft ale as much as music, but personally I don’t buy into the whole hipster stereotype, and that term was probably just lazily coined on the coincidental basis that “hutong” and “hipster” both begin with the letter h, which is pronounced “aitch” not “haitch” by the way, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Fact.
So if live music is your thing, as a performer or a listener, the following are a few places I’d recommend you spend your time.
The Beijinger is the best port of call for up-to-date gig listings.
Hot Cat 热力猫
Hot Cat is a hot bed of creativity for local musicians. Its location on Fangjia hutong means that it’s one of the last surviving bars of the hutong which until summer 2017 was home to many a small eatery or hole-in-the-wall bar, such as the famed craft beer bar Cellar Door, which after loosing its right to a door, one had to enter via step-ladder through a window.
Hot Cat also lost its right to a door, but luckily has a back door onto a courtyard that was unaffected by the changes. So due to this, Hot Cat is able to continue operating. Hot Cat is a place you can feel at home in the day time, on a warm day in their back yard, where you can spend the afternoon playing guitar, there may be one there you can use if you don’t have your own. Night time there will likely be a gig going on, and inside you’ll feel at home lounging around on their sofas, with a good selection of bottled beers to choose from.
It’s got a part bohemian and part dive-bar feel to it, which suits the atmosphere of the hutongs. The couple running it will make you feel welcome.
Getting there: Located about half-way down Fangjia hutong, in a courtyard to the south. Enter the courtyard and immediately go around to the right side and you’ll see a sign saying Hot Cat 热力猫.
Roughly halfway along Wudaoying 五道营 hutong, you’ll find School. I mentioned Wudaoying hutong earlier as being a good hutong to wander along. Yes it’s a little touristy, not so residential, and things have been going a bit more upscale since I first visited in 2015, but it still retains appeal, and good places like School, where good things happen. Those good things include frequent live music and a bar that serves local and not-so-local craft beers. The main live house room is dingy, dark, sticky, which is as all live houses should be.
The stage is small, and the atmosphere is always going strong. They have a good many local bands playing, as well as touring bands coming through Beijing. This is one of the best places to soak up the local Beijing creative music scene. They tend to have a focus on punk of various types, but many bands of other genres also play.
Getting there: It’s about halfway along Wudaoying hutong 五道营胡同, which is accessible from Yonghegong Lama Temple subway station.
Temple Bar (update 2021, now closed)
Despite the name, this is a live house, not an Irish Bar. If you’re out late with a bunch of friends in the hutongs, and you plan to catch some live music, you’ll probably end up here.
It’s one of those places where friendships are made over beers at 4am, and all the problems of the world are debated with the back drop of a blues band, or Scott DJing that song that can only please those still awake and drinking at 3am. Not being located in a hutong, it is larger than other spaces, with a sizeable stage, and bar area. They have some excellent bands playing most days of the week, and weekends tend to get quite crowded, attracting a drunken mix of locals and foreigners, but probably more foreigners, depending on the band line-up.
Getting there: Located just to the south-east of Drum Tower. From Drum Tower, walk east along Gulou East St, on the southern side, a couple of minutes along, you’ll see an elaborate archway, which looks a bit like an entrance to a temple. This leads to a courtyard where you’ll find a building at the end with a few bars. Temple is up the staircase on the right side.
Other live houses (that I will find time to write more on soon) to check out are:
DDC (Dawn Dusk Club) a compact, atmospheric hutong based live house with many alternative bands. Location: Shanlao hutong (west of Dongsishitiao) (update 2020, now closed and relocated outside of the centre)
Soi Bao Chao, a small, grungy hutong-based live house, with a loosely Thai theme (hence the name). Regular live music and jam/open mic nights. Location: the northern end of Baochao hutong.
Modernista, a place right out of a 1920s Parisian street, transported to a 21st century Beijing hutong. Cocktails, vintage furnishings, and good live bands from Jazz to folk to whatever. Location: Baochao hutong.
Yue Space, live music is not as regular as some of the smaller bars, but they also host art fairs, and other events, and have a vinyl and cassette shop in the basement. Location: In a courtyard just off Banqiao South hutong (south of Beixinqiao subway station).
Yugong Yishan, this is where touring bands with a larger fan-base tend to play. Good sound, but expensive bar. Location: Zhangzizhong Road, just west of subway station of the same name.
Check The Beijinger for upcoming events.
Some of Beijing’s eateries
Crispy Beijing duck, fiery Sichuan cuisine, the best Japanese ramen.
When I was growing up in provincial England, I have to be honest that Chinese food as I knew it was not all that exciting. That is because I had not eaten Chinese food. I had only eaten the food that Chinese immigrants mostly from Hong Kong had invented in order to suit the British palate. And this cuisine was not really that exciting in flavour. The only thing exciting about it was the florescent colour. So, I was delighted when I came to China, to learn that Chinese food is in fact diverse as it is delicious. I have particularly fallen in love with Sichuan food. The mala 麻辣 (spicy and numbing) quality combined with the many complex layers of flavour, make a truly delicious and addictive cuisine.
Zhang Mama 张妈妈特色川味馆
Zhang Mama is one of the best Sichuan eateries in Beijing. They have a couple of small restaurants in the city. Expect to queue for a table as the food is exceptional, and cheap. The service is what you’d expect in a cheap Beijing restaurant so don’t go expecting niceties and small talk with the waiting staff (especially the older staff, the younger staff are friendlier), but to give them credit, they are usually rushed off their feet given the restaurant’s popularity.
If you don’t read, write, or speak Chinese, you may need some help, as their menu is only in Chinese and you are expected to write down your order by yourself. You may be sharing a table with strangers anyway, so you could always ask them to help you.
So for mala 麻辣 Sichuan food, certainly visit Zhang Mama. Especially good is their Mapodofu 麻婆豆腐 and Zhang Mama Xiao Chao 张妈妈小炒.
Getting there: There is a branch on the western end of Fensiting hutong, where it meets Andingmen Inner St, and also a short distance south of this, on Jiaodaokou South St, just before Daxing hutong on the eastern side. Cash only.
Si Ji Min Fu 四季民福
Unless you are vegetarian or vegan, you should not go to Beijing, without trying Beijing or Peking Duck. I am not usually such an enthusiastic carnivore, and in fact a part-time vegetarian, but this dish really is something special, if ordered from the right place. And Si Ji Min Fu is the right place. If you think that Peking Duck is like the “crispy duck” served up by Chinese takeaways in the west, you’re in for a very pleasant surprise. 北京烤鸭 bei jing kao ya is roasted over a fruit wood fire, and prepared and served in such a way that takes tastes and textures to another place.
The meat is juicy and tender, and the roasted skin is like shards of ice that literally melt on the tongue. The flavours of the fruit wood permeate, and the accompanying sauces balance the taste completely, which you wrap up in a rice pancake. You’ll spot a queue at this place, virtually all the time, but take a number, and you can help yourself to drinks and snacks whilst you wait on the chairs placed outside on the pavement.
There are many places in Beijing to have roasted duck, but Si Ji Min Fu is just about one of the best. 198 kuai for a full duck, which is enough to feed 4, if ordered along with other dishes.
Getting there: They have a few branches, but the one I’m recommending is close to Dongsishitiao 东四十条 subway station. Leave the station and head west along Dongsishitiao (the main east-west road). It’s about 5 minutes walk on the right side. You’ll probably spot customers waiting on stools outside.
Yume Wo Katare
For those familiar with different types of Japanese ramen, this is Beijing’s only jiro-kei ramen shop. This type of ramen comes from Tokyo, and similar to the better known tonkotsu ramen, its base is a rich and creamy broth made from slowly boiled pig bones, but there are other ingredients that give jiro-kei ramen its unique characteristics and delicious, rich flavours.
The ramen comes in five sizes. I went for large with extra garlic. It came with a mound of succulent and melt-in-the-mouth tender roasted pork, topped with a heap of garlic. Absolutely mind-blowingly delicious. True comfort food. At 60 rmb for a large portion, it’s also very good value.
The interior has also been thoughtfully designed. It’s bar style seating at an open kitchen, so you can chat to the friendly chefs whilst they’re labouring away on your ramen. There is an unmistakable Japanese feel to the shop that transports you to the back-streets of Tokyo. A retro Japanese arcade machine that you can play on whilst you wait sits in the corner. If you like ramen, I highly, highly recommend you check this place out.
Getting there: Located north of Sanlitun. Take the subway to Agricultural Exhibition Center station, head north along the third ring road until you get to the first right side road, Nongzhanguan North Rd. Walk along here for about 10 minutes, over a small bridge, until you get to Agricultural Bank of China on your left side. Just before this is a small side-road with a 7-11 on the corner, and just before this is a building with an entrance leading to an indoor mock Japanese street. The ramen shop is on the upper floor, up a spiral staircase. Closed on Mondays and some weeks Tuesdays.