If you want to experience the abundant history and culture of Beijing, then find your way to the famous old lanes or Hutongs of Beijing. Visiting the alleys will not only give you a glimpse of the yesterday’s world of Beijing, you will also gain insights of how their old life was lived and how their traditions and culture were developed.
What is a Hutong?
A water well, that is the meaning of the Mongolian word “Hottog” from which Hutong was derived. In ancient times, Mongolians build their houses and villages around a well which they have dug. Hutong is now translated to a lane or an alley. It is a compound formed by Siheyuan rows or buildings around a courtyard.
It was first used in the Yuan Dynasty (1271 – 1368) referring to a street measuring nine meters wide. It usually ranges from 40 centimeters to 10 meter wide streets with up to 20 turns. Really small compared to a standard street which measures 36 meters wide. Each lane has its own layout and structure and gives a magnificent scene when viewed from above. It has delicate gardens, varied rockeries, as well as ancient relics which make the Hutongs one of the top tourist destinations in China.
Another unique feature of the Hutongs is the cross interlacement of the lanes. The houses are connected to each other making the communication and mingling easy and accessible to the people. Thus, when the tourists enter a Hutong, they can immediately feel the warmth relationships among its people, which is now lacking in the fast-paced modern world. Going to the twisted lanes is just like visiting a community. There are shops that sell different kinds of goods, public restrooms, and even a group of people mingling and gossiping.
The Most Famous Hutongs in Beijing
There are more than 1,000 alleys in Beijing and you cannot just visit them all even if you want to. Among the thousand streets, the top 10 Hutongs worth visiting boast old-style buildings, traditional workshops, as well as the authentic vibe of a simple but old-fashioned community of Beijing.
1. South Gong and Drum Lane (Nanluogu Xiang)
As one of the oldest streets in Beijing, the South Gong and Drum Lane was built during the Yuan Dynasty around 800 years ago. It is measured at 768-meters in length and 8-meters in width. The main alley has eight parallel lanes on its two sides and in November 1990, these were included in the 25 historic and culturally protected areas as announced by the local Municipal Government.
It was once called the Centipede Lane due to its 16 side alleys. It was also called the Humpback Lane during the Ming Dynasty and was renamed by the Qing Dynasty to Gong and Drum Lane.
The remains in these alleys were more complete than the other sites in Beijing making it more authentic and ancient. It depicts traditional courtyard houses where you can see lanterns hanging under the attics. Its walls and roofs are gray which represent Beijing’s folk culture.
It is very close to the Forbidden City making it the home of many royal families and officials like Wang Rong, China’s last empress, and Qi Baishi, an artist famous for traditional Chinese paintings.
The alleys here were developed in order to cater more sceneries and entertainment to their visitors. It has specialty boutiques like pottery shops and art studios which offer movie and TV programs. Some of the shop assistants and owners can speak English fluently so tourists will not have a hard time conversing with them.
Food stalls in Gong and Drum Lane offer appealing meals and snacks to their hungry visitors. Some offer pizza and drinks from Nepal, special yoghurt, as well as western cuisines like Russian and Italian.
Tips for first-time tourists:
- Since there will be a lot of walking, it is better to wear flat shoes. You can also find and buy a pair from one of the shops as your souvenir.
- Since a busy and a small alley, there is no parking in Gong and Drum Lane. You can either walk or rent a bicycle when visiting this place. Bicycles for rent can be found at Houhai or Shichahai. The average cost of the bicycles per hour is CNY20 for a tandem bicycle and CNY10 for a regular one. Take note that a deposit of CNY500 for each bicycle is also collected.
- When going to Gong and Drum Lane, you can either take the subway (Subway 6 / Line 8) to Nanluogu Xiang or take the bus (Bus 3, 13, 42, 60, 118, or 612 to Tongluoxiang, Bus 701 to Di’anmen Dong, or Bus 104, 108, 113, or 612 to Bei Bingmasi).
2. Skewed Tobacco Pouch Street
Also one of the oldest Hutong, Skewed Tobacco Pouch Street is also known as Yandai Xiejie in Chinese. It measures 32 meters long and was first called Drum Tower Xiejie during the reign of Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty.
During the Qing Dynasty, many smoking pipe stores are located on this street. One store, named Shuangshengtai, had a 1.5-meter-high wooden smoking pipe as their sign. Because of this, the street was known in the whole city as a giant smoking pipe.
It was once an antique trading spot after the 1911 revolution and in the 1950s, shops were turned into residential homes. In 2007, the street was redeveloped to become a tourist spot showcasing classic architecture and different stores of clothing, costumes and accessories, crafts, potteries, badges and other souvenirs.
Restaurants in Skewed Tobacco Pouch Street offers traditional Chinese food such as roasted lamb which can be found in Master Ji restaurant, a traditional Beijing snack called stewed pork liver of Master Yao, Mr. Wang’s baked wheaten cake with donkey meat and Master Hou’s wonton.
Snacks from other regions can also be enjoyed here. Taiwan snacks, Thai food, Korean delicacies as well as western food are offered by some restaurants.
How to get there:
- You can take the Subway Line 8 to go to Shichahai. Alight to Exit 2 and then walk for 1 minute heading west. Turn to the north direction and after walking for 5 minutes, you will reach your destination.
- For the bus route, you can take Bus 5, 60, 82, 107, 124 or 635 to go to Gu Lou Stop. From that stop, walk for 5 minutes heading north to go Skewed Tobacco Pouch Street.
3. Mao’er Hutong
Located in the northwest of Dongcheng District, the Mao’er Hutong is a 585 meters long and 7 meters wide alley which is famous for traditional local food and ancient Beijing features.
Wan Rong, the last empress of China has also lived here as well as the Northern Warlord Feng Guozhang and General Hong Chengchou of the Ming Dynasty.
If you are interested to explore the flavors of old Beijing, you should go to Mao’er Hutong. The street also offers various courtyards, residences that are brickworks with red lanterns and couplets. There are plants and trees in the alley that provide shade for people tired of walking. During summer, you can see old people chatting under the trees, children playing different games, and neighbors outwitting themselves in a game of chess. A true sample of a contented and simple community.
The mansion of Wan Rong in Mao’er Hutong was her home from childhood. She only left the alley when she was married into the royal family. The Wan Rong Garden is located in Courtyard No. 35. It has three yards, a moon gate and a bamboo forest. The garden looks like a traditional Suzhou garden.
The empress’ house is located in Courtyard No. 37 which has four yards. The first yard is composed of seven rooms and a corridor while the second yard has a gate with an old floral-pendant. In the third yard, wherein there are many flowers and plants growing, is where Wan Rong lived.
Another tourist spot in Mao’er Hutong is the Keyuan Garden which was built in 1861. It has a length of 97 meters and a width of 26 meters. It was owned by a scholar in the Qing Dynasty, Wen Yu. The garden has two yards which were connected by a gallery.
To construct the garden, grey imbrex, brick walls without plaster, was used. The Suzhou-style patterns were applied as decorations to the beams. There are also different pools, rocks and plants found in the garden. It is a representative of the famous Beijing private gardens of the Qing Dynasty.
How to get there:
- Tourists can take the bus as follows:
- Bus 60, 82, 107, or 124 to get off at Di’anmen Wai Station
- Bus 3, 13, 42, 60, 118, 612, or 701 to get off at Di’anmen East Station
- Bus 5, 60, 82, 107, 124, or 635 to get off at Drum Tower Station
- You can also take the subway (Line 8) and get out from Exit C of Shichahai station. Your destination is at the east side of the street.
4. Guozijian Street
The only street in Beijing that was able to preserve traditional arches, Gousijian street is located in the west side of Yonghe Temple of Dongcheng District. It measures 669 meters long and 11 meters wide. It is famous for ancient layout and architectures of Beijing, genuine native lifestyle, the Temple of Confucius, and the Imperial Academy or Gouzijian.
During the Qing Dynasty, it was known as Chengxian Street. But in 1965, it was renamed to Gouzijian Street. Many of the buildings in this street have low and neat courtyards that have grey walls and tiles. The gates have black bricks and are painted red. You can see many hanging bird cages along the alley which is very typical in the ancient Beijing. Shading the street are locust trees growing along the roadside.
There are four arches standing here in Gouzijian Street. The arches in the western and the eastern ends both have plaques. These plaques are carved and colored using the Chinese characters Cheng Xian Jie. The other two arches are standing on each side of the Guozijian’s gate and bear the Chinese characters Guo Zi Jian. These archers serve as the street’s barriers between the noise of traffic and people outside and the silence and pleasantry inside.
The symbolic cultural remains Gouzijian and Temple of Confucius are found in this alley. Guozijian is the last remaining state-run college originating from China’s distant past. It was established in 1306 as the supreme administrative headquarters of education. The Temple of Confucius on the other hand is where the people go to whenever they want to pay homage to Confucius (founder of Confucianism and private schools in China).
How to get there:
- You can go to Guozijian Street by taking the Subway Line 2 or 5. You need to get off at the Yonghe Station and walk south from Exit D.
- Buses that can take you to this street are 13 or 684 (Guizijian Station), 13, 116, 117 or 684 (Yonghe Temple Station), and 104, 108, 113, 124 or Te 11 (Andingmen Inner Station).
5. Liulichang Cultural Street
Visiting Liulichang Cultural Street is a must if you’re a fan of curios, calligraphy and artworks like paintings. The street’s name meaning is the Colored Glaze Factory Culture Street.
Located in the Xicheng District, south of the Peace Gate, this old street one bore a colored glaze factory in production during the Yuan Dynasty and the Ming Dynasty. The factory produced glazed tiles used in the construction of palaces, temples and houses of the high-rank officials. As time progressed, the factory was replaced by stalls that sell paintings, curios, calligraphy, and books. The four treasures of study, namely writing brush, ink stick, ink slab, and paper are also sold on this street.
The most famous shops in the area are the Rongbaoshai and China Bookshop. The former was built in the early period of the Qing Dynasty, and now offers genuine calligraphy and paintings made by modern as well as ancient artists in China. They also boast their expert copy technique – a method that makes the products almost indistinguishable from the original. China Bookshop, on the other hand, is famous for its block-printed editions and hand-copied books of the prehistoric times.
Opened in 1997, the Guanfu Classic Art Museum was the first private museum in China. Among the rare items that can be found in the museum are the 50 porcelains that originated from the Ming Dynasty, carpets, furniture, costumes and other antique materials from the Ming and Qing Dynasties.
One event that you should not miss in Liulichang Cultural Street is the performance of Beijing Opera. This alley is often selected to be the location of the opera wherein opera superstars such as Mei Lanfang performs.
In the southern part of the street are Changdian and Haiwangcun Park. Changdian is where a large temple fair held for 16 days of the Spring Festival took place during the Ming Dynasty. The characteristic festival was still carried out until the end of the Qing Dynasty. A famous spot in Changdian is the Haiwangcun Park. It was built in 1917 and since then, it became the center of bazaar the busiest area of Changdian. Trading of different materials was done in the park.
How to get there:
- You can ride the subway (Line 2), take the Exit D1 or D2 in Hepingmen Station, and walk for 550 meters to the south.
- The buses that can take you to Liulichang Station are bus 7, 14, 15, 66 and 70.
6. Jinyu Hutong
Also known as the Goldfish Hutong, Jinyu Hutong is a 567 meters long alley that is quite different from the other hutongs in Beijing. The reason is that it is a busy modern street. It has no old courtyards but high-rise buildings instead. There is also no flagstone road, only an asphalt road.
The residence of a scholar in the Qing Dynasty named Na Tong, Dong’an Market, and Jixiang Theater used to be located in this alley. But as time passed by, old constructions were replaced by shopping malls and five-star hotels.
One of the famous shopping malls in the area is the Sun Dong An Plaza or Bejing APM. It was erected in 1998 replacing the first comprehensive mall in Beijing, the Dong’an Market, which was the birthplace of the well-known brand Dong Lai Shun.
Jixiang Theater used to be located beside the Dong’an Market. It is where local people gather to enjoy Beijing opera and movies. The theater is now located on the 8th floor of the Intime Lotte Department Store.
Na Tong’s residence which has over 300 rooms in total designed with an exquisite and elegant layout, was replaced by a 4-star hotel, the Novotel Peace Hotel.
How to get there:
- Line 5 of the subway can take you to Dengshikou station. From here, you can walk south from Exit A.
- Buses that can bring you to Sun Dong An Plaza Station are 103, 104, 140, Te 11 and Sightseeing Bus Line 2. While bus 106, 108, 110, 111, 116, 128 or 684 can bring you to Mishi Street Station.
7. Dongjiaomin Lane – The longest Hutong in Beijing
This lane, together with Xijiaomin Lane, has a length of 3 kilometers. These two lanes were previously known as one lane, called Jiangmi Lane which was titled as the longest hutong in Beijing.
It was in Yuan Dynasty when Jiangmi Lane was named. It is where the Customs offices were built. During the Ming Dynasty, Jiangmi Lane was partitioned to Dingjiangmi and Xijiangmi lanes. The important offices built in Dongjiangmi Lane were the Ministry of Rites, Court of State Ceremonial, and Huitong Hall. The ministry and the court were state offices. The hall was used as the reception for foreign diplomats.
Permanent legations of British, French, Russian and American were established in this alley after the Second Opium War in 1860. Many countries followed thereafter, that is why Dongjiangmi was also called the Legation Street. Though in 1959, legation quarters were transferred to Sanlitun.
The alley still offers the sights of arches and verandas, gates, pillars, and architectural designs of western-styled legation offices of different counties and organizations such as France, Belgium, Italy, Citibank, Specie Bank, and others.
The St. Michael’s Church is located in this alley at the joint with Taijichang Street. It has a large Archangel Michael stature above the gate, has two floors with Gothic architecture, and was built in 1901. Known as the smallest Catholic Church in Beijing, it has an area of 2,656.4 sqm. The material used in its interior was wood while it was marble in the exterior. The windows and walls are made out of customized stained glass while the arched roof has round pillars as support.
How to get there:
- Subway Line 2 can take you to the Qianmen Station or Chongwenmen while Line 5 can also take you to Chongwenmen.
- The buses which will bring you to Dongjiangmi Lane are bus 2, 5, 120, or Sightseeing Bus Line 2 (Tiananmen Square East Station), bus 41, or 60 (Zhengyilu Nankou Station), bus 39, 41, 106, 108, 110, 111, 116, 128 or 6849 (Chongwenmen Inner Station), bus 8, 9, 20, 41, 44, 59, 60, 103, 104, 110, 599, 622 or Te 2 (Chongwenmen West Station).
8. Xiaomin Lane
A very quiet hutong in the current times, Xiaomin Lane used to be the busy “Financial Street of Old Beijing” in the Qing Dynasty up to the 20th century’s end. It used to bear many Chinese-funded banks such as the Continental Bank and the Central Bank Peking Branch.
Constructed in 1924, Continental Bank is a five-story mansion with a western classical design. Its base is made out of large granite blocks. Unique to this building is its red dome as well as the bell tower on the roof which holds a master-slave clock.
Commercial Guarantee Bank of the Beiyang Government is a Sino-foreign joint bank that was established in 1910. The three-story building has brown-glass doors and windows as well as Greek-style granite columns. It was replaced by China Numismatic Museum which displays a huge collection of banknotes and coins from different eras and countries.
A two-story structure that was built with mixed western and Chinese architectural designs, Central Banks was located at the east end of Xijiaomin Lane. Its veranda gate is simple yet elegant while its gallery has an annular balcony with four doorposts.
Another famous bank in this alley is the Daqing Bank of the Qing Dynasty which was established in 1905 and was the oldest bank in Xiajiaomin Lane. Unfortunately, two-story building of the Daqing Bank was destroyed in 1982.
How to get there:
- You can take Subway Line 2 and get off at Qianmen Station. Walk north from Exit C.
- The buses you can ride are:
- Bus 9, 66, or Te 2 to Beijing Gongdianju
- Bus 9, 22, 44, 67, 332, Te 2, Te 4, or Te 7 to Qianmen Xi
9. Ju’er Hutong
Ju’er Hutong is an alley with a 438-meters length and 6-meters width and was named during the Ming Dynasty.
It is where the former residence of Rong Lu can be found. He is a minister of the Qing Dynasty and he used to own courtyards no 3, 5, and 7 in the alley. In 1988, the courtyard no. 3 and 5 were announced as protected monuments of the city.
It was at the end of the 1980s when siheyuans portion of Ju’er Hutong was remolded. This project was able to gain the Habitat Awards from the United Nations. The project restored and improved the traditional courtyard in the alley and avoided the need for the demolition of the ancient but ruined inner-city housing.
10. Bada Hutong
Famously known as the Eight Great Hutongs, Bada Hutong was once the red-light district of Beijing during the Qing Dynasty. There were many brothels in the eight alleys attracting different officials.
The alley’s layout is shaped like a centipede, one large truck joining the side alleys together. The community living in the interlaced lanes are mostly native Beijing people who imitate a very simple and comfortable living environment.
One of the eight alleys measures 245 meters long and 5.7 meters wide. It is known as Cypress or Baishu Alley since the Ming Dynasty. This is the most famous alley in Bada because of the two unique constructions built on it, the Taiping Guild Hall and the Jintai Guild Hall.
Yanzhi Hutong used to hold the cosmetic stores during the Qing Dynasty. That is why it was named Yanzhi which means rouge or blusher.
Hanjia Hutong is where the famous Li Yu, a dramatist in the Qing Dynasty, once lived. The Chinese opera in this alley is very strong and vibrant.
Shaanxi Hutong has a length of 500 meters. There used to be theatres and teahouses in this alley during the ancient times.
Stone Alley has lasted hundreds of years. It was named as Stone Alley but the Ming Dynasty because of the building stones kept in there. Such stones were used in constructing different buildings in the city.
Zongshu Xiejie, Zhujia, and Xiaoli are the last three alleys in Bada which are connected to each other. Lower class brothels were located here, thus, courtyards in these alleys were shabby.
How to get there:
- Taking the Subway Line 7 is possible. You just need to get off at Zhushikou Station and walk west from Exit A.
- You can also ride the bus as follows:
- Bus 5, 48, or 66 (Meishijie Nankou)
- Bus 5, 23, 48, or 57 (Banzhanglu)
- Bus 2, 20, 48, 59, 66, 93, 120, 622, Sightseeing Bus Line 1, Te 7, or Te 11 (Dashilar).