Hutongs, the narrow alleys and lanes first laid out during the Yuan dynasty (1268-1364AD), and the siheyuan, traditional courtyard homes that border these leafy streets, define the heart of old Beijing. It is in these ancient neighborhoods that the capital’s distinct culture took shape, as well as where it continues to thrive today. These days, a colorful smattering of boutique shops and cafes have begun to spring up within the hutongs, creating an eclectic fusion of new and old. Thumb through a curated selection of chic garments hand-woven by local designers or enjoy a quiet cup of tea before diving deeper into the hutongs, watching city elders playing Chinese chess and listening to the calls of the neighborhood knife sharpener as he pedals by with his whetstone.
Among the most popular hutong is Nanluoguxiang, a historic hutong alley which has taken on a new life as bustling, avant-garde center of creativity. Local designers and artists have planted their roots in this area, and mixed in with standard souvenir stores you will find a trove of leather crafts, ceramic goods and designer clothing you will be hard-pressed to find elsewhere. For a more peaceful hutong excursion, head to Beiluoguxiang, which sits directly to the north of Nanluoguxiang and is quieter and less gentrified than its southern counterpart. This alley features an assortment of quiet shops, as well as several acclaimed Yunnan restaurants. Baochao Hutong, located closer to the Drum and Bell towers, is similarly low-key, and is the perfect place to stop for coffee or enjoy a relaxing stroll. Though the surface of this Beijing alleyway looks entirely traditional and nondescript at first glance, the hutong is home to many hidden jewels, such as Beijing’s premiere absinthe bar, which features a host of live musicians ranging from jazz ensembles to Mongolian throat singers. Regardless of which of Beijing’s ancient hutongs you choose to wander through, take your time exploring the nooks and crannies- you never know what you’ll find.