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If you want to see an untouched part of China hidden beneath the glare of modernisation, then visiting hutongs in Beijing is a must-see during your time in the city.
A hutong is a narrow residential alleyway or street which connects to other hutongs to form a neighbourhood of wonderful passageways that provide a window into an old, traditional China.
Historically, the look and layout of hutong would determine social status. Today, many of Beijing’s hutongs have been demolished to make way for the new, modern Beijing but some remain protected to preserve the city’s history.
Where to Find Hutongs in Beijing
Hutongs can be found in central Beijing, surrounding the Forbidden Palace museum, and within the 2nd Ring Road. This includes the areas Qiongdao Island, the Lama Temple and the area accessible from Chaoyangmen station.
I spent a day exploring the cluster of hutongs between the Qianmen and Zhushikou metro stations. The area of the Dashilan Residental District is a 15-minute walk from Tiananmen Square in the north and the Temple of Heaven to the south.
Look on a Google map, and the hutongs are marked with Hu Tong or Aly, typically connecting to the centre of the hutongs. Big blue signs point the way on the main streets (highlighting the hutong neighbourhood name), and red signs on the wall will mark the specific hutong street you are entering.
When you stroll through the tiny lanes, a map isn’t needed (nor would it be that helpful); getting lost is all part of the fun, and as the hutongs are set on a grid system it’s not hard to get back out.
Staying in Hutong Areas
The popular hostels 365 Inn and Three Legged Frog, alongside mid-range hotels like Beijing Taishan Hotel, are located in the same neighbourhood – a great base for easier access to this larger Hutong area.
East of Tiananmen square, stay within a hutong at the Peking Station Hostel, or a few blocks further north, there’s the courtyard Jingshan Garden Hotel. On the northwestern fringes of the Palace, check out the Beijing Yue Bin Ge Courtyard Hotel, located in a historic and scenic hutong area in the Shichahai Neighborhood.
Beijing Hutong Tours
Although tours of the hutongs are available, I chose to explore them without being on a time limit. For those not keen on going alone, there are various hutong tours in the city.
Have a passion for adventure? This two-hour e-bike tour gets you weaving through the ancient hutong streets, stopping for the best street food stops.
Life in a Hutong – Hustle, Bustle and Chaos
Full of traditional courtyard residences (which you obviously can’t enter as people still live here), the hutong streets are buzzing with life. Neighbours engage in loud chatter and play games, street food sizzles, and its smell tempts you closer in. Motorbikes, bicycles, carts and people whiz by trying to undercut each other in a race to get in and out – noise and movement are all around you.
In another street, you will reach calm where an old man sits quietly with his thoughts, a lady does her laundry and hangs it out to dry in the middle of the walkway, and a mother stands peacefully cradling her child in her arms.
Each street differs from the next, making this area a fascinating place to observe and learn.
Neatly arranged, the conditions here remain poorer than in other parts of the city. However, there is still beauty to be found – I especially loved the architecture and doorways; they were simple yet beautiful.
Is a Hutong Safe to Visit?
I never once felt uneasy when visiting a hutong, although I wouldn’t advise walking around them late at night. Some of the outer hutong streets that connect to the main streets in the area have great street food and cheap beer.
The locals will often welcome you for a midnight feast, but I would never advise wandering alone deep within the hutong neighbourhood itself.
Being narrow and slightly hidden away, the hutongs could be the ideal area for opportunists to strike, and with one of my first hostels located right on an outer hutong street, I knew it didn’t feel right to go any further in.
Respect the Hutong Culture
It’s important to remember that hutongs are residential areas, and I felt a territorial atmosphere existed there. Don’t trespass (many doors are open, which lead to courtyards), be discreet and ask permission to take a photo if you have to – don’t treat the locals there as a zoo exhibit.
In some streets, I was even asked to leave (via a waving hand gesture), which I respected. This is a community, a person’s private property and everyday life, meaning you must find a fine line between exploring and being nosy.
I recommend putting a Beijing hutong visit at the top of your sightseeing list. If only walls could talk, I’m sure these streets could tell a million stories of the old Beijing that is slowly disappearing. See it while you can.
Further Information About Hutongs in Beijing
- For a dedicated overview of the Top 10 Hutongs to visit in Beijing, check out this cool list from the My Beijing China site.
- Looking for more local insights? Listen to this Bejing Podcast, which features a chat with a local about what to see and do in the city outside the main sites.
- READ MORE: What to Do in Beijing, which I put together after my time in the city.
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