The charming hutongs around Houhai and Qianhai Lakes meander through quiet neighbourhoods and parks along the lakeshore. The hutongs, despite being a tourist attraction, are living communities enclosed within a warren-like maze of narrow lanes. You can see residents chatting over a pot of tea on wicker chairs while their songbirds sing their musical tunes. Strolling through the Houhai and Qianhai areas will take you by grand homes, modern cafes and the centuries old Bell and Drum Towers. A thorough exploration of the area will take about 3 hours, though 2 hours will be more than enough time to get a good look and feel for life in the area. While you're there, it's hard to get lost, just walk in any direction and you'll come across a major landmark. There are numerous cafes along the way, drop into any one of them for a drink or a bite to eat. The area across from the north gate of Beihai Park, and where Qianhai Lake meets Houhai Lake has lots of eating and drinking options, any of them make perfect rest stops.
Drum Tower and Bell Tower
The impressive Drum Tower was initially built in AD 1272 during the reign of Kublai Khan. Its drums were beaten at fixed hours to mark the time. Climb up to the top floor for a great bird's-eye view of the surrounding and the urban sprawl beyond. Inside is a collection of enormous Chinese drums on the 2nd floor and a shop selling Tibetan curios on the 1st floor. Good views are also on offer at the striking Bell Tower, which boasts a 63-ton bell that's rung on important occasions like Chinese New Year.
Prince Gong’s Mansion
Built in 1777 by a venal official, this 60,000m² compound was the home of Prince Gong, the last emperor's father. Landscaped with ponds, arched bridges, rock gardens and pavilions, it offers a glimpse into the lifestyles of the rich and famous during the Qing dynasty. In summer, extracts from Peking Operas are occasionally performed outdoors or in the large hall.
Antique Markets Hutong Walk
The hutongs of Liulichang and Dazhalan lie in commercial areas. Poking around the old shops in Liulichang and Dazhalan is one of the area's many attractions. If you decide to buy something, be sure to do some comparative shopping in nearby stores before pulling out your wallet. The Liulichang neighbourhood spreads across both sides of Nanxinhua Jie. Scholars and artists have frequented Liulichang's art shops and bookstores for centuries. Impoverished students from the provinces would sell their books and paintings here to finance their journey home. Nowadays, local merchants also cater to tourists, selling antiques, reproductions and souvenirs. Like the objects for sale, the neighbourhood itself evokes the past since its restoration to its early-20th century appearance.
Walking along Liulichang Xi Jie is like strolling through a living museum; it’s filled with shops selling antiques and antique reproductions like kites, drums, posters from the 1930's, Mao memorabilia, contemporary paintings and more. The most famous emporium is Rongbaozhai, which for years has specialized in supplies for the scholar, gentleman and artist. These include ink stones (shallow basins in which ink blocks are mixed with water), calligraphy brushes, seals, paper and scrolls. The shop's brush sets, lacquer containers and paintings might make good gifts for the folks back home.
A branch of the famous Cathay Bookshop can be found here. On the ground floor is an exhibit of photographs of pre-Revolutionary Beijing, ancient maps, old books and more. The Liulichang Dong Jie runs east to west and is lined with a myriad of antique and imitation antique shops. On offer, running the spectrum from kitsch to truly collectible, are shadow puppets, ceramics, Peking opera masks, Buddha statues, paper lanterns, cloisonné, swords, opium pipes, paintings and more. It's hard to recommend one store over another but Jiguge has a good reputation. If you need a break from antiques have a look round the Tian Fu Teashop where you'll undoubtedly be offered a complimentary cup.
Nestled in the Tiaozhou is the tiny Tiaozhou Hutong Mosque. This quaint mosque is not open to non-Muslims but you may be able to pop your head in for a quick peak. South of the mosque, at the intersection, is a Muslim bakery.
Ruifuxiang, Beijing. East of Liulichang is Dazhalan, a wide pedestrian mall that's bustling with activity. Also known as Dashilanr (pronounced da-shi-lar); this is Beijing's oldest commercial street and is crowded with long-established shops selling clothing, fabric, shoes, Chinese medicine and more. The neighbouring street is also worth exploring. It’s worth looking up while you stroll through it: some of the buildings on Dazhalan have turn-of-the century gables and other architectural accents.
The impressive building, with sloping Chinese roofs, and two statues of mythical beasts outside its entrance, is Tongrentang. Established in 1669, Tongrentang is China's most famous purveyor of traditional Chinese medicine. On the 2nd floor are pharmaceutical ingredients like deer antler and ginseng, the latter often imported from the US. (One package of "President" brand ginseng features a portrait of George Washington). The 3rd floor sells imported medicine and vitamins.
Towards the east-end, on the north side of Dazhalan, is Ruifuxiang, which has been selling silk here since 1893. The fashions are a little stodgy, but the building, with its carved panels of flowers and cranes, is worth admiring. Next door is the gaudy green façade of Yichengzhou Department Store.
Before Liberation, Zhubaoshi Jie, in the east end of Dazhanlan, was Beijing's major theatre district. Today, it's lined with small retailers stocking clothes, shoes, glasses and toys.
In a peppermint-green and white building at 5 Zhubaoshi Jie is the Qianxiangyi. Established in 1840, it's one of the most reputable silk shops in Beijing. The ground floor has a huge selection of bolts that are sold by the metre, while the 2nd floor has shirts, negligees, pajamas and gorgeous tapestries.