Whether you've just arrived in Beijing or have been around for years, strolling down one of the city's many hutong areas never loses its charm. The quiet narrow lanes nestled inconspicuously between busy outer avenues offer peace and comfort for the meditative recluse. Adventurous-types will select a hutong at random, wandering through its labyrinth paths like a maze. A sense of history and intrigue lines the alleyways, inviting pedestrians to step back through time.
Reconstructed, re-opened, and smoothly re-surfaced, Dongcheng District's Nanluoguxiang is one such hutong. The flood of tasty restaurants, cozy bars, and unique shops that run up and down the hidden street will no doubt remove the lane from the list of "Beijing's Best Kept Secrets". Still, despite the renovations and ongoing grand openings, this area has retained its original essence of an inner-sanctuary. The fact that public toilets outnumber the private ones also add a certain cultural authenticity. If in the area, this hutong is definitely worth wandering around aimlessly, day or night, ohhing and ahhing along the way.
Jmax Jewelry Design (pictured top right)
Starting on the north side of the street you'll find the recently opened Jmax Jewelry Design. This quaint little shop is filled with sparkling treasures, making the accessory-holic feel much like a kid in a candy store. If you're looking for that unique gift for her, you can order pieces custom-made. All designs are made by the shop-keeper and her daughter. When visiting, be sure to say "hello" to their kitty-cat.
The authentic taste of Xinjiang can be found just a few blocks in on the northeast side of the hutong. This restaurant knows how to make a mean set of chuar and stays open late into the night. The chefs are even known to double as caterers and are available to grill at house parties in the surrounding neighborhood.
Designer chic stores
It may not be Melrose Avenue, but the lane can definitely fill a shopping bag or two with designer chic. Several of its small boutiques carry rare "brand-name" and "to-die-for" finds. Well-stocked with quality items, comparable to what's displayed in Sanlitun's Nali mall or Houhai's Yandai Xiejie, every square block has something to offer if in need of retail therapy.
If it's starting to get late and you need a spot to rest, try heading over to Guitar Bar around 8 o'clock any night of the week. One of the hutong's many intimate lounge bars to ganbei, this place offers live music performed by the owners themselves.
If pampering is in order, head on over to Phoenix Tree salon. Their specialty is manicure (20 RMB) and body massage (88 RMB/80 minutes). Centrally positioned in the middle of the tiny road, you may also choose to treat your weary feet. Various styles of foot massage include Traditional Chinese herbal bath (38 RMB/1 hour), Tibetan herbal bath (58 RMB/1 hour), and a moisture replenishing Milk bath (58 RMB/1 hour).
If you've been wondering where all those cool T-shirts you've seen expats sport around Beijing for the last nine months then you've finally found the place. Plastered T-shirts, recently relocated to the middle of the hutong on the west side, is full of comic relief and cheeky flare. Great when gift-shopping for those newly settled or recently departed Beijing friends.
Take a step outside of China and enter the recently opened Mirch Masala. The excellent taste of furnishings match the presentation and zest of the food. Much more affordable than most other Indian restaurants in Beijing, their set lunch allows two three-course options for only 38 RMB. Curry is a great way to warm up in the winter.
For a professional approach to massage, try Bai'ao Health Clinic. The clean white lab coats and anatomy charts on the wall used as dcor provides a feeling of assurance that your qi will be healthier after visiting. Full body massages are 88 RMB/80 minutes. Other treatments include cupping therapy and acupuncture if you're feeling "Roman" while in "Rome".
Zakaka (pictured above) is the perfect place to find that special gift that spells k-i-t-s-c-h-y. Full of toys, dolls, atypical stuffed animals, and other funny-made gadgets and domestic doo-das, this place is not to be missed. Definitely take a moment to checkout the glass cabinet near the cashier and be prepared to swoon over the hand-sewn pair of dogs on display. While they are the storeowner's very own original design, they are unfortunately not for sale, only to admire.
Perhaps one of the best restaurants in the city in terms of menu, quality, experience, value, and ambiance is Drum and Gong. While its seating capacity decreases in the winter, due to the roof terrace being closed, somehow the excellent service staff manages to keep the tables moving and the wait minimal. Be prepared to spend a bit of time pouring over their novel of a menu. It's not at all difficult to order something lip-smackingly delicious and it's common to have trouble choosing between dishes.
Coffee, books and pastry
Rivaling the streets of Paris in terms of caf options, this hutong offers the largest cluster of cozy coffee houses. Java seekers are in paradise, not to mention pastry-lovers (if you like Sculpting In Time's cheesecake then you'll want to head to Xiao Xin's Caf). Each spot offers its own delightful amenities, such as wireless Internet access, nightly film screenings, paperback libraries, and cathartic background music.