The hutongs are Beijing at its best. These narrow alleyways are the city’s oldest streets, and show the capital at both its most traditional and most contemporary – and always at its most atmospheric. Life in the hutongs is lived outside. Washing hangs from windows and locals grow cabbage in flowerpots along the alleys. Breezy autumn days see gentlemen on street corners in drawn-out games of Chinese chess; sticky summer nights are long sessions of local lager and Xinjiang barbecued lamb skewers, eaten street-side perched on tiny plastic stools. Pass through these alleyways and you’ll be bombarded by scents and sounds: the nutty fragrance of chestnuts roasting, the clanking of the tofu maker’s bell announcing his arrival, the slight simmer of tea eggs on a shopkeeper’s window sill.
The oldest hutong dates back to the thirteenth century AD. These ancient streets comprise the core of modern Beijing, providing homes for families and businesses that have been around for centuries. But, at the same time as giving a peek into historic Beijing, these neighbourhoods have become the hotbed of everything indie, alternative and hip. Despite this, in the last decade, some of the hutongs have been levelled and then reimagined into theme-park versions of their former selves. Others are gently gentrifying, with Instagram-friendly cafés and craft breweries popping up next to barbershops that have remained unchanged since the 1980s.
Spend more than a night in Beijing and it’s likely the local firewater, known as baijiu, will pass your lips. The most iconic and pervasive brand in the capital is Erguotou – a small green bottle marked with a star that is synonymous with raucous evenings on the cheap that you won’t remember the next morning, despite the taste lingering in the back of your throat. But not all baijiu is created equal, and the first baijiu bar in Beijing – in fact the world – is here to prove that.
Perched at the end of a small alleyway, Capital Spirits offers Baijiu 101. The intimate space exudes a polished, cosy atmosphere evocative of its hutong setting: distressed concrete and brick walls, antique Chinese stools and a roughly hewn wood bar. Flights of the hard stuff are presented by knowledgeable servers eager to explain the range of expressions or ‘aromas’ to rookies, and with over ten different flights available, you could lose a whole evening ‘educating’ yourself on the nuances of Chinese grain alcohol. Bartenders chat with customers while mixing up concoctions such as the Rambunctious 67, a heady mix of five-spice liqueur and 67-per cent-abv baijiu from Hebei Province, which is then set alight with a baijiu-soaked cinnamon stick and topped with pineapple juice.
The city’s craft brewing scene has gone from being a small yet burgeoning movement to a fully-fledged explosion – a trend that husband-and-wife team Carl Setzer and Liu Fang ignited in 2010 with the founding of Great Leap Brewing. In the last half decade, the brewery has rolled out a trio of astoundingly popular locations and evolved into one of the capital’s most robust brands, but the quaint back-alley original remains their crown jewel.
The quiet courtyard space had ramshackle beginnings, but after multiple facelifts and a whole new tap system, the stylish bar leaves nothing to be desired. Drink in the sun with the floral notes of the signature Honey Ma Gold, a light ale brightened with the tingle of Sichuan peppercorns and local honey from an apiary by the Great Wall. Sezter and his team have built a robust portfolio of brews over the years, experimenting with local ingredients and flavour profiles to great success. Great Leap also increasingly collaborates with other breweries in the region to create one-off specials. A recent partnership with Strong Ale Works in Qingdao gave birth to the golden-amber coloured Great Strong Smoked Ale, made of malt smoked with New Zealand tea-tree wood and Qingdao flower hops.
Once the strip where street vendors gathered to hawk snacks during the nowdemolished Huguo Temple’s monthly fair during the Qing Dynasty, this ancient pedestrianised street offers a plethora of tasty eats – from Old Beijing snacks to soup dumplings.
Outlets of Huguosi Snack Shop litter the city, and a visit to the chain’s flagship location on the eponymous street will school you in the capital’s traditional small bites (Beijing xiaochi), all at bargain prices. Trays of baked pastries and fried dough sticks – not so sweet and often oily, the Beijing way – sit piled high on metal trays behind glass cases. Ai wo wo, steamed sticky rice cakes with a sweet filling, are a nod to the age-old Muslim influence in the city, and douzhi is a challenge: fermented mung bean milk. Sour and stinking of gym socks but dearly loved and drunk with breakfast daily, it’s a challenge to be taken. Boiled tripe, as classic as it is, may not be.
In a city that can hardly claim a glowing track record for sensitive redevelopment – entire neighbourhoods have been razed – Dashilar offers a glimmer of hope. One of the city’s oldest neighbourhoods, the area has been the focus of recent revitalisation efforts with a conscious, human-centred approach. The community plays host every autumn to Beijing Design Week, a citywide festival drawing participants and visitors from around the globe.
Yangmeizhu Xiejie hutong is the gold standard, sprinkled with chic cafés and designcentric boutiques interspersed with local residences. Soloist Coffee exemplifies the city’s growing obsession with all things artisanal and handcrafted. Beans are meticulously sourced and roasted in-house, resulting in some spectacular pour overs, best enjoyed on the rooftop terrace with views of the neighbourhood. Pop into Triple Major, a gorgeous sun-dappled multi-brand boutique showcasing the best of China’s independent designers and a selection of labels from abroad. A few storefronts away, the sleek Ubi Gallery run by Dutchwoman Machtelt Schelling offers unique contemporary jewellery and ceramics from artists around Asia – items you won’t find elsewhere. Grab lunch at The Southern Fish, a casual but impeccably designed eatery serving outstanding renditions of Hunan classics.