Houhai is a picturesque break from the traffic-jammed streets of Beijing. Once home to court officials, Houhai now boasts some of the city’s best-preserved hutongs, as well as a growing number of trendy restaurants. In winter, the frozen lakes provide a wonderful family playground as Beijingers take to the ice wearing hockey pads or sliding across the lake atop a chair. Houhai also offers up quaint shops selling various knickknacks. From here you’re only a stone’s throw away from historical landmarks like the Drum and Bell Towers. So bundle up and explore Houhai’s alleyways, cultural relics, natural ice rink and delectable pizza spots.
Start by taking a taxi to the Drum & Bell Towers (1). The current Drum Tower dates back to 1800 and was used to tell time during the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. The Drum Tower holds 25 drums, beaten for visitors every half-hour between 9-11.30am and 2-5pm. Just north of the Drum Tower is the 300-year-old Bell Tower, which resembles its Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) predecessor and houses a 500-year-old bronze ringer with 10cm-thick walls. On clear days, the Drum and Bell Towers offer stunning views of neighboring hutongs and the bustling
metropolis in the distance.
After you’ve had your fill of these noise-
makers, head southwest to Gulou Xidajie, and walk southeast to Di’anmenwai Dajie. About 100m south down Di’anmenwai Dajie, take a left onto Yandai Xiejie (2), just after the
Yoshinoya restaurant. This shopping street is lined with quaint and quirky boutiques full of trinkets that make excellent souvenirs, including antiques, tea accessories and Tibetan jewelry.
On this shopping strip is Cocoa Ballet (3) – every chocolate lovers’ dream. This store crams a fine selection of sweets into a tiny space. Chocolates can be bought by the piece or in boxes and are the perfect winter indulgence.
Once you’ve satisfied your sweet tooth, continue along Yandai Xiejie for about 300m, until it turns into Ya’er Hutong. Here you’ll find Guanghua Temple (4)¸ a hidden gem among the restless backstreets of Houhai. Dating back to the Yuan dynasty, this temple and monastery is only open to the public on the first and 15th of each lunar month. However, individuals are often permitted to wander the serene courtyards and pavilions of the temple.
By now the kids will be dying to get onto the ice that covers the lake. Head back towards Yandai Xiejie and take a right at the first small alleyway you see, bringing you to the edge of Houhai lake. Walk about 200m until you reach a bridge. This smaller part of the lake is friendlier for skaters, and kids of every age can be found slipping, sliding and laughing, as they attempt to ice-skate (5). To rent your own skates, cross the bridge and continue south along Qianhai Beiyan. You’ll find an ice-skate rental booth where you can chose from skates, bicycles or two-seater chairs that require ski poles or a willing pusher. Skate rentals start from RMB 15 per three hours, with a RMB 300 deposit; carts go for RMB 20 per day, with a RMB 50 deposit. Hockey enthusiasts should head to the southern end of the lake, where multi-colored flags designate a makeshift hockey arena. Though ice conditions vary, local safety inspectors test to make sure it’s safe for skating – only then is it opened to the public with danger zones safely roped off.
When you’re tired of slipping and sliding on the ice, return your skates and head back north along Qianhai Beiyan; take a left at the street next to Nan Men Hotpot (if you reach a bridge, you’ve gone too far). Walk straight about 50m and keep your eyes peeled for the orange signs leading you to Hutong Pizza (6), housed in a beautifully restored traditional hutong,
complete with fishpond. This restaurant’s quaint and cozy atmosphere is just the place to warm up and fill up. The pizzas, which are arguably the best in Beijing, range from RMB 60-120.
After regaining some body heat, head back to the lake for a stroll to work off some of that pizza, or walk to Di’anmen Xidajie and hail a cab to take you safely home.
1) Drum and Bell Towers 钟鼓楼 Daily 9am-5.30pm. Drum Tower: RMB 20, RMB 10 (students); Bell Tower: RMB 15, RMB 8 (students) Di’anmen Dajie, Dongcheng District (6401 2674) 东城区地安门大街
2) Yandai Xiejie 烟袋斜街 Yandai Xiejie, Houhai, Xicheng District 西城区烟袋斜街
3) Cocoa Ballet 可可芭蕾巧克力艺术沙龙 Daily 11am-11pm. 30 Yandai Xiejie, Xicheng District (133 8137 7712) 西城区烟袋斜街30号
4) Guanghua Temple 广化寺 Open on 1st and 15th of lunar month, 8am-5pm. 31 Ya’er Hutong, Xicheng District (6403 5032) 西城区后海鸦儿胡同31号
5) Ice Skating Qianhai. Di’anmen Xidajie, across from the north gate of Beihai Park.
6) Hutong Pizza 胡同比萨 Daily 11am-11pm. 9 Yindingqiao Hutong, Houhai, Xicheng District (8322 8916) 西城区海地银锭桥胡同9号