In times of old, Qianmen Dajie was famous for its restaurants, shops, street vendors, and performance artists. Though more streamlined and commercialized, the newly reconstructed Qianmen Dajie offers entertainment of a similar flair. Qianmen literally translates to "front gate," and when you see the looming archway that frames the entrance to this bustling street, you’ll know why. Whether the idea of Starbucks and H&M masked in traditional Chinese architecture excites or unnerves you, this bustling area assuages your consumer desires while providing plenty of distractions for kids, including a tram ride and a museum.
Start your day off with a crash course on local history at the Beijing Planning Exhibition Hall (1), located next to the Old Qianmen Railroad Station. (As a side note: The Railroad museum is currently being remodeled, but it’s worth checking out the European architecture juxtaposed with the Qing dynasty replica of Qianmen Dajie.) The third floor of the exhibition hall is entirely dedicated to a miniature model of Beijing, perfect for kids to "ooh and ah" at. If there’s time, head to the fourth floor and catch a flick at the 3-D cinema with its 120° concave screen.The exhibition hall provides an easy way for children to inadvertently get a history lesson, while being entertained by various models and sculptures showcasing Beijing’s rich past and fast-paced future.
Five minutes west from the Exhibition Hall is Qianmen’s front gate, known as Zhengyangmen (2). Walk between the newly revamped gate and the Qianmen archery building (3), called Jian Lou. You can’t go inside the archery building, but its history is impressive. This structure was almost destroyed three times during the Qing dynasty, and yet this massive concrete block has remained standing since its first construction in 1916. Across the road from the archery building is the red, gold and blue-specked arch that frames Qianmen Dajie. Originally built in 1419, the gatehouse is the tallest among all the the gates of Beijing.
Walk through this gate to reach the touristy Qianmen Dajie. The Qianmen tram (4), (dubbed dangdang che by locals for the noise the bell makes), will take you north and south along this shopping mecca. The two electric trams, Qianmen No.1 and Qianmen No.2, are modeled after the original trams that operated 50 years ago. Each dangdang che can accommodate 100 passengers and are equipped with a wheelchair ramp. You can walk the breezy half-mile, but kids will no doubt find the tram more fun. RMB 20 will take you down the boulevard in approximately 10 minutes. Catch the tram at the beginning of the day and start shopping from the south end of the street, or save your trip for the end when your tired legs will no doubt need a rest.
Qianmen Dajie boasts plenty of snacks, both savory and sweet. Before shopping, energize yourself by picking up a few treats. Grow nostalgic (or imaginative) about days of old by picking up some candied haw skewers or tanghulu at any of the snack stands. Your options are not limited to food of the solid kind, however. Zhang Yi Yuan tea house (5) has a fine selection of Chinese teas to choose from. You can sample their selection for free, and assistants will gladly recommend teas for your health, dining or daily drinking needs.
Partake sans guilt in the commercialized spirit of Qianmen and spend a few hours – or as much time as the kids can handle – shopping in various stores. Both H&M and Me&City (6) boast fine selections of childrens’ clothes. Kid sections are located on the second and third floors. If you want to go old-school with your purchases, try a few tried and true Chinese brands. Established in 1853, Neiliansheng is the most famous and historic shoe shop in Beijing. Ruifuxiang Silk Shop, established in 1862, sells luxurious silk (at hefty prices) as well as other colorful fabrics. Aside from stocking up on a new summer wardrobe, there are also kitschy stores that supply anything from chopsticks and house supplies to electronic accessories. Look hard, venture far, and you can find anything around Qianmen Dajie.
When the sun goes down, Qianmen Dajie takes on a new look; lights illuminate storefronts and set a romantic tone. Tourists and locals start to queue up for dinner. Follow the crowds to Quanjude (7), famous for its traditional kaoya, or Beijing duck. For Western options, Element Fresh is located at the north end of the street and has floor-to-ceiling windows, offering a supreme view of the hustle and bustle. Or check out one of the many hot pot joints located in the side streets and alleyways that surround Qianmen Dajie. (If venturing out on a Sunday, try the Capital M brunch, famous for both its views of Tiananmen and its kid-friendly eats.) With so many great places to dine, the hardest decision of the day will be figuring where to rest your weary shopping bags and tuck into a well-deserved meal.
Beijing Planning Exhibition Hall
Tue-Sun, 9am-5pm (last ticket at 4pm). 20 Qianmen Dongdajie (just east of the old railroad station), Chongwen District (6702 4559)
RMB 20, free for children under 1.2m
Zhang Yi Yuan Tea Shop
Daily 8am-8pm. 22 Dazhalan Jie, Xuanwu District (6303 4001)
Daily 10am-10pm. Building A16, Qianmen Dajie, Chongwen District (6706 0508)
Me&City 12 Qianmen Dajie, Chongwen District
NeilianshengDaily 9.30am-8pm. 34 Dazhalan Jie, Xuanwu District (6301 4863, 6304 1068)
Ruifuxiang Daily 9.30am-8.30pm. 5 Dazhalan Jie, Xuanwu District (6303 5313)
Daily 11am-2pm, 4.30-8.30pm. 32 Qianmen Dajie, Chongwen District (6302 3062)
Daily 10am-11pm. A2-111, Qianmen Dajie, Chongwen District (6702 0364)