Located in the center of Beijing, Houhai is known for its traditional hutongs, lively nightlife and of course, its lake of the same name. Houhai is just one of three lakes that make up the larger Shichahai lake area; the other two being Xihai and Qianhai. The three lakes are usually referred to simply as Houhai, undoubtedly the show off of the trio. Despite its reputation for being a nightlife hot spot, one should not overlook Houhai’s natural beauty and historical landmarks, most notably the Drum and Bell Towers. Not to mention the labyrinth of hutongs and the numerous shops selling everything from artisan chocolates to quirky souvenirs. When Houhai lake freezes over, it’s the perfect spot for ice skating outdoors. So brave the winter weather and take a day to explore one of Beijing’s most beautiful hutong districts.
Start your Houhai adventure on Di’anmen Xidajie at Lotus Market (1), located at the south entrance to Qianhai. The entrance is clearly marked by a traditional archway displaying the characters 荷花市场, or Lotus Market. If you don’t read Chinese, look for the large gathering of rickshaw drivers who are eager to take you on a hutong tour around the area. Go straight through the archway and follow it along Lotus Lane. The view of Qianhai lake is magnificent from here, even in the dead of winter. Grab a quick bite at one of the many restaurants that line the path, including Starbucks, Quanjude (famous for it’s Peking duck) or Xiao Wang Fu.
When the path splits into a fork, walk along Qianhai Beiyan until you see an Ice Skate Rental Booth (2), where you can stop for the highlight of the day: ice skating! There are skates, bicycles and two-seater chairs available for hire. The skates will set you back approximately RMB 15 for three hours, plus a deposit of RMB 300, while the carts will cost approximately RMB 20 for the whole day and a RMB 50 deposit.
Next, head to Hutong Pizza (3) to refuel. Walk along Qianhai Beiyan until you see YindingqiaoHutong on your left (before the bridge). Walk straight through the small hutong until you see a large orange sign. Hutong Pizza offers a variety of pizzas, snacks and hot drinks in a cozy setting.
After you’ve sated your hunger, return to the bridge known as Yingding Qiao. It is over 500 years old and marks the divide between Qianhai (northwest) and Houhai (southeast). Cross the bridge and 50m ahead lies Yandai Xiejie (4). This cool hutong has shops selling all kinds of gifts and souvenirs from places such as Tibet and India, as well as a few local brands. Also worth a look is Cocoa Ballet (5), which sells high quality artisan chocolates in a variety of flavors, such as hazelnut, rum, mango and passionfruit. Pick and choose flavors to your heart’s content as prices are calculated by weight (RMB 29 per 50g).
Keep strolling along Yandai Xiejie until you see another archway, and this will take you to Di’anmenwai Dajie. Walk north for less than five minutes and you’ll come across the Drum and Bell Towers (6). Dating back to 1200s, the Drum Tower housed 24 drums, beaten on each hour of the day. Today, the drums are beaten for visitors every half hour between 9-11.30am and 1.30-5pm. To the north of the Drum Tower is the Bell Tower, containing a 500-year-old bronze bell with 10cm thick walls. On a clear day, views from the towers are a photographer’s dream.
Between the towers, there is a courtyard with some nice cafés (and more rickshaw drivers).The appropriately named Drum and Bell Café (7) offers hot drinks and snacks, while the nearby Jianjinjiu bar hosts regular concerts for popular local bands like Hanggai, as well as bilingual workshops on improv performances.
If time permits, walk back to the Drum Tower. Then head east along Gulou Dondajie to Nanluoguxiang (8), where there are plenty more chic shopping and dining options awaiting you. For older kids, or even just Mom and Dad, consider booking tickets to see one of the plays at the independent Penghao Theater (9).
Lotus Market 荷花市场
Di’anmen Xidajie (parallel to Houhai lake), Xicheng District 西城区地安门西大街
57 Di’anmen Dajie, Xicheng District (inside Xichahai Sports school, but take the entrance from Qianhai Xiyan) (66171570/ 6612 8557) 西城区地安门大街57号什刹海体校内
Xiao Wang Fu 小王府
15 Qianhai Beiyan, Xicheng District (6617 5558) 西城区前海北沿15号
Ice Skating on Qianhai
Di’anmen Xidajie (opposite the north gate of Beihai Park), Xicheng District 西城区地安门西大街
Hutong Pizza 胡同比萨
Daily 11am-11pm, 9 Yindingqiao Hutong, Houhai, Xicheng District (8322 8916) 西城区银锭胡同9号
Yandai Xiejie 烟袋斜街
Yandai Xiejie, Houhai, Xicheng District
Cocoa Ballet Chocolate Art Salon 可可芭蕾巧克力艺术沙龙
Daily 11am-11pm. 30 Yandai Xiejie, Xicheng District (133 8137 7712)
Drum and Bell Towers 钟鼓楼
Daily 9am-5pm. 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
Drum and Bell Café 鼓钟咖啡馆
Daily 1pm-2am. Zhonglouwan Hutong, Dongcheng District (8403 3600)东城区钟楼湾胡同41号
Zhongku Hutong, Dongcheng District (8405 0124) 东城区中库胡同2号
Nanluoguxiang, Dongcheng District 东城区南锣鼓巷
Penghao Theater 蓬蒿剧场
35 Dongmianhua Hutong, Nanluoguxiang, Dongcheng District (south gate of the Central Academy of Drama, between Nanluoguxiang and Jiaodaokou Nandajie) (6400 6452/72) 东城区东棉花胡同35号 (中央戏剧学院南门, 南锣鼓巷和交道口南大街之间)