The Shichahai lake area of Xicheng district, commonly known as Houhai, has fast become one of the city’s most animated nightlife hotspots. But this lively area is not only a popular destination for young people at night, but also for families seeking relaxation by the peaceful lakeside. There are hordes of shoppers in search of trinkets, winding their way through the hutongs’ maze of charming shops. The Houhai area encompasses three lakes: Xihai, Houhai, and Qianhai. Houhai, the largest and most striking of the three, freezes in the winter, providing a picture-perfect setting for a spot of ice skating. The area merges the traditional with the modern; you’re sure to find plenty to see and do here.
Begin your exploration of Houhai with the Drum and Bell Towers (1), just a 10-minute walk from Guloudajie subway station. At the intersection of Di’anmen Dajie and Di’anmen Xidajie, you’ll spot the Drum Tower. Back in the 1200s, the Drum Tower was home to 24 drums. Each was struck to signify each hour of the day. Currently, the drums are used every half hour between 9-11.30am and 1.30-5pm. Just north of the Drum Tower is the Bell Tower, which contains a 500-year-old bronze bell with 10cm thick walls.
Walk south and keep a lookout for the tall colorful archway of Yandai Xiejie, on the west side of Di’anmen Xidajie. Along Yandai Xiejie on the right is the DIY Craft Workshop (2). Here, you can draw and paint your own arts and crafts. Creative folks can even paint their own jingju (Beijing opera) masks. For the less gifted artists, the friendly English- and Chinese-speaking staff is happy to lend a hand.
Next, continue on to the assortment of souvenir shops that line both sides of Yandai Xiejie. Here, you can find trinkets and handcrafted goods from all corners of the world, such as Tibet, India and Africa. The highlight of this hutong is chocolate art salon Cocoa Ballet (3). It houses a variety of delicious flavored chocolate delights, including coconut and champagne (for the adults). The shop even sells sugar-free chocolates, so you can treat the kids without having to worry about another visit from the tooth fairy. A 50g bag of chocolates will cost you RMB 29.
At the end of Yandai Xiejie, turn left where the path forks and you will find a snack bar, aptly named Churros (4). Refuel here with one of their delicious sweet snacks, which are priced at RMB 15 for a portion of churros and chocolate sauce.
After some mouth-watering churros, check out Yingding Qiao. This white bridge, which is over 500 years old, is always full of traffic, but if you’re quick, it is a great spot for a family photo. To the left of the bridge is Qianhai Lake. Cross the bridge and follow Qianhai lake down until you see the Ice Skate Rental Booth (5). The booth is located on the western edge of the lake. Prices* are RMB 15 with a RMB 30 deposit for three hours of ice skating and ice-bikes are about RMB 20 with a RMB 50 deposit. If you opt for this winter activity, just remember to dress for the occasion as it can get chilly out there.
After working up an appetite, grab a bite at Hutong Pizza (6). To get there, backtrack, traveling north along Qianhai Lake. At Yingding Qiao, turn left and you’ll see a discrete sign for Hutong Pizza – which will tell you to turn right. A few minutes later, you will arrive at Hutong Pizza. This eatery boasts a great variety of pizzas, from the classic cheese and tomato to more Mediterranean flavors. Portions here are generous, and even a small pizza is quite large, so sharing is ideal. Plus, if your group can’t decide on one particular flavor, ask for half and half. Prices range from approximately RMB 38 to RMB 128 depending on size and flavor. There is also a selection of drinks, snacks, and cakes.
If the troop still has energy, consider a bike ride. There are many bicycle shops (7) that have two-wheelers for rent. Check along Qianhai Lake, or directly opposite Houhai Lake. Bicycle rentals start at approximately RMB 10 for one hour. Choose from regular single-seaters or tandem bikes for three people. When you’ve exhausted everyone with a family bike ride, it’s time to head home.
*Note: Prices quoted are last year’s prices.
Drum and Bell Towers 钟鼓楼
Daily 9am-5pm. Drum Tower: RMB 20, RMB 10 (students); Bell Tower: RMB 15, RMB 8 (students); RMB 30 for both. Di’anmen Dajie, Dongcheng District (6401 2674) 东城区地安门大街
DIY Craft Workshop 手工印象
Daily 9.30am-9.30pm 3 Dashibei, Yandai Xiejie, Xicheng District 西城区烟袋斜街大石碑3号
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) 西城区烟袋斜街30号
Daily 9.30am-11.30pm. Yandai Xiejie, Houhai, Xicheng District 西城区烟袋斜街
Ice Skating on Qianhai 什刹海溜冰场
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 (83228916) 西城区银锭胡同9号
Qianhai Lake and Houhai Lake, Xicheng District 西城区前海北沿