Here lies the pulse of an ancient era passed: The Legation Quarter is the oldest diplomatic quarter in the city. During the Yuan dynasty, Kublai Khan established canals throughout Beijing. A lot of food, especially grain from the south, was transported here via canals; the area that is now the Legation Quarter was a drop-off point for the Forbidden City. In the mid-19th century, China was defeated in the Second Opium War (1856-1860) and the area was then occupied by the embassies of foreign military powers. Nowadays, strolling along its tranquil tree-lined alleys, you can still see some of these elegant Occidental-style buildings, along with family-friendly museums, galleries and cozy eating spots. It’s time, finally, to shake off the winter chill and take a warm spring day to explore this hidden corner of Beijing.
Parking in this area is limited, so visitors are well advised to travel by subway. From Exit A of Chongwenmen station (Line 5), you will find yourself at the east entrance of Dongjiaomin Xiang, the area’s main street, right between Xinqiao Sapporo Restaurant and Tongren Hospital. Before you embark on your adventure, grab a quick bite at Xinqiao Sapporo Bakery (1). At this “time-honored brand,” enjoy a freshly baked chocolate croissant with cream filling, a crispy napoleon pie, or any number of delicious pastries and desserts.
After satisfying your sweet tooth, walk straight through Dongjiaomin Xiang and you will come across St. Michael’s Cathedral (2), one of the Quarter’s landmarks. Built in 1904 by a French priest, the cathedral was part of the French legation, and it is currently one of the few historic buildings in the Legation Quarter that is still open to the public (on Saturdays only). Its small courtyard is home to some ancient locust trees and fragrant white flowers.
Continue your journey by taking a right at Taijichang Dajie. Head five minutes north and you’ll soon come across a tiny Chinese knot store Yuzhang Chinese Knot (3). Here you will find a range of assorted Chinese knots in a variety of sizes and colors at reasonable prices. There are even small knots shaped like cute animals and kids will love watching the store’s master craftsman create a Chinese knot.
Backtrack to Dongjiaomin Xiang. After taking in the impressive architecture that is the former French legation, as well as the old French post office and Japanese legation, you will find Hongdu Clothing Store (4) on your left, in front of the Dongjiaomin Xiang Hotel. Although not eye-catching at first sight, this store was the first high-class tailored clothing store in China. They have created traditional Chinese tunic suits and qipao for many prominent locals, foreign heads of government, and celebrities, including Mao Zedong and King Sihanouk of Cambodia.
For a hearty lunch, head to Liqun Roast Duck Restaurant (5). It is not easy to find this gem on Beifengxiang Hutong, but it is well worth the effort. Make a left at Zhengyi Lu, head south, then stroll along Caochang Santiao until you see a duck drawing on the wall. This courtyard restaurant specializes in duck, be it roast duck, crispy duck bone with pepper salt, or braised duck gizzards. Other delicacies include homemade egg rolls or sugared tomato slices. Space is limited, so call and reserve a table beforehand.
Walk it all off at the Beijing Police Museum (6). On the first floor, there’s an exhibit detailing the police force’s origins and history in English. The fingerprint forensics section on the second floor is impressive, but beware of the gruesome display of old-fashioned torture devices. There is a collection of over 8,000 police tools and weapons from the Han Dynasty to date on the fourth floor.
Leave the museum and continue along Dongjiaomin Xiang for about 500m, making your way out of the hutong maze. This should bring you to the east side of Tian’anmen Square. The Qianmen area up ahead is chock-full of shopping. Or, wait for the lowering of the flag at Tian’anmen Square. The exact time changes daily, but it is generally between 6 and 7pm. (Visit flag.911cha.com/201303.html for exact times.) Next, go to Chien’men 23 for a post-walk beverage. Previously the American Legation, it has recently been transformed into a high-class dining and entertainment complex. Cross the well-maintained lawn and head to Maison Boulud (7). Led by world-famous Chef Daniel Boulud, the restaurant boasts traditional French cuisine and inspired décor: a Versailles fountain, refined mahogany furnishings, white columns and neoclassical chandeliers. Finish off this decadent meal with ice cream and Madeleines before heading home with your happy, tired brood.
Xinqiao Sapporo Bakery 新桥三宝乐面包店
Daily 7am-9pm. 2 Dongjiao Minxiang (next to Xinqiao Hotel), Dongcheng District (6513 3366) 东城区东交民巷2号新侨饭店旁
St. Michael’s Cathedral 东交民巷天主教堂
Saturday 8am. 13 Dongjiao Minxiang, Dongcheng District (6513 5170) 东城区东交民巷甲13号
Yuzhang Chinese Knot Store 钰章中国结
Daily 1pm-8pm. 18-1 Taijichang Dajie, Dongcheng District (6525 6781) 东城区台基厂大街18-1号
Hongdu Clothing Store 红都服装店
Daily 9am-7pm. 28 Dongjiao Minxiang, Dongcheng District (6512 5057)
Liqun Roast Duck Restaurant 利群烤鸭店
Daily 10am-10pm. 11 Beixiangfeng, Zhengyi Lu (northeast of Qianmen), Dongcheng District (6705 5578) 东城区前门东大街正义路南口北翔凤胡同11号
Beijing Police Museum 北京警察博物馆
RMB 5. Tue-Sun 9am-4pm. 36 Dongjiamin Xiang, Dongcheng District (8522 5018) 东城区东交民巷36号
Maison Boulud 布鲁宫法餐厅
Mon-Fri 11.30am-2pm, 6-10pm; Sat-Sun (brunch) 11am-4pm, 6-10pm. Chien’men 23, 23 Qianmen Dongdajie, Dongcheng District (6559 9200) 东城区前门东大街23号
photo by Lova