This is part two of a three-part article on family-friendly bicycle itineraries in Beijing from our June 2014 issue. For part 1, click here.
- Start point: Zhonglou Vegetable Market north of the Bell Tower (Doufuchi Hutong)
- End point: Huode Zhengjun Temple
- Estimated time to complete: 4-6 hours
- Estimated distance covered: 7km
- Recommended ages: 10 and up or younger if riding in a child’s bike seat
- Recommended time to go: Weekdays. It’s just too crowded on weekends.
A cluster of man-made and idealized lakes range west to northwest of the Forbidden City: Beihai (北海 or “North Lake”), Qianhai (前海 or “Front Lake”), Houhai (后海 or “Back Lake”), and Xihai (西海 or “West Lake”). Of these, Houhai and Qianhai are the most suitable for exploration by bike. Beihai is accessible only on foot, while Xihai lacks the attractions of its easterly sisters. There’s perhaps no more scenic route to cycle in Beijing; in addition to flawless lakeside scenery, this trip also encompasses short jaunts through some of the nearby hutongs.
Begin your trip at Zhonglou Vegetable Market north of the Bell Tower on Doufuchi Hutong (豆腐池胡同). The entrance to the market can be difficult to spot – it’s a large, unassuming doorway accessible by a few steps on the north-facing wall of the hutong. Inside, alongside the grocers selling fruits, nuts, and vegetables, you’ll find a mini-mart with cold drinks and a shaobing vendor (shaobing is a crispy, multi-layered and sesame-encrusted type of flatbread). This is the perfect place to stock up on refreshments for the day ahead.
Unfortunately, the pedestrian area between the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower has been torn up for restoration. Cycle south along Zhonglouwan Hutong (钟楼湾胡同) past the construction works to the north side of the Drum Tower. The daily drumming performances are particularly recommended for kids. Catch one hourly on the half hour.
Leaving the Drum Tower, cycle west along Gulou Dajie (鼓楼大街). Take the first hutong on your left: Dashibei Hutong (大石碑胡同). The entrance is tricky to spot; it’s literally just a gap in the grey hutong walls. Follow the lane as it curves left and eastward.
On your left you’ll find 4corners, a Vietnamese restaurant with multiple dining spaces, including a glass-encased rooftop dining room with views over the nearby hutongs and a small outdoor courtyard space with shade provided by trees and parasols. Depending on when you set out, this makes for either a good lunch or snack location. Split the Chay Summer Roll (RMB 28), a satay-smeared rice wrapper packed full of noodles, tofu, and vegetables, or the Banh Mi Chay (RMB 30), a baguette sandwich stuffed with chive omelet and soft cheese, and served with a spicy dipping sauce. Kids will love the restaurant’s Singh to, a kind of milkshake made with ice, condensed milk, and evaporated milk. Flavors include mango, coconut, and banana (RMB 30).
Leaving the restaurant, turn immediately right and south along Xiaoshibei Hutong (小石碑胡同). Cycle to the end of the laneway, which will pop you out at Yinding Qiao (银锭桥), the bridge that spans the narrows between Houhai and Qianhai. Don’t cross it; instead, turn right again on Houhai Beiyan (后海北沿) and cycle west along the northern shore of Houhai, away from the madding crowds.
About 300m west, you’ll find an outdoor people’s gym, a fine spot to rest, picnic, or play. Child-friendly equipment includes monkey bars and ping pong tables. In front of this dappled area, you’re sure to see the first of many Houhai fishermen dotted along the water’s edge.
Just west of the exercise area is a jetty with pedal and battery boats for rent (open from 9am to midnight daily). Kids are sure to enjoy the battery-powered yellow duck boats, suitable for up to four people (RMB 200 per hour, RMB 600 deposit required).
Continue cycling west to the Former Residence of Soong Ching-ling, wife of Sun Yat-sen, the founder of modern China. On weekends, the picturesque grounds are overrun with brides and beauties out-posing each other – one more reason to take this trip on a weekday! This pleasant shaded area is landscaped to showcase all the classical elements of a Chinese garden; there are also ducks, doves, and pigeons, and a swing set.
Get back on your bicycles, round the northwest corner of the lake. You’ll find Houhai Park (后海公园), another good picnic site. A little further on is the Family Fu’s Teahouse. The original location is currently under restoration, and the family has set up shop 50m further south. Here you’ll find a tranquil and relaxing venue for a tea ceremony. A bottomless pot of new-season longjing served with cookies, nuts, and other traditional snacks starts at RMB 80. Keep an eye out for the Fu family matriarch, who is both endlessly curious about others and fascinating in her own right. She speaks excellent English.
Leaving Fu’s, you can either carry your bike down the steps to the lakefront path (be advised it is narrow and can be crowded) or ride southeast one street back on Yangfang Hutong (羊房胡同). Both routes will bring you onto Houhai Nanyan (后海南沿). When you reach Yinding Qiao again, stay on the south side and turn right immediately at the bridge, and then take the first left onto Yindingqiao Hutong (银锭桥胡同).
On the corner, you’ll find Café De Sofa. Its rooftop terrace affords views of the lake, and the menu has a good selection of child-friendly western food: sandwiches (from RMB 48), pastas (RMB 56), French fries (RMB 32), and sweet and savory waffles (RMB 52). Café De Sofa also has a wide variety of iced teas and coffees (from RMB 26).
Alternatively, to get a pizza pie at the much-vaunted Hutong Pizza, ride south to the t-junction and turn right. As well as the 28 trademark square pizzas on offer, you’ll also find a range of pastas, snacks, deserts and drinks.
Retrace your path back to the lake and head southeast once more. When you reach Lotus Market Marina, either lock up your bikes to enter this pedestrian area on foot, or circumvent it by taking Qianhaixi Dajie (前海西大街) south to Di’anmen Xidajie (地安门西大街). Dismount here, turn left and walk 200m east along the northern side of Di’anmen Xi Dajie, crossing the causeway that separates Qianhai and Beihai.
Once you’ve forded the lake, remount your bicycles and take the next left heading north on Qianhai Nanyan (前海南沿). About 250m along the lake, you’ll cross a humpback bridge and find Huode Zhenjun Temple, or the Fire God Temple on your right. An important Taoist site, it dates from the seventh century AD. The god’s effigies are vibrant and fearsome, surrounded by offerings of fruits and incense, and the English-speaking monks will happily show you and your children how to kowtow respectfully to the impressive statues.
If the fire god and cycle have raised your temperatures, double back over the bridge and find Ailunka Italian Ice Cream Parlor immediately facing you on the southern side. As well as child-friendly strawberry, vanilla, and chocolate, you’ll also find more grown up flavors like pistachio and mandorla. RMB 15 for one scoop, RMB 25 for two.
Zhonglou Vegetable Market 钟楼菜市场
Daily 9am-7pm. Doufuchi Hutong, Dongcheng District 东城区旧鼓楼大街豆腐池胡同洪恩观
Drum Tower 鼓楼
Entrance is RMB 20, or buy tickets to both it and the Bell Tower for RMB 30. Half-price tickets available for students, free for children under 1.2m. Daily 9am-5pm. Gulou Dajie, Dongcheng District 西城区鼓楼大街
Sun-Thu 11am-2am, Fri-Sat 11am-late. 27 Dashibei Hutong (near west end of Yandai Xiejie), Xicheng District (6401 7797) 东城区大石碑胡同27号（烟袋斜街西口附近）
Former Residence of Soong Ching-ling 宋庆龄故居
RMB 20 for adults, RMB 5 for students, free for children under 1.2m. Daily 9am-5.30pm (summer). 46 Houhai Beiyan, Xicheng District 西城区后海北雁46号
Family Fu’s Teahouse 茶家傅茶艺馆
Daily 10:30am-midnight. Houhai Xibei An (northwest side of Houhai, next to Kong Yiji), Xicheng District (6616 0725) 西城区后海的西北
Café De Sofa
Tue-Sun 11am-midnight. 12 Yindingqiao Hutong (south of Yindingqiao Bridge), Xicheng District, Xicheng District (62032905) 西城区西城区银锭桥胡同12号（银锭桥南）
Daily 11am-11pm. 9 Yindingqiao Hutong, Xicheng District (8322 8916) 西城区银锭桥胡同9号
Huode Zhenjun Temple 火德真君庙
Daily 9am-5pm. Qianhai dongyan, Xicheng District 西城区东阳市前海
Ailunka Italian Ice Cream Parlor 爱伦咖意大利手工冰激凌
Daily 11am-11pm. 2 Qianhai Nanyan, Xicheng District (136 0131 0426) 西城区前海南沿2号