Upon hearing the word “hutong,” many expats will automatically think of the areas surrounding Andingmen, Yonghegong, or Gulou Dongdajie. And yet, there’s a quiet stretch of hutongs between Chaoyangmen Neidajie and Dongsishitiao that is also home to authentic siheyuan (courtyard homes), time-honored brands, and lao Beijing restaurants. Dongsi is less developed – but also less gentrified – than its neighbors to the north, making the area ripe for exploration. Dongsi is best seen on foot or by bicycle, with an open mind, lots of time to spare, and a camera on hand. You won’t find many English menus here, so it’s best to brush up on your Mandarin before setting out.
Ease into the day with a dose of culture, courtesy of the National Art Museum of China (1). To get to the museum, take subway Line 5 to Dongsi station (东四地铁站) and get out at exit A. Walk west along Wusi Dajie for about 10 minutes; NAMOC will be on your right. Admission is free, but you’ll have to show a copy of your passport as a form of ID to obtain a ticket.
With 17 exhibition halls spread out over 18,000sqm, you could easily spend the entire day at NAMOC. The main exhibition hall typically features traditional artwork by Chinese artists, including heroic Communist-era paintings, delicate shanshui (literally “mountain and water”) landscapes, and looping calligraphy scrolls. For the most part, abstracts and painting descriptions are in Chinese only.
Once you’ve had your fill of Chinese art, exit the museum and cross Wusi Dajie to pick up some supplies for your own artist-in-residence. There’s a row of art stores offering everything from custom framing to masonite boards. The largest one is called Gehua Baihua (2) and is easily spotted by its red-on-white Chinese sign. You’ll find everything from paintbrushes and paint tubes to plaster busts, origami paper, technical pens, drawing pads, and more.
At this point, you might be feeling a bit peckish. Cross the street again and backtrack east along Wusi Dajie until you reach Meishuguan Dongjie (美术馆东街). Walk north about 80m and take a right on Longfusi Snack Street (3). Like Wangfujing Snack Street, Longfusi has its share of creepy crawlies on a stick, including scorpions, crickets, and starfish. Eschew these novelty snacks in favor of roujiamo (肉夹馍, a Shaanxi snack resembling a mini-burger), lamb skewers, or stir-fried noodles.
After you’ve satisfied your chuan’r craving,walk east along Longfusi Dajie until you reach Dongsi Beidajie (东四北大街), one of the area’s main thoroughfares. A series of narrow lanes branching off this street form the backbone of Dongsi’s hutong network. Running from east to west, they are numbered in ascending order: Dongsi Toutiao (Dongsi First Street), Dongsi Ertiao (Dongsi Second Street), and so forth until Dongsi Shitiao (Dongsi Tenth Street) in the north.
There isn’t much to do from Dongsi Toutiao (东四头条) to Dongsi Santiao (东四三条), but don’t let that stop you from wandering through the hutongs. You’ll glimpse old men playing xiangqi, garlic vendors hawking their wares from flatbed bicycles, old ladies gossiping in the street, and more.
Things get a bit more lively at the western end of Dongsi Sitiao, where you’ll find Chinese restaurants from Yunnan and Shanxi, as well as a couple of Western-style cafes. Near the corner of Dongsi Sitiao and Dongsi Beidajie, you’ll come across venerable Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) pharmacy Yong’antang (4).
Along with Tongrentang, Yong’antang is one of the oldest and most respected pharmacy chains in China. Ask to see their mind-boggling apothecary of TCM ingredients, get the pharmacists to mix up a custom herbal brew, or simply pick up over-the-counter medication for life’s recurrent ills. Though the store keeps regular opening hours, ailing customers can drop by anytime to pick up prescriptions via a window slot.
If you’re hungry, stop by Xian Lao Man (5) on the corner of Dongsi Beidajie and Dongsi Liutiao for some authentic lao Beijing cuisine and some of the best dumplings in the city. There’s a minimum of two liang (两), or five dumplings, per type of filling. For two adults and two children, you’ll probably need about eight liang or 40 dumplings if you don’t order any other dishes. If you like spicy food, Xian Lao Man makes a surprisingly satisfying koushuiji (口水鸡) for RMB 30. The menu is completely in Chinese, and the bill should come up to RMB 100-150 for a family of four.
If you have babies or younger children, it’s worth taking a quick trip across the street to Da Baobei (6). This boutique is packed with cute and affordable clothes for ages 0-5. Most products were unbranded, but some of the pieces looked like factory surplus from Zara and other Western brands. Prices averaged RMB 90-100 for sweaters, RMB 50 for cardigans, and RMB 30 for pajama tops and bottoms.
Just a little further north, you’ll find a shop called Bluehat (7). Don’t be fooled by the name; Bluehat carries products by Kodo Life, the home decoration chain with a flagship store in Nanluogu Xiang. You’ll find the same adorable tea sets, jewelry, canvas bags, vases, flower pots, ceramics, and wooden storage accessories that made the original so popular.
For the last stop of your Dongsi tour, stop by a local laozihao (老字号) or “time-honored” brand Jude Huatian (8). This snack shop is venerated for its lao Beijing desserts, which you can eat on the spot or take away. Kids will love the unhealthy but delicious naiyou zhagao (奶油炸糕), a deep-fried puff pastry dipped in white sugar. At RMB 1.5, it’s easy on the wallet too. There is also twisted mahua (deep-fried twisted dough), ai wowo (glutinous rice balls), and more. After that, getting home is easy as pie; just walk north to the corner of Dongsi Shitiao and Dongsi Beidajie to find Zhangzi Zhonglu (张自忠路) subway station on Line 5.
National Art Museum of China (NAMOC) 中国美术馆
Daily 9am-5pm (last admission at 4pm). 1 Wusi Dajie, Dongcheng District (8403 3500) www.namoc.org 东城区五四大街1号
Gehua Baihua Art Supplies 歌华百花美术用品有限公司
Daily 9am-6pm. 12 Wusi Dajie, Dongcheng District (Art Supplies: 6522 2511, Paper and Stationary: 6523 9483) 东城区五四大街12号
Longfusi Snack Street 隆福寺街
Longfusi Dajie, Dongcheng District
Daily 8.30am-9pm, 24hr window service. 434 Dongsi Beidajie, Dongcheng District (6404 1974) 东城区东四北大街434号
Xian Lao Man 馅老满
Daily 10.30am-10.30pm. 316 Dongsi Beidajie, Dongcheng District (8402 5779) 东城区东四北大街316号
Da Baobei 大宝贝儿童服装
Daily 9am-9pm. 371 Dongsi Beidajie, Dongcheng District (6402 8091, firstname.lastname@example.org) 东城区东四北大街371号
Daily 10am-10pm. 421-1 Dongsi Beidajie, Dongcheng District (6400 2683) 东城区东四北大街421-1号
Jude Huatian Xiaochi Dian 聚德华天小吃店
Daily 6am-9pm. 214 Dongsi Beidajie, Dongcheng District (6202 4587) 东城区东四北大街214号