Whether its fashion, temples, hutongs (narrow streets), or the outdoors you seek, Beijing's many diverse neighborhoods have centuries worth of history and personality to keep you occupied. Use this guide to plot your stops through the most popular areas of the city.
With almost 600 years of history, Qianmen is central, convenient, and walkable. Here you can see the sunrise in Jianshan Park and watch the morning light slowly wake up the Forbidden City. Close to Tiananmen Square and the Temple of Heaven, the heart of the neighborhood is the large Qianmen Pedestrian Street. Qianmen combines Qing Dynasty architecture (like Tiananmen’s gatehouse) with stores of international clothing brands, beautiful hutongs with hidden bookstores and courthouses, Peking Duck joints, and street food galore.
Late nights, a live music scene, hipsters, and hutongs are all part of Gulou’s M.O. For nightlife, head to Nanluoguxiang Street, one of Beijing’s most popular bar streets, or go to Temple Bar to hear local music. See stand-up comedy or bands at Hot Cat Club, sip a cup of coffee at Silence Coffee (policy and namesake in one), or bump elbows with locals eating Tanhua lamb streetside. Take a rickshaw ride through its government-preserved hutongs, then to the Drum and Bell towers to learn more about ancient Chinese timekeeping. Boat on Houhai Lake in the summer or ice skate it in winter.
Go here if you like eating and drinking things in tall, fancy buildings. Atmosphere Bar and Migas Mercado are solid choices for cocktails and sweeping views of Beijing. While the Central Business District is the pulse of international trade in the city, it also contains history and intrigue beneath its giant boxer shorts (the nickname for the CCTV headquarters building), most notably at the ancient Ritan Park (open 24 hours), home to the Temple of the Sun. You can also train at a paleo gym, peruse a silk market, wander through art museums, or get a facial that even Empress Dowager Cixi would envy.
Welcome to Sanlitun, the international party and shopping center of Beijing. Check out the Dirty Bar Street, the impetus of the Beijing nightlife scene, and enjoy craft beer, cocktails, and dancing throughout the neighborhood. Shop at the world’s largest Adidas store, and find other name brands at Taikoo Li (or head to Yashow Market to buy cheap knockoffs). Go clubbing in the Workers Stadium or see a Beijing Guoan FC soccer game. Eat a delicious, healthy meal at Moko Bros, then go to the two-story Bookworm for literary talks and English-language books. Finally, feel like a movie star and pose for amateur paparazzi outside Taikoo Lu.
Bar hopping on a budget, loads of national and international students, and tech companies make up this Beijing hood. Here you can find Mexican grub, pizza, Japanese food, and loads of other international fare, especially Korean, as Wudaokou claims the title of Beijing’s “Koreatown.” Wudaokou contain China’s best and brightest (Peking and Tsinghua Universities are located here), and the ruins of the Old Summer Palace, worth a visit around and far less crowded than Wudaokou’s streets. Take advantage of the area’s many cheap drink specials and plethora of karaoke bars afterwards to tipsily belt out your favorite tunes.
798 Art District
Giant red and teal sculptures stand amidst alleyways of street art and rusty surrealism in former military factories. 798 houses art galleries, exhibition halls, and works by international and Chinese artists (this used to be Ai Weiwei’s stomping grounds). Many artists live and work in the area. Check out UCCA Center for Contemporary Art and 798 Space Gallery for two of the area’s staple galleries, or explore one of the many smaller galleries, cafes, restaurants, or shops to scope out some funky jewelry or a sumptuous brunch.
Made for shopaholics and adventurous foodies, Wangfujing boasts the largest Apple store in Asia, several malls, and snacks like scorpions on a stick to keep your energy up. It’s centrally located, well connected by public transport, and close to major landmarks like the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. Cruise the infamous Wangfujing Snack Street to sample food from all over China, like stinky Hunan tofu or delicacies like centipede or grasshopper. Shop for Chinese handicrafts at Gongmei Mansion, or for name brands, go to Beijing APM, one of the city’s largest malls.
Xisi is known for its independent restaurants, good coffee, and the longest hutong in Beijing (Lingjing Hutong), but it's also home to some pretty significant sites: the Gothic-style Cathedral of Our Savior and Guangji Temple, a national Buddhist Monastery. Both have been through tragedy (rebellion and fire) but have survived and remain active religious sites. For something on a lighter note, check out Bear Brew (a gay-friendly coffee shop) or stroll through Wan Song Laoren Tower, a pagoda with surrounding gardens.
Both the Lama and Confucius Temples are located in Yonghegong, where you can learn about Tibetan Buddhism and Confucianism respectively. Hike from the Lama Temple on a moderate trail to Nanluoguxiang Hutong, and enjoy the sounds of chanting monks and the wafting scents of incense along the way. North of the Confucius Temple, meander through Wudaoying Hutong to see colorful, restored hutongs and ubiquitous bird cages. Sign up for a class at the Culture Yard to learn Chinese or about aspects of Chinese culture. Afterwards, make your own feast on Ghost Street (Gui Jie) where you’ll have your pick of more than 100 different Chinese restaurants.
Here you’ll find lakes aplenty and be closer to the Summer Palace than in other central neighborhoods in Beijing. Go for a picnic by the Shichahai Lakes, or rent a boat. Later, venture into one of the 10 temples in the area or check out marine life at the aquarium. Musicians love Xinjiekou South Street for the extensive selection of instruments sold there. And in the evening, you can see some live music, as many of the cafes host singer songwriters or bands.