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Asia travel

Below-the-radar Beijing: places to see, eat and drink that most tourists don’t get to

An alternative to 798 Art District, a place to satisfy your Cantonese food cravings, a rooftop restaurant you can actually get a table at, some obscure bars - try something new on your next trip to China’s capital

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 June, 2016, 1:00pm
UPDATED : Monday, 27 June, 2016, 2:15pm

The rivalry between Beijing and Shanghai dates back decades – competition for the title of China’s most cosmopolitan city, however, remains to be settled.

Ask anyone who has visited Shanghai, and they’re likely to talk about art, fashion and food that can match Hong Kong, Tokyo or London. But many Beijingers say life in Shanghai is hedonistic, and point out that the Chinese capital is a confluence of history and modern culture – you can marvel at the colossal architecture of the Ming and Qing dynasties by daytime, indulge in fine dining at a centuries-old temple-turned-restaurant and stumble the night away at hole-in-the-wall bars in the city’s traditional hutong neighbourhoods.

In this digital age, when nothing remains truly hidden any more, we navigated the city to find some of Beijing’s veiled venues: places that don’t feature prominently in guidebooks, or which prefer to remain low-key, at least for now. We asked people in Beijing to tell us some of the capital’s best-kept secrets.

Art mart

From Ai Weiwei to Yoko Ono, Beijing’s 798 Art District has been the place to see contemporary art in Beijing in recent years. The former industrial complex, now dotted with galleries, high-end stores and cafes, is the product of the area’s gentrification, and listed on every tourist map. Less well known is the Today Art Museum in the Pingod Community complex in Shuangjing, an up-and-coming residential area in between Guomao in the central business district and the Panjiayuan flea market on subway Line 10.

The museum is one of the few privately owned establishments in the city exhibiting contemporary Chinese art. The area is also home to smaller art galleries and a cluster of boutique stores selling anything from vintage outfits to wedding gowns and exclusive eyewear.

Cafes and restaurants line a stone-paved alleyway behind the Pingod Community. Nearby, young Beijingers can be seen submerged in fashion photography or shooting a short film.

There are several good places to unwind: dine among locals at Feed You for Love, get your caffeine fix at Unconditional Love or grab a burger and beer at Plan B.

Pingod Community, 32 Baiziwan Road, Chaoyang district, Beijing

Southern flavours

Beijing is known for its Peking duck, but the city is a melting pot of cuisines from across China. It’s unlikely, though, that you’d end up at Chaoshan Congee unless some recommended it.

The quiet, diner-like Cantonese restaurant, sandwiched between public toilets and a noodle cafe near the Dengshikou subway station and also known as Guo’s Place, is unassuming but serves scrumptious southern Chinese dishes. From pork belly, pork knuckles and roasted duck to preserved duck eggs and congee, the place is a popular brunch spot fro Beijingers.

Chaoshan Congee, 69 Ganmian Hutong, Dongcheng district, Beijing +86 10 8511 1004

Afternoon delight

Tucked away in a sleepy hutong alleyway, the Shuimoxuan teahouse is a perfect escape from the cacophony of the capital. Its glass entrance is in a narrow passage between two houses. Ring the bell and someone will let you in.

The teahouse’s interior fuses modern minimalism with traditional hutong home styling. Shuimoxuan offers tea dating back to 1992 from Yunnan province in southwest China, and every sip helps you forget about the world outside.

You can spend hours brewing tea and eating desserts such as green bean cake and daifuku strawberry. A tea session plus a selection of three desserts costs 240 yuan (HK$ 284). Reservations are recommended.

Shuimoxuan, 25 Dong Si Shiyi Tiao, Dongcheng district, Beijing, +86 10 8403 8229

Rooftop sunsets

When the air pollution drops and there’s an evening breeze, most of Beijing’s rooftop restaurants are packed with diners. However, Chilli Crush is an exception.

Take the first right at Fangjia hutong, near Beijing’s Lama Temple, then turn right again. The resident pup and pig at the restaurant’s entrance will greet you.

While there are two seating areas, pick the rooftop for a game of pool and views of the traditional quarters that surround the restaurant. Try the glass noodles and lamb skewers for 8 yuan each, or a bowl of spicy fries (20 yuan) with home-made green lemon tea with honey 38 yuan. Alternatively, you could go for the traditional hot pot (168 yuan) and wash it down with a bottle of Yanjing beer (12 yuan) while you enjoy the sunset. Chilli Crush is one of Beijing’s many LGBT-friendly restaurants.

Chilli Crush, 22 Qingtanju, Fangjia hutong, Dongcheng district, Beijing, +86 10 6401 9543

Swordplay and mead

This is one of Beijing’s wackiest bars. With armouries that look like they belong in the Roman empire, or Game of Thrones, you can live out your knight fantasy at what’s as much a costume store as a bar.

The cramped space holds a few tables and serves mead (38 yuan), fittingly named Legends of Vikings and Glory of Rome. The bar is a personal project of the owner – he designs and makes the costumes along with a group of fellow enthusiasts. Strike up a conversation and he may invite you to a sword fight outside the bar.

If you prefer modernity to the medieval, try The Tiki Bungalow, right next door to the pub, for innovative cocktails and takeaway food. Happy hour drinks start at 35 yuan.

The Brotherhood of Huben Knights, 34 Jiaodaokou Bei Santiao, dongcheng District, Beijing, +86 13 6411 11949

Out of sight

In the daytime Sanlitun is packed with shoppers, and weekend nights belong to raucous expats, tourists and locals jamming overly commercial bars – best avoided. But there are also bars like Revolution (33 Sanlitun Xijie, Chaoyang district, Beijing), a small space , tucked in an alleyway adjacent to the shopping area, plastered with posters from the Cultural Revolution.

For the more adventurous there is the Hidden House just a few metres away (39 Xindong Lu, Chaoyang district, Beijing). Housed in a four-storey apartment complex, alongside a tailor’s shop, there are no signs that give away its presence. When you enter Hidden House you see nothing but a bookshelf – until you press a switch that gives you access to a dimly lit bar with mellow music where you can have a conversation over some one of the best cocktails in the city. Green forest (70 yuan), a fusion of kiwi and vodka, is highly recommended.

Nanluoguxiang, one of Beijing’s best-kept hutongs, is so overcrowded that officials have banned tour groups from the area. The food stalls and souvenir shops catering to tourists, and the the thousands of visitors it receives, make Nanluoguxiang one of the few places in Beijing to avoid. One place there that is worth a visit is 69 Café, a tiny music joint that can easily be missed amid the commotion. It’s worth the trek to this tourist trap on a weekend evening.

A collage of posters and memorabilia, and the vinyl records and VHS video tapes hanging from its walls, give the place a nostalgic feel. While weekdays are reserved for different activities, including movie nights, the place is best known for its acoustic music sessions at weekends. It’s a good way to listen to local singer-songwriters singing covers of classics and original tunes.

Where to stay

Beijing offers a wide range of accommodation, from the Four Seasons and the W Hotel to boutique hotels and backpacker hostels. We’ve picked three options:

Hotel Éclat Beijing, No. 9, DongDaQiao Road, Chaoyang district, Beijing 100020; Tel: +86 10 8561 2888.

Red Wall Garden Boutique Hotel, 41 Shijia Hutong, Dongcheng district, Beijing 100010. Tel: +86 10 5169 2222.

Chinese Box Courtyard Hostel, No. 52 Xisibei 2 Tiao Hutong, Xicheng district, Beijing 100035. Tel: +86 10 6618 6768.