Beijing is not a walkable city. In fact, it can be fairly hostile to pedestrians. But that doesn’t mean it lacks interesting places to explore by foot. Despite the best efforts of the municipal government and avaricious developers, Beijing still has back lanes and historic sites worth discovering. It just takes a little effort sometimes to see through the grit, grime, and around that huge black SUV/cadre mianzi mobile barreling down the hutong right at you.
Dashilar is named after the large wooden gate which used to control access to this important commercial district of Old Peking. The gate burned in 1899, but the name survives. The area took a hit with the Olympic-era renovations which went the full Disney (Note to the municipal government: Never go the full Disney. Nobody likes the full Disney) but the emergence of lanes such as Yangmeizhu over the past few years has put the district back on the map for hutong wanderers.
History buffs will want to check out the old Beijing stock exchange on Qianmen Xiheyan Jie. Built in 1918, the stock exchange is now a warren of apartments and dwellings but residents (usually) don’t mind if somebody discreetly and quietly peeks inside at the original trading floor. Finally, don’t forget to visit Beijing Postcard’s new Public History space. Located at 97 Yangmeizhu, the space will host history walks, talks, and rotating exhibitions and will also feature a shop.
The Imperial Ancestral Temple (AKA “Working People’s Cultural Palace”) is a beautiful park just east of the Forbidden City main gate. Originally built in 1420, the temple served as a site for rituals venerating past emperors.
Today, it is a something of an oasis of calm in an area better known of its hordes of tourists than peaceful retreats. As a bonus, the architecture of the original temple is similar to that found in the adjacent palace but with 95 percent fewer people sharing the view. On the downside, you may have to endure wedding photographers yelling at you to get out of the background of perfectly posed polyester couple’s wedding photos.
Pro tip: Enter through the East Gate (West side of Nanchizi Dajie, about 400 meters north of Chang’an Boulevard). This avoids the long lines and security checkpoints in Tiananmen Square. Exit through the West Gate to access the main plaza of the Forbidden City for a stress-free approach to the palace or through the South Gate for a queue-free entrance to Tiananmen Square.
Walking Beijing’s Waterways
After several years of renovations, the canal park between Beiheyan (just east of the Nanluogu Xiang Subway Stop) and Qianhai reopened on May 1, 2017. The channels were once part of a system of artificial waterways constructed in the 13th century to supply much-needed liquid to the capital’s moats and canals. Today, the canals are a centerpiece of a park and walking path which winds its way through the center of Beijing. A detour to Great Leap #6 provides a nice pit stops for thirsty pedestrians.
Jeremiah Jenne leads historic walks and educational programs in Bejiing via his company Beijing by Foot.
Photos courtesy of Jeremiah Jenne