The old lanes of the Beijing hutongs, many laid out hundreds of years ago during the Ming and Qing dynasty eras (1368-1912), retain some of the traditional culture and way of life of the past.
Visiting the Beijing hutongs for shopping, dining, and experiencing the street life is a way to get in touch with the everyday people and experience the daily life of people in Beijing.
What Is a Hutong?
A hutong is a lane or alley formed by traditional courtyard compounds lining both sides. These hutongs range from little alleys 40 centimeters wide to streets 10 meters wide.
The compounds that line the lanes and alleys are called "siheyuan" (四合院 sìhéyuàn /srr-her-ywhen/). The word means: 'four joined-together courtyard.' They are old buildings arranged on four sides around a courtyard, and the buildings and the courtyard are enclosed by a wall.
The hutong streets and alleys crisscross with each other and meander in confusing ways. It is fun to walk around in them. See our Recommended Siheyuan Courtyards in Beijing.
Beijing hutongs have a history of more than 700 years. The hutong first appeared in the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368).
The Mongolians captured the Beijing area in 1215, and in 1271 they started to build their Yuan Empire capital called Dadu (大都 Dàdū).
It was recorded that in the Yuan Empire a 36-meter-wide road was called a standard street, a 18-meter-wide one was a small street, and a 9-meter-wide lane was named a hutong (胡同 hùtōng /hoo-tong/ 'haphazardly together').
Perhaps the name describes the haphazard unplanned construction of many of the hutongs. The word hutong originates from the Mongolian word hottog that means 'water well' in Mongolian. In ancient times, villagers dug a well and then lived around it.
In the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1912) empires, the officials and wealthy people built their grand siheyuan compounds close to the Forbidden City of the emperors along hutong lanes that were wide and laid out according to a plan. A good example is the Qiao Family Grand Courtyard. The commoners and poorer people, however, built smaller siheyuan around narrower lanes and alleys, laid out haphazardly on the outskirts of the capital city. See more on Hutong History.
Beijing's hutongs are not only its old network of roads. They represent an important stage in the development and evolution of the capital's history and culture.
The hutongs reflect the culture of the common people, while the Forbidden City, Summer Palace, and the Temple of Heaven are symbols of imperial culture.
Life in the Beijing Hutongs
Beijing's hutongs showcase the traditional daily life of ordinary people in Beijing and give a glimpse of old Beijing.
The narrow and compact hutongs stimulate deep and warm relationships among neighbors. The people meet, chat, eat, and play games such as mahjong in the lanes and public spaces.
Hundreds of residents in a hutong may share the same bathroom, so even while using bathrooms or bathing, they had to live with each other intimately.
The familiarity and closer relationships are what the hutong Beijinger's cherish, and many hope to stay there.
Beijing's hutongs have descriptive names. There were many ways to name a hutong, such as:
- Landmarks (usually temples, city gates, and government organizations), e.g. Guanyinsi Hutong ('Guanyin Temple Alley') and Gongyuan Hutong (Gongyuan was where imperial examinations were held);
- Markets, e.g. Yangshi Hutong ('Sheep Market Alley'), Luomashi Hutong ('Mule and Horse Market Alley'), and Mishi Hutong ('Rice Market Alley');
- Scenery, e.g. Liushu Hutong ('Willow Alley') and Shijinhuyuan Hutong ('Assorted Garden Alley');
- Layout, e.g. Yandai Xie Jie ('Tobacco Pouch Inclined Street') and Jiudaowan Hutong ('Nine Bends Alley');
- Auspiciousness, e.g. Xiqing Hutong ('Happy Alley');
- Notable residents, e.g. Shaguo Liu Hutong (Casserole-Pot Liu was a notable craftsman) and Mengduan Hutong (Meng Duan was a Beijing mayor in the Ming era).
Top Beijing Hutongs You Must Visit
Of all the hutongs connecting the old traditional residential areas in Beijing, there are a handful or two of famous and interesting hutongs that stand out from the rest.
- The longest hutong — Dongxijiaomin Xiang at 6.5 kilometers (4 miles) used to be the diplomatic area after the Second Opium War in 1860.
- The shortest hutong — Yichidajie ('One-Foot Street') is 20 meters (65 feet) long.
- The narrowest hutong — Qianshi ('Coin Market') Hutong is only 0.4 meters (16 inches) wide at its narrowest and used to be a financial exchange, but as banks on both sides of the hutong expanded unchecked, it became the narrowest hutong.
- The widest hutong — Lingjing Hutong's broadest part is 32 meters (104 feet) wide.
- The oldest hutong — Sanmiaojie ('Three Temples Street') Hutong can be dated back to 900 years ago.
- The most tortuous hutong — Jiuwan ('Nine Bends') Hutong is 390 meters long with more than 13 turns!
- The most famous hutongs — Nanluogu Xiang and Yandaixie Street are popular for shopping and eating.
Learn more about the stories behind the hutongs on The Top 10 Hutongs in Beijing.
Top Things to Do in Beijing Hutongs
Beijing's hutongs are the best places to explore the quintessential Beijinger's life and find many authentic hidden delicacies.
Take a Rickshaw
This is a classic way to get an overview of the traditional hutongs in a short time and has been a must-do activity in Beijing for years.
Visit a Local Hutong Family
Join a family in their typical Beijing home for lunch and learn about Chinese cooking and their health philosophies. Become an expert who can tell authentic Chinese cooking from dishes served by best-selling overseas Chinatown restaurants.
Hunt for Hutong Snacks
Authentic local food is often hidden away in small, unremarkable restaurants in the hutongs. Find traditional Beijing beef pie, Beijing roast duck, Beijing traditional yogurt, bingtang hulu (sugar-coated haws on a stick), etc.
- The Top 12 Beijing Street Snacks
- Best Food and Restaurants in Beijing Hutongs
- The Best Cafes in Beijing's Hutongs
Savor Interesting Shopfronts
There are thousands of interesting shops and brand-name stores where you can bargain for trinkets and a variety of interesting items.
Tips for Visiting Hutongs in Beijing
Though the hutongs are public areas and better signposted, there are some things you should pay attention to when visiting…
In the hutongs, you will mostly see common people's courtyard houses. Sightseeing outside is welcome, but do not enter without the owners' permission (many open doors lead to their courtyards).
Plan your time and route well: it is easy to lose track of time and your way in the winding alleys.
A Sample 1-Day Hutong Tour Itinerary
- Morning: explore the ancient buildings in the hutongs (e.g. the Lama Temple and Confucian Temple)
- Afternoon: visit a hutong family, the Drum Tower, and the most famous hutong: Yandaixie Street.
For more details, please see our 1-Day Beijing Hutong Tour.
Tour Beijing's Hutongs with Us
Beijing's hutongs are the carrier of Beijing culture. They are a window on the real Beijing. A local guide will give you more insight into the hutongs' culture and history.
- Half-Day Beijing Life Discovery Hutong Walking Tour
- Beijing Hutong Food Discovery Night Tour
- 1-Day Beijing Hutong Tour
- Our other Beijing tours usually include a visit to a hutong area.
All our tours can be customized according to your needs. Contact us for any inquiries.