Take this two-hour stroll to find beautiful temples, chic boutiques and a few surprises along picturesque alleyways.
1 Wuyutai Tea Shop
Start at exit C of Yonghegong subway station (Lines 2 and 5). Cross the road and head left – you’ll find Wuyutai Tea Shop (open 8.30am-9pm daily) on your right. Reputedly established in 1887, this 190-store chain is ubiquitous across the city. What makes this tea house stand out from the others, however, is the surprisingly tasty green and jasmine tea soft-serve ice creams (6RMB) sold from the adjoining, street-facing booth – a perfect pre-hunt power-up.
As well as the ice cream, the booth also sells three flavours of hot tea – name one of them.
2 Lama Temple
Cross back over the street and continue walking south until you hit the entrance to the Lama Temple (open 9am-4.30pm daily) on your left. It was originally built in 1694 as the official residence of Prince Yin Zhen and became a monastery when he was anointed as Emperor Yongzheng in 1723.
Walk straight ahead, past the ticket booths on your left, to the hut selling English-language audio guides – how much is it to rent the know-it-all headphones?
If you have time,enter the temple (25RMB) to explore the hidden treasures within its grounds, including saucy statues of Tibetan gods getting it on with human ladies, and a sandalwood statue of the Maitreya Buddha which, at 26 metres tall, is in the Guinness World Records as the largest carving made from a single piece of wood.
3 Samantha Crafts
Leave the temple from whence you came and head left on Yonghegong Dajie. Cross the road and turn right down Fangjia Hutong. Continue until you see Samantha Crafts (open 9.30am-1pm and 2-6pm Mon-Fri; weekend opening times vary) on your left. This darling, broom cupboard-sized emporium sells materials for crochet and knitting enthusiasts, as well as the fruits of the eponymous owner’s stitching – including ornate garments and cute cuddly toys.
But which knitted fairy-tale heroine – a favourite of the proprietor’s – is perennially displayed in the bay window?
4 Fancy Massage and Nails
Leave the shop and head left for just a few metres until you come to Fancy Massage and Nails (open 10.30am-10.30pm daily) on your right (opposite the 46 Fangjia Hutong complex). Body massages are offered in its three private treatment rooms (60-minute body massage 118RMB), but the appeal here lies with the manicures (68RMB) and foot massages (88RMB for 60 minutes) given in its bright and airy siheyuanspace.
How many comfy armchairs are in the courtyard?
5 Confucius Temple
Keep going west and take your first right (Gongyi Xiang). Continue until you hit Guozijian Jie. Turn right and walk eastwards until you arrive at the entrance to The Confucius Temple (open 8.30am-5pm daily) on your left (ignore the first entrance you come across – it’s for tour groups only). You don’t have to pay the entrance fee (30RMB; open 8.30am-5pm) to be able to answer the question; be cheeky and poke your head through the gate to peer at the statue of Confucius in the distance (in front of Dacheng Gate).
What is the famed family man doing with his hands?
6 Songtang Museum
Carry on eastwards and look out for the barely signposted Songtang Museum (open 9am-6pm daily) – a tiny, ramshackle courtyard full of offi ces housing myriad fortune tellers, TCM practitioners and a couple of small museums. The entrance fee of 50RMB each for the porcelain and art museums – the latter is more of an exhibition of traditional stone tablets and woodwork – is a bit steep, especially considering a reflexologist with an offi ce in the courtyard claims to be able to identify any diseases you have, from touching your hand alone, for less than that.
According to the sign on the door, exactly how much does this miracle, bargain-basement diagnosis cost?
7 Chez Gérard Boucherie Francaise
Turn around and go back down Guozijian Jie the way you came until you hit Jianchang Hutong. Turn right at the hutong and walk until you hit Chez Gérard Boucherie Francaise (open 10am-10.30pm Sun-Thur; 10am-11.30pm Fri-Sat) on your right. This imported goods store is frequently packed with nearby residents – proof that hipsters can’t live on absinthe and paninis alone. The fact that the imported cheeses, meats and hard-to-get foreign produce are messily stacked in the kind of dingy, small corner store you’d usually pick up your sweet tea, Oreos and cheap cigarettes in only adds to the allure of the place.
Its baguettes are particularly tasty and are some of the cheapest in town – but how much are they?
Keep going up Jianchang Hutong, past The Vine Leaf on your left (see ‘Pit Stops’, below). Just past the crossing with Wudaoying Hutong is Change (open midday-9pm daily) – a swap shop with a hodgepodge of bizarre bric-a-brac. Patrons are encouraged to bring in their unwanted clothes or possessions and barter with the owner – in English or Chinese – for an exchange of goods, money, or a combination of the two that both deem fair. Come in with a circa mid-’90s Norwich City FC rucksack (as one patron clearly had done before we visited), for example, and leave with anything from a mint-condition designer purse to a frayed board game. From vintage style to dog-eared old tat; this madcap thrift shop is a real Aladdin’s cave of possibilities.
Change is a colourful shop – but what colour is its ceiling?
Leave Change and head east along Wudaoying Hutong until you come to Sirena (open 2pm-2am daily) on your right (opposite The Veggie Table). Although it’s decked out like a Greek taverna – all blue mosaics and terracotta tiled floors – Sirena is in fact a cat bar; a refuge for the owner’s many furry friends as much as a drinking spot. We’re not kidding; there are usually more felines than drinkers in this wacky watering hole. The coffees are good (20-35RMB), but the cocktails (martinis 50RMB) are far from purr-fect (sorry, couldn’t resist).
Ask a waiter how many cats they currently have in total.
Rest up and replenish at one of these nearby eateries.
Xianlaoman Dumplings Nearby Mr Shi’s Dumplings may be in all the guidebooks for its unconventional fillings and limelight-seeking owner, but Xianlaoman (open 11am-10pm daily) has been quietly filling locals’ bellies for years with its delectable dumplings. The best part? Enough tasty parcels to fill the hungriest of hunters won’t set you back more than 25RMB (but other dishes on the menu hike the price up considerably). The pork and scallion dish is our carnivorous critics’ choice.
The Vine Leaf
This gastro pub is popular with those with a taste for classic British fare. An offshoot of the wildly popular Vineyard Café, the menu at The Vine Leaf (open 4-11.30pm Mon; 4-11.30pm Wed-Fri; 11.30am-3.15pm and 6-10.15pm Sat and Sun) is decidedly more Anglicised, with staple pub grub on the menu such as fish and chips, cottage pie (both 68RMB) and a custard-covered apple crumble (36RMB). Wash it all down with their brewed-onsite craft ales (25-35RMB) for an authentic taste of Blighty.