Beijing's best hole in the wall bars

These cosy watering holes prove size doesn't matter

Photo by Chen Chao
We find it’s not the length of the pumps, it’s what you do with them that counts, at Beijing's best hole-in-the-wall bars.

Gulou’s Ball House is the archetypal hidden bar: it’s almost impossible to find (see listings for directions) and, even as you walk through the distinctive red door, it’s not abundantly clear whether you’ve stumbled into a functioning bar or a squat. The cavernous space more resembles a post-apocalyptic youth club than a trendy Gulou drinking spot – all grubby, mismatched furniture and ramshackle surroundings.

Don’t bring a date, and don’t order a cocktail – our mojito (40RMB) tasted like rum and tap water, with a slice of lemon inexplicably wedged in the glass. Do, however, bring some mates for a night of pool (30RMB per hour) on one of the three top-quality tables – and stick to the bottled beer (Tsingtao 15RMB).

If you want to relax between games, lounge around with the owner’s pet cats on the scatter cushions in one of three small mezzanine rooms that overlook the bar – one of which has a large skylight with an impressive view of the Drum Tower; perfect for those chilled-out night-time conversations.

‘If you like our bar, you’ll love it, otherwise, you won’t give us a second thought.’ Cangku co-owner Van Gao probably hasn’t tried the famously divisive yeast-spread Marmite, but the analogy is pretty apt. This place is a treehouse hideaway for those looking for an alt-community, not just a place to drink. The slightly grimy environs – a charming hodgepodge of rock posters, Hindu iconography and homemade murals – definitely appeals to Gulou’s fixed-gear-riding, Instagram-snapping types.

Gao encourages anyone to come and play on the bar’s small stage. Pick up one of the many instruments-cum-ornaments or just relax with a Tsingtao (15RMB) and meet like-minded individuals. The mezzanine floor upstairs is full of comfy sofas that are divided into private booths by raggedy old curtains – like an inviting, hobo circus tent. If that sounds appealing to you, go join the club house. Just pull up the ladder when you get there.