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Beijing: The road less travelled

| Words by Zoe Crane |

Get off the beaten track with our insiders guide to Beijing

If you are heading to Beijing on your tour of China,we've put together a list of hidden gems. Discover a thriving sub culture often missed by the casual traveller.

For travel hipsters

Beijing National Observatory Thank you to Steve Cadman of Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/stevecadman/

  1. Nanluoguxiang - This bohemian hutong is an ancient street now filled with fun boutiques, cafes and bars. Wander down some of the side streets where many locals shop, eat and drink. You’ll find quirky bars, micro-breweries, hipster outlets, cafes and establishments selling anything from second hand books to local art.
  2. Houhai Lake area – Popular among Beijing’s expats, this lively hutong neighbourhood is filled with funky bars and restaurants. Many of the bars have live bands and outdoor seating around the lake. Go at sunset to try and catch the last of the boats on the lake.
  3. For history buffs

  4. Ancient Observatory - Built in 1442, this is one of the oldest observatories in the world. Predating telescopes, find instead bronzed astronomical instruments with intricate decoration. In the Ming and Qing Dynasties the Emperor was considered the Son of Heaven so astronomical reports were of great importance. Observatories were also used to assist sea navigation at the time.
  5. Lama Temple – Originally an Imperial Palace, the Yonghe Temple became a home for Tibetan Buddhist monks (known as a lamasery) in 1744. Don't miss a visit to “The Pavilion of Infinite Happiness”. It includes a statue carved from a rare sandal tree 26 meters high and eight meters wide.
  6. For culture vultures

    798 Art Zoe Thank you to Alex Goes To Chin http://alexgoestochina.artistspace.com.au

  7. 798 Art Zone – Out of the rubble of a 1950s factory has sprung an avant-garde art space including a bar and restaurant, contemporary art book shop and film and video showing area. Showcasing China’s modern art you’ll find contemporary art exhibitions, multimedia exhibitions, experimental dramas, contemporary dances & concerts, design & furniture exhibitions and cultural evenings.
  8. Red Gate Gallery – Beijing’s first private gallery of contemporary art is beautifully located in a Ming Dynasty Watchtower. Founded in 1991 by Australian Brian Wallace, this gallery is at at the forefront of Chinese contemporary art.
  9. Beihai Park – Next to the Forbidden City, this park is a lovely place to wander during the day to see locals exercising, dancing, singing and generally living life. You can take a boat out on the lake and there’s a charming concert hall which has some excellent classical music performances.
  10. Peking Opera School –Peking Opera requires students to master the arts of singing, acting, dancing, acrobatics and martial arts. Students were originally invited personally by the institutions masters, and entrance to the six year course remains highly competitive. Visiting one of these schools is a fascinating insight into this ancient art, which is slowly fading as China carries on its fast rate of modernisation.
  11. For foodies

    Chinese Cuisine - Insider Journeys Regional cuisine of Beijing

  12. Hutong food tours – Chinese cuisine stretches back thousands of years and typical Beijing cuisine has been influenced by specialties from around the country. Famed especially for its snacks or street food, there is no better way to get a taste for this delicious cuisine than by pounding the pavement. The dazzling array can be confounding though, so it’s best to bring along an expert and take a walking food tour through the hutongs for a myriad of earthly delights.
  13. Cooking in a local home – Tasting China’s tempting cuisine is one thing, but learning to cook it yourself raises your foodie status even higher. For maximum effect, learn to cook it in the home of a local in one of Beijing’s hutongs then enjoy your creations at a delicious lunch.
  14. Maliandao Tea Market – This enormous market is a must for those who take their tea seriously. Find every type of tea imaginable as well as beautiful Chinese tea sets with prices much lower than you’ll find in tourist areas. If you are a tea enthusiast, this experience is worth all the tea in China.
  15. For nature lovers

  16. Nanhaizi Milu Nature Reserve - We found this gem thanks to Mark at Travel Wonders of the World. The highlight of this old Imperial hunting ground, around 15 kms (9 miles) from Beijing, is its population of highly endangered milu, or Pere David's deer. Mark says: "With their distinctive antlers, the animal was once described as a cross between a deer, camel, cow and donkey. Hunted to extinction in China, an eccentric Lord Bedford re-established a colony, preserving the milu from extinction. In 1985, 20 milu were returned to Beijing where the herd has expanded to over 2000 milu, breeding vigorously in its natural habitat.”

Foodies will love our dedicated culinary tour of China or our many tailor-made tours like our ‘Hutong Eats’ tour or hands-on ‘Hutong cooking class’. A visit to the Peking opera school is featured on all our small group tours of Chinathat visit Beijing.

Do you know any hidden gems in Beijing? How did you find them?