There’s a hidden side to Beijing, away from the crowds and familiar tourist spots.

It’s a side of the city most visitors probably wouldn’t experience as it’s easy to go on auto-pilot and book a well-known hotel in the thick of the action. But, if you venture out a little further, there’s a softer side to the city just waiting to embrace you.

The word ‘Hutong’ may scare you off initially, but these small streets are among the most welcoming in Beijing. These are where the locals live and staying in them gives visitors the chance to really immerse themselves in Beijing life and discover the hidden parts of the city.

They are the heart and soul of Beijing, where the locals live. The house fronts are straight out of your daydreams. Stone grey facades with intricate, bright red doorways adorned with gold and royal blue patterns, some boasting large painted arches and bronze door handles. Throughout the day dogs run through the street, meticulously groomed and clearly well-loved.

Hutongs buzz with life, they’re a constant hive of activity and social interaction between the people living there. Local men play card games and laugh loudly while older women sit on couches and chairs lined up along the small street. They come and go all day, talking for a while then strolling off, only to return again later to catch up on what they’ve missed.

Entrance to a house in a Hutong

Entrance to a house in a Hutong

If you flash a smile and say a cheery hello, you’ll get one right back. In the evening the street comes alive and hole-in-the-wall cafe’s give way to previously hidden restaurants and bars, packed with locals chowing down on tasty treats. The food here is authentic and far cheaper than any you’ll find in the tourist spots.

Steamed dumplings filled with fresh, delicious ingredients like hot and sour shredded potato or pork and shrimp with coriander will make your tummy rumble. A serve of each will set you back as little as $2.60; wash them down with an ice cold Tsingtao beer, rice and noodles and your meal won’t cost more than $15 for two people.

The streets seem like chaos. Nobody really gives way to anybody, whether you’re a bike, car or a pedestrian. Lane markings, pedestrian crossings and traffic lights are more of a suggestion than a road rule and yet, it all works together in complete harmony. Just stick to the right hand side of the street and move with confidence and you’ll be fine.

In the Drum and Bell Tower district, just to the north of Beijing’s main tourist attractions like Tiananmen Square, there’s a myriad of beautiful little Hutongs and zen-like parks waiting to be discovered. Hire a bike and explore these areas by yourself; it’s hard to get lost and, even if you do, the friendly locals are happy to help with directions.

Visit nearby Jingshan Park and slip into a peaceful oasis of beautiful gardens and unbeatable views of the Forbidden City. On a clear day, the views stretch out over Beijing forever. Sit a while under the shade of trees and watch local ladies practice their dancing and tai chi, if you’re lucky they may even invite you to join in.