Beijing under clear blue skies. The Forbidden City and Hutongs.

Beijing, Forbidden City

Tiananmen Square marks the symbolic end to the Trans-Mongolian rail journey, stepping into this historic square romantically represents the end of the line, one iconic square to another, Red Square in Moscow to Tiananmen Square in Beijing 7826 kilometres away.

It was the conclusion to our Trans-Mongolian rail adventure and the beginning of a new one, China!

Beijing, Tiananmen Square

Tiananmen Square is huge, the Chinese flag flies proudly in front of the Forbidden City to the north and the vast space is enclosed either side by austere soviet-style buildings.

Large advertisement hoardings divide the square from the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall to the south {see another mummified communist leader anyone?}.

Tiananmen Square

Tiananmen Square

The square hummed with Chinese tourists, cameras, ipads, phones, recording everything, basking in the beautiful morning, the blue sky contrasting wonderfully with the red flags and the red roofs of the Forbidden City.

Who said Beijing was polluted?

I have to say that Tiananmen Square didn’t thrill me like Red Square did, it felt more formal, the heavy security and enclosing fence restricted a natural flow into the square, visiting required patience and effort rather than just being able to wander through.

It wasn’t somewhere you could hang out, meet people, it wasn’t somewhere to be drawn to despite being at the heart of the city.

Beijing, Forbidden City

From Tiananmen Square we visited the Forbidden City, an imperial palace dating from the Ming Dynasty, a World Heritage Site and the obvious place to see first in Beijing.

Closed off to all but the privileged few for the first 500 years of its existence it is now visited by so many tourists that I’m sure the imperial rulers would be turning in their tombs at the thought of the thousands of commoners tramping through the palace every day!

Beijing, Forbidden City

The palace is an extensive complex of many beautiful wooden buildings, a labyrinth of paths, alleyways and courtyards.

Although it was a busy saturday afternoon the palace was so large it seemed to absorb the crowds and it was easy to find yourself alone in a peaceful courtyard.

Pagoda atop a perilous hill

Pagoda atop a perilous hill

The interior of many of the buildings could only be seen by peering through a barrier across the doorway, that is if you could fight your way through the scrum, all pushing and shoving for the reward of a brief view inside.

The palace was a little overwhelming, we soon seemed to tire and lag.

Dumplings from one of the palace restaurants gave us a burst of energy but we soon tired of the crowds, and the new novelty of constantly having our photo taken by the Chinese tourists, and we left the palace from the north gate and went across the road to the far more peaceful and leafy Jingshan park.

Beijing, Forbidden City

The pagoda at the top of Jingshan hill offers magnificent views back over the Forbidden City and Beijing, we bought ice cream, sat back and enjoyed the panorama.

Beijing, Forbidden City

We spent much of our time in Beijing with Caley, an adorable Canadian girl we’d met in Ulaanbaatar. The morning after the Forbidden City day we took the metro across the city to where she was staying and joined her, and a young Canadian guy, on a walking tour of the hutongs nearby.

The hutongs are Beijing at its most authentic, these ancient narrow streets and alleys are a low-rise maze of courtyard buildings behind heavy wooden doors and archways.

We were staying at a courtyard hostel along a chaotic hutong in Xisi but the prettier, more touristy hutongs are near the Drum and Bell Towers, the Lonely Planet had a self-guided walking tour for this area so we used it as a loose guide to explore.

Beijing Hutongs

The hutongs were fascinating to wander through, there was bustle, laundry, scooters, horns, animals, bicycles, children, life was playing out on the dusty narrow alleys.

Some were quiet and peaceful, we got lost and found ourselves down a dead-end and had to back track.

Many of the courtyard buildings had open doors, perfect for an irresistible peek into the world beyond.


Dissecting the cobweb of hutongs is Nanluoguxiang, a vibrant hutong of bars and restaurants, it was teeming with tourists, all milling under the red lanterns hung above them.

Street vendors were selling tofu, candied fruit on sticks and blown sugar edible ornaments.

Beijing Hutongs

We concluded our tour of the hutongs on the rooftop terrace of a bar near the Bell Tower, sipping beer in the sunshine and watching the world go by below.

Beijing Hutongs

Back on the main road near Zhangzizhonglu metro station we found a small noodle bar, fill a basket with your selection of veg, tofu, mushrooms, noodles, meat etc from the chilled cabinet, hand it over the counter and it is transformed into the most delicious spicy, soupy noodle dish.

It was so cheap and so tasty, we ended up eating there a lot, the owner was the happiest man in Beijing, he was thrilled we were eating in his establishment! Such a welcome to China! 

Best noodles on earth

Best noodles on earth 

Noodle bar

Noodle bar


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Try these posts:

Exploring Beijing From a Palace to the Streets The spectacular Summer Palace and an ancient Confucious temple.

Exploring Beijing, Having Fun in the Parks There’s ballroom dancing and Bollywood!

The Great Wall is a Mighty Dragon. Wandering the Great Wall almost alone!

Food and Culture in the Muslim Quarter, Xi’an So delicious, so wonderful, so different.

The Army of Terracotta Warriors Burial planning to the extreme!

China’s National Treasure: The Pandas of Chengdu Yes, there’s baby pandas!

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10 Responses

  1. Reading this brought back so many memories of my trip to China Rachel. I hope you are enjoying it as much as we did. I loved exploring the hutongs – perfect places to people watch!

    • Aw, that is wonderful. I love reading others that revive my travel memories too, I love seeing photos where I recognise the scene immediately. The hutongs are excellent for people-watching aren’t they! We are having lots of fun, I’m enjoying China a lot more than I thought I would. Down south now, only a few weeks left til the visa runs out!

  2. Riddhi says:

    We went to China last year and spent about 3 days in Beijing.. I personally loved the hutong ride and Forbidden City was beautiful but definitely little tiring. Felt same about Tiananmen square.

    We watched a Kungfu show running in Red Theatre which was named The Legend of Kungfu. It was the highlight of our visit. Of course, great wall would top the list! Must watch if the show is still running!

    Oh, loved Ho Hai Bar street at night.
    Hope you have a great trip! Enjoy!!

  3. davegct says:

    Wow, what a great introduction to Beijing! My favorite thing in Beijing was the hutongs and sounds like it was the same for you. I loved seeing life in Beijing looking the same as it did hundreds of years ago!

    • Yes, the hutongs were definitely my cup of tea! I loved our un-touristy one the most, amazing to watch life unfold along it, dodging the scooters and bicycles!
      More Beijing posts to come!

  4. Suze says:

    I loved the pictures and the story 🙂 I think those are even the best Beijing photos I’ve ever seen. I’ve been wanting to go to the forbidden city ever since I was 15 and read about it in a NG magazine! 😉 Thanks for sharing!

    • Thank you so much for your lovely comment! I think the smog-free skies made wonderful Beijing photos, luck was on my side! NG magazines are so inspirational, amazing photos and fascinating stories, they would fill your life with wanderlust. 🙂