The circuit around and near Houhai (Mandarin for Back Lake) is far and away the best walk in Beijing. Historic imperial residences rub shoulders with new yuppie cafes, while crumbling residences abut renovated multimillion dollar lake-view residences. This walk can be done at any time of the day, though if you start in the afternoon, you’ll be rewarded by romantic sunset views at your walk’s end.
Mei Lanfang Guju
Look for the red lanterns outside this superbly preserved courtyard residence. This home once belonged to Peking Opera star Mei Lanfang, who rose to the height of his fame in 1935. The pictures of the singer displayed within demonstrate the wide range of expressions used in this art form.
Former Campus of Furen University
The original campus of Furen University, a Catholic institution set up by Chinese priests, was built in 1925. Note the ornate facade featuring an arched doorway and the traditional Chinese roof.
Prince Gong’s Mansion
This is the most lavish courtyard residence in the Back Lakes. The 1777 mansion was occupied by Heshen, a corrupt official who was rumored to be the Emperor Qianlong’s lover. Later, it became the home of Prince Gong, who negotiated on behalf of China at the end of the Second Opium War.
Family Fu’s Teahouse
At this lakeside teahouse you can relax on Ming Dynasty furniture while sipping longjing, a green tea from Hangzhou, one of China’s famed tea-producing areas. The English-speaking owner is particularly friendly.
Wild Duck Island
Beijing is full of loopy attractions, including this man-made island built of steel for the area’s ducks. March is mating season on the island and a particularly busy time.
Song Qingling’s Former Residence
This former imperial palace once famously housed the wife of Sun Yat-sen, modern China’s founder. This feminist hero later became a friend of Mao’s and a Communist.
Dazhang Longhua Si
As you continue along the lake you’ll pass the outdoor exercise equipment (which senior citizens will probably be using). Keep an eye out for the gate of this 1719 temple. Though it’s now the grounds of a kindergarten, the facade, with intricate animal shaped stone gargoyles, has been nicely preserved.
A Buddhist temple dating back to the Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368), this complex originally comprised over 20 buildings; only a few of the buildings remain. In residence are at least 20 monks, many from southern China. Admission is allowed on the 1st and 15th days of the lunar month, when the temple is filled with locals praying for the success of their latest business. Though it’s not officially open to the public at other times, monks have snuck us in more than once.
Yinding Qiao (Silver Ingot Bridge)
This bridge separates Houhai from Qianhai (Front Lake). It’s usually a mess of travelers and cars.
Yandai Xie Jie
Walk away from the bridge and turn right at the sign that reads MASTER OF FOLK ARTS AND CRAFTS FINE WORK SALE. This travel pedestrian street houses a few gems. Number 63 on the left, a folk-art store, features stylish Chinese pillow covers, framed paper cuts, and cloth coasters. Number 20 on the right sells cute totes and lipstick cases with Chinese patterns. Number 12 is the Tibetan Jewelry & Tea Bar where you can stop for a drink in the airy back room and browse their collection of Tibetan bracelets, rings, and clothing.
I highly recommend the drumming performances held daily from 9 to 11:30am and 1:30 to 5pm underneath the bright yellow tile roof of the looming Drum Tower.
My favorite coffee in town is served at this Vietnamese restaurant—it comes with condensed milk. The rooftop boasts great views of the Drum Tower.