The political and cultural heart of Beijing, the district of Xicheng hosts the city’s thriving collection of eateries, cocktail lounges, sports bar and nightclubs along with shopping malls, museums and family-friendly attractions. Cosy “hutong” passageways twist and curve through the historic district, with many listed as protected remnants of ancient Chinese culture. Former palaces unveil the area’s past as home to royals and aristocrats who enjoyed fishing and boating in nearby lakes, now open to the public.
The lively Houhai area of Xicheng is well-known for the bars and shoreside cafes along Houhai Lake, where locals meet up for drinks, live music or karaoke, while the lake itself buzzes with personal watercraft, paddleboats and fishing vessels, transforming into ice skating surfaces when the waters freeze. Beihai Park houses a collection of Buddha statues in its Temple of Eternal Peace, Shanyin Hall and Round City, which cradles a whitejade Buddha and jade bowl belonging to Kublai Khan. The Cultural Palace of Nationalities displays traditional textiles and artefacts from dozens of China’s remote villages and autonomous regions, and Beijing Zoo nurtures Asian animals such as red pandas from Sichuan.
Xicheng covers 32 square kilometres within the 2nd Ring Road, accessible by metro subways and a separate commuter line operated by Beijing Suburban Railways. Bicycle rentals and bike-share programs are increasingly available throughout Xicheng, as are motor rickshaws and taxis. Walking is the best way to explore the other hutong areas.
The area now comprising Xicheng District is the birthplace of Beijing itself and was the main centre of life in the Liao, Jin, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties spanning thousands of years. Many structures and historic areas in the old imperial city are preserved and protected, including more than 100 guildhalls. Traditional Chinese artwork still takes thrives in Liulichang, and the Peking style of opera comes to life with an entertaining mix of vocal performance, acrobatic, mime and dance.