Beijing's not perfect. Might as well get that out of the way. So when two friends came to town and requested I craft them my version of the "perfect Beijing day," I was set up for failure.
"I just want the coolest spots," my friend Kevin had e-mailed. "Markets, parks, 'hoods, restos, bars, whatever."
It was a lofty task, but I was in.
Much of Beijing's charm lies in the fact that it's flawed. In other words, it has character. It's perfectly imperfect, and that's what I love about the city. My life in Beijing occurs almost entirely within the Second Ring Road, which is roughly where the old city wall once stood. It's the best part of the city, defined by hutong alleyways, so that's where we start.
I cycle to the Orchid, a boutique hotel where Kevin and his girlfriend, Hayley, are staying. Opened by a Canadian and a Tibetan in 2011, it's a refuge from the city. We sip cappuccinos on the balcony, eat a quick breakfast and set off for the day.
Cycling is the best way to experience Beijing, and riding though the hutongs is a must for any visitor. We head through the alleys to the Drum and Bell Towers (Gulou), which kept time for centuries. The towers are open to climb daily, and offer excellent vistas of the city on clear days.
We circle Houhai Lake, the picturesque-if-crowded man-made lake just south of the towers, pausing to take photos of locals fishing for whatever dwells beneath. Old men swim here come rain or shine, sleet or snow. (I've done a polar dip here and highly recommend it, skin rashes be damned.)
From Houhai, we ride south to Jingshan Park, at the north end of the Forbidden City, known for its view of the palace from atop an artificial hill. The view is breathtaking, and I mean that both figuratively and literally: Unfortunately, it's one of those less-than-perfect Beijing air days.
Dodging tourist groups, we ride past the Forbidden City. The palace, five centuries old and sprawling over 720,000 square metres, is definitely worth a visit. But the crowds are overwhelming, and I leave it to Kevin and Hayley to explore on another day.
We spend a few moments watching the masses gathered at Tiananmen Gate – I'm still amazed by them – all snapping photos of Chairman Mao's portrait. Then we turn our cameras across Chang'An Dajie (Avenue of Eternal Peace) to Tiananmen Square.
Next, it's west to the National Centre for the Performing Arts, which opened in 2007 and is better known as "the Egg," because it resembles, well, the top half of a giant silver egg. Inside, the acoustics are amazing; it's worth catching a show if you have time.
After an hour of riding through the wonderful hutongs south of Tiananmen Square, we head back toward Gulou and stop for a caffeine fix at Café Zarah. It's my favourite coffee shop in Beijing – quaint, quiet and cool. (If you're hungry, I recommend the Zaoan Beijing – "Good Morning Beijing" – breakfast, which includes fresh rolls, jam, salami, cheese, veggies and a boiled egg. Add a double cappuccino and you're gold.)
Sufficiently caffeinated, we ride west through the hutongs to Great Leap, a popular courtyard brewery and bar opened by an American expat in 2010 that specializes in craft beers. Inside, it's a rustic single room with a bar and bunch of beer kegs. Outside is one of the finer courtyards in Beijing, shaded by trees and high walls. We sip pints of hoppy beer and chat with expats sitting at the next table.
We have a foot massage booked in 45 minutes, so I hurry Kevin and Hayley over to Zhang Mama, a popular hole-in-the-wall Szechuan restaurant (known among expats as "Sexy Noodles," because of a good-looking owner). At dinnertime, it can take more than an hour to get a table, and even now the line is out the door. I order bowls of the incredible dandan mian – chili oil, Sichuan pepper, minced pork and scallions over noodles – to go.
We show up 20 minutes late for our foot massage at Zig Zag, in Wudaoying Hutong. After downing our noodles we indulge in one of Beijing's best pastimes, for a mere $15. Although an alleyway massage parlour sounds sketchy, Zig Zag is anything but. It's cozy, with comfy chairs and a relaxing ambience. Our masseuses work our tired feat with expert precision, and we're on the verge of passing out after our hour is up.
We ride a few alleys south to El Nido, a tiny bar that stocks beer from around the world. Owned by the charming Xiao Shuai ("Little Handsome"), El Nido has become the de facto headquarters of the Hutong Hipsters, a growing breed of foreigner. In true hipster fashion, we drink bottles of Brooklyn Lager at outdoor tables as day turns to night.
To begin the Perfectly Imperfect Beijing Night, I book us a table at Dali Courtyard, an upscale Yunnan restaurant near Gulou. The set menu with drinks runs for about $30, with dishes that include shrimp salad with sweet chili sauce, a chicken-chili tofu wrap and fried goat cheese.
After dinner we stroll south to Banchang Hutong, home to my favourite Beijing bar, Mao Mao Chong ("Caterpillar"), which specializes in creative cocktails at reasonable prices. The drinks are expertly made by Stephanie Rocard (her husband, Stephen, mans the kitchen) and it wins numerous people's choice awards every year. For a distinctly Chinese cocktail, try one featuring mala, or numbing spice.
We're such fans of Mao Mao Chong that what was intended to be a hutong bar crawl gets stalled for a few hours. Eventually, we migrate to 4Corners, just off Houhai, the brainchild of Canadian chef Jun Trinh. A Vietnamese restaurant is upstairs, but tonight the party is downstairs at the bar, where a band plays in the packed front room It's a great crowd, including Chinese and foreigners from all walks of life.
This is the best part of Beijing: It's social, vibrant and one of the easiest places to meet fascinating people. We spend the next few hours sitting in the back courtyard, drinking and talking with anyone who passes by.
We're well beyond tipsy and everyone's having a ball. It's the perfect Beijing night – imperfect only in that it has to end.
Beijing's hutongs are the ultimate example of Beijing's perfect imperfection. In the hutongs – small streets and alleys filled with courtyard homes you'll see residents in pyjamas, heated mah-jong games and guys selling crates of Yanjing beer from a cart. Some buildings have been turned into bars and restaurants – but you'll likely still have to use the communal washroom down the alley.
Where to stay
The Orchid Located in the middle of hutong, guests get a real feel for the neighbourhood, and comfortable, luxe digs. Rooms from $108. 65 Baochao Hutong, 86-10-8404-4818, theorchidbeijing.com