To really appreciate Beijing’s charms – even while on a work trip – nothing beats staying at boutique courtyard hotels in old hutong neighbourhoods. Such accommodation is inspired by the siheyuan, traditional Beijing homes built around a courtyard. The hotels also offer a peek into the centuries-old lifestyle of local residents, one that is fast disappearing as China clears the way for new infrastructure and real estate, and as apartment residences become the standard of modern living.
Like generations of Beijingers, sip jasmine tea in the courtyard while the breeze rustles the surrounding trees. Relish the quiet sanctuary amid the city’s ubiquitous noise and crowds. And, since courtyard hotels often serve only breakfast, discover local specialities at restaurants nearby.
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Though they may not provide all the amenities of top-end hotels, the following hotels have Wi-Fi, bilingual staff and small meeting spaces. They’re 10 to 15 minutes away from the subway on foot, but the front desks can help guests book chauffeured cars. Located within the northern half of the Second Ring Road, they’re convenient jump-off points to the capital’s top tourist attractions such as Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and the Yonghe Lama Temple.
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01. Peace and Quiet – Duge
The calm and quiet at Duge is all the more striking because it’s only a shouting distance away from Nanluoguxiang, one of Beijing’s most popular souvenir and snack alleys. The hotel, which occupies the former residence of a Qing dynasty minister and which has an eye-catching blue and red wooden door, opened with 10 bedrooms in 2008. The number has since been halved, in the quest to offer guests more room to stretch out.
“We’re not just a place to stay,” hotel manager Mao Fuming says. “We want guests to have an authentic courtyard experience, which includes having the space to enjoy the sun in the yard or drink a cup of tea.”
An old bedroom has been converted into the plush Wine & Cigar House, which has an electric fireplace and an entire wall stocked with wine and liquor bottles. An in-house bar, meanwhile, has been turned into a private tea room.
The hotel decor blends Eastern and Western elements, such as crystal chandeliers illuminating black-lacquered dining-room furniture and gilded mirrors framing ethnic Miao headdresses. Every guest room has its own themed design – the Bamboo, the Imperial and the Peony Pavilion are the roomiest.
801 Qianyuanensi Hutong, Nanluoguxiang, Dongcheng District. Visit Duge’s website.
02. Sealed From The Elements – Shichahai Sandalwood
In some ways, Shichahai Sandalwood is quite a non-traditional courtyard hotel. A glass roof covers its entire courtyard, it has basement bedrooms – and an elevator. The hotel sealed off its open-air yard to protect guests from Beijing’s murky air, keep its temperature comfortable year-round and protect the wooden buildings from the elements.
Guests take the architectural modification in stride. “It keeps the courtyard warm, especially in winter,” says David Steinberg, a real estate broker from New York.
Its master bedroom has an intricately carved wooden four-poster bed, as well as a tinted-glass ceiling right above the bathtub, which shows the trees overlooking the property during daytime.
Because of building-height restrictions in the community, the hotel decided to put four of its 10 bedrooms in the basement. Two of those rooms feature glass columns that reach ground level, bringing in sunlight and wind.
The hotel is right at the backyard of the Shichahai lakes, where restaurants, bars and cafes have sprung up around Houhai lake. Nearby, visitors will also find Prince Gong’s Mansion, the Former Residence of Soong Ching Ling and the Beihai Park imperial garden. 42 Xinghua Hutong, Deshengmen Nei Street, Xicheng District.
03. GOOD ENERGY ONLY, PLEASE – Hulu
Hulu’s entrance, a wooden door with a knocker (as well as a door bell), can be easy to miss since it’s no bigger than that of the surrounding residences. But from the hotel’s rooftop lounge, in the yard’s centre building, guests can get a view of neighbouring courtyard homes while chatting over drinks or typing outdoors on a nice day.
The three Bei House rooms are the biggest of Hulu’s nine rooms and include sofa chairs, mini bars and bathtubs. Like the main halls of many hutong homes, which the household head occupies, the Bei rooms are on the yard’s north side and face south, receiving the best sunlight.
The orientation is also considered auspicious in feng shui. The hotel rooms’ big windows and simple decor, characterised by framed Chinese calligraphy and light-coloured wooden furniture, help create a serene atmosphere. A dining area off the space where the reception desk sits, in the same building as the rooftop lounge, features an aboveground pond filled with koi fish.
Hulu is just several minutes away by car from the Wangfujing commercial centre, which has a pedestrian-only street lined on both sides with brand-name shops and high-end department stores.
91 Yanyue Hutong, Dongsi Nan Street, Dongcheng District. Check in at their website.
04. HIDEAWAY WITH DUMPLINGS – The Orchid
First-time visitors would be surprised to discover that hidden behind a row of shops on a bustling hutong, through a narrow walkway, is The Orchid, which houses 10 guest rooms, and a rooftop dining room and terrace. A helpful landmark is Mr Shi’s Dumplings, a favourite among locals and expatriates.
With reservation-only dinners and weekly dumpling-making classes open to the public, The Orchid can become quite a social place. People seeking more privacy can choose a Garden room or the Yin room, each of which has a small yard. The Yang room comes with a private terrace that offers a view of the nearby Drum and Bell towers, popular tourist attractions. Air purifiers are practical additions to all the guest rooms, given Beijing’s notorious air pollution.
Guests who are in the Chinese capital for the first time, or who don’t speak Mandarin, will find The Orchid’s Wechat account handy. Through the messaging app, they can contact the hotel staff to ask for help while they’re out and about. Nanluoguxiang, where you can shop and have food, is only a few minutes’ away on foot. The hotel also loans local cellphones at no charge.
65 Baochao Hutong, Gulou Dong Street, Dongcheng District.
05. IMPERIAL DYNASTY – Cote Cour
Cote Cour’s most charming element are rooftop terraces above the guest rooms, on three sides of the square courtyard. The fourth side is a glassed-in restaurant and bar, with a profusion of flowers and decorations. A floor below it, through a steep and narrow flight of stairs, is a lounge that displays Chinese calligraphy, paintings and quirky photos (one shows a naked man, from the back, running along the perimeter of a red wall.)
The 14 guest rooms, with their dark wooden furniture and black-and- white photographs, emanate an old-world feel. Among them are three suites with free-standing bathtubs. Outside the bedrooms run a roofed corridor adorned with red lanterns and painted with Chinese motifs, reminiscent of the bright decorative paint seen in imperial palaces and gardens. Cote Cour’s entrance, on one end of a hutong that was once home to the Ming imperial court’s performers, keeps to the design theme with a big, red wooden door flanked by stone lions.
The courtyard used to house a primary school in the 1960s, says hotel supervisor Tan Yang, and former students would sometimes drop by to reminisce among the resident date, pomegranate and magnolia trees.
70 Yanyue Hutong, Dongsi Nan Street, Dongcheng District.