Also known as Shíchàhǎi (什刹海) but mostly just referred to collectively as Hòuhǎi, the Hòuhǎi Lakes are comprised of three lakes: Qiánhǎi (Front Lake), Hòuhǎi (Back Lake) and Xīhǎi (West Lake). Together they are one of the capital’s favourite outdoor spots, heaving with locals and out-of-towners in the summer especially, and providing great people-spotting action.
During the day, senior citizens meander along, use the exercise machines scattered along the lakeshore, fish, fly kites or just sit and chew the fat. At night, the area turns into one of the more popular nightlife spots, as the restaurants, bars and cafes that surround the lakes spring into life. This is a night out, Chinese style, so be prepared for neon lights galore, and plenty of live music being blasted out onto the surrounding lanes.
It’s great fun, and even if you find parts of the lakes too hectic (Silver Ingot Bridge is a major bottleneck), it's easy enough to escape the crowds, by exploring the many hútòng (alleyways) that run both east and west of the lakes, or venturing further northwest towards the quieter Xīhǎi Lake.
The lake itself becomes a circling mass of pedalos in the afternoons; there are several spots to rent boats (¥120 per hour, ¥300 deposit), while snacks and cold beers can be picked up at lakeside stores for an impromptu picnic afloat. Or you can explore the lake shores and alleyways by bike (¥10 per hour, ¥200 deposit). Some locals swim in the lakes, even in midwinter! Rickshaw drivers also ply the area hawking scenic 'hútòng tours' from about ¥80 per person, though most don't speak English.
The lakes look majestic in winter when they freeze over and become the best place in Běijīng to ice skate outdoors (usually for around six weeks in January and February). Qiánhǎi Lake is most popular, although some people skate on Hòuhǎi Lake too, depending on the thickness of the ice; local vendors set themselves up with all the gear you need. You have to pay to enter the ice-skating area (weekdays/weekends ¥35/40 including skate hire). There's also chair sleds, ice bikes and even ice bumper cars to rent, and sometimes an ice slide, too.