It's amazing to contemplate, as you sip an Old Fashioned in the latest hot spot or dance to a big-name European DJ, that until 30 years ago there weren't any bars or nightclubs, outside a few hotels, in Běijīng at all. Now, as more and more locals take to partying after dark, the capital is home to an increasing number of sophisticated nightspots.
In the last few years, a whole host of bars have sprung up in the ancient heart of the city with former courtyard homes converted into some of the finest and liveliest drinking destinations in town. They range from bohemian joints to distinctly chic cocktail bars. Nanluogu Xiang lane led the way in making the hútòng (narrow alleyways) an integral part of the city's nightlife; now many hútòng across Dōngchéng North are almost as popular.
Drink Like a Local
Although wine and whisky are gaining ground among the middle classes, the two most popular alcoholic drinks in Běijīng remain píjiǔ (beer) and báijiǔ, a pungent, potent white spirit with a unique taste that few foreigners can stomach. The commonest brews are Yanjing Beer (the local favourite), Běijīng Beer and Tsingtao. None are very distinguished, and all are weaker than most foreign beers. You can pick up a large bottle of Yanjing or Tsingtao, the closest to a European-style lager, for around ¥4 on the streets; Běijīng Beer is usually served on tap.
Karaoke is the number-one leisure pastime in China and there are well over 100,000 karaoke, or KTV, joints across the country. As alien as it can seem to be singing along to a TV in front of people, karaoke is one of the best ways of getting to know the locals. And you'll be surprised at how quickly crooning cheesy pop standards becomes addictive.
Need to Know
Most bars in Běijīng open in the late afternoon and close at 2am. But many stay open longer, especially on weekends, while others shut up shop around midnight. Cafes open much earlier and sometimes close early, too. Clubs can go all night, depending on their mood.
The cost of drinking in Běijīng’s bars depends very much on your personal tastes. If you want to gargle with a Guinness, you’ll pay more (¥40 to ¥50) than if you drink a bottle of Tsingtao (¥20 to ¥25). Mixed drinks start at around ¥35 in most bars, but in a swanky place expect to pay Western prices, ¥60 and up, for a proper cocktail. Many bars, though, have happy hours (usually 5pm to 8pm) when you can imbibe more cheaply.
Most of the capital's nightclubs are as much places for drinking as they are for dancing so, despite the increasing numbers of international DJs who fly in, many local punters aren't too interested in what is on the turntables. Much of what you hear will be mainstream house and hip-hop. But a few local DJs do their best to promote more eclectic sounds and stage parties in various venues around town. Check the local listings magazines for details.