Xisi (literally ‘West Four’) is a neighbourhood in western Beijing, so called for its four richly carved paifang (sign gates) that once straddled the crossroads at Xisi Dajie and Fuchengmennei Dajie. Sadly, the gates are gone (an ersatz version stands above the Xisi subway entrance), but the ‘hood remains a rich depository of old public buildings, temples, and delightfully winding hutong alleyways, offering a laconic, local vibe in an oft overlooked part of the city.
Best of all, a handful of home-grown cafes, eateries and arty hangouts are quietly emerging in Xisi, making it perfect for anyone wanting to explore beyond the bustling environs of some of Beijing's more well-trodden neighbourhoods.
Views of Miaoying Temple White Dagoba dominate the winding alleyways of Xisi © Tom O'Malley / Lonely Planet
Run by Ryan and Andrew, two affable, aproned Chinese bears (who speak excellent English), this gay-friendly hutong hangout pours a host of coffee creations, like a 24-hour cold brew with coke, the ever-popular ‘dirty’ (espresso shot dumped on iced milk), and a tea-like concoction brewed from the husks of Panama Geisha coffee beans. The rooftop terrace, with its poetry-inspiring views of the Miaoying Temple White Dagoba (Baitasi), is crying out for sundowner drinks. No alcohol is served, but the fresh passion-fruit virgin mojito has plenty of zing, and you can always pair it with an indulgent creme brulee or berry cheesecake.
26 Baitasi Dongjiadao
Blink and you’ll miss this independent art space inside the front window of a shop on Gongmenkou Dongcha, a characterful old alleyway that faces the Miaoying Temple White Dagoba. At time of writing, it housed Divination Film, a surreal video installation by Chinese artist Sun Ling, organised by rogue curators SPAM PROJECT, who have a host of other artists lined up to utilise the tiny space. From their Wechat page: “Spam Project will become a 'perfect' defective cinema, a 'perfect' poor image consumer, an elegy of the screen. In our age, the hero is dead. What we see in the window is our own shadow, its scenery will become fiction.” So there you go. Check it out.
29 Gongmenkou Dongcha
Cathedral of Our Saviour
Beijing’s most stunning slice of ecclesiastical architecture arrived here in the late 19th century. Built in Gothic style with a grey marble facade that matches the hue of its surrounding hutong, and twin spires overlooking symmetrical Chinese gardens, the Cathedral of Our Saviour was the seat of the Bishop of Beijing for a century until 1958. In 1900, it was the site of a terrifying siege during the Boxer Uprising, when 400 foreigners holed-up inside met their grisly ends, though thousands more survived the onslaught. Currently undergoing renovation, it’s due to open again for Christmas 2017. The old convent, marked by a pair of red communist stars (tacked on a century later), is a short walk to the southwest.
Wan Song Laoren Tower
Dating back eight centuries to the Mongol Yuan dynasty but partially rebuilt in the 1980s, this nine-tiered brick pagoda sits in a lovely walled garden of pomegranate trees and tangled grape vines, with a hodgepodge of old hutong timber frames and stone carvings scattered about. A bookshop (Chinese only) sells old postcards and pots of jasmine green tea, to be enjoyed al fresco on tables under the vines. The laoren (old man) in the tower’s name refers to Wan Song Xing, a Zen Buddhist master from the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368).
万松老人塔; Wan Song Laoren Ta; 43 Xisi Nandajie
A turn-of-the-century architectural gem, this baroque-style, three-story building has barely changed inside or out since it went up in 1901, hence the name. It was donated to the Cathedral of Our Saviour a few years later, serving as Beijing’s centre for Catholic Action until 1949. With a reasonable selection of coffee, teas and snacks, and dozens of invitingly mismatched tables under wooden eaves, 1901 is the sort of place you can spend hours kicking back and soaking up the old world atmosphere, perhaps thumbing through a book or two from the well-stacked shelves on the second floor.
101 Xi’anmen Dajie; +86 10 6616 0335
Housed in an all-white, modernist dining space crammed between timeworn hutong homes is Yufunan (Southern Fish), one of the most compelling Chinese dining experiences in the capital. Serving the homely, sour-spicy fare of Hunan province, albeit with a contemporary facelift, diners can gorge on plates like ‘secret beef’, first slow-cooked then fried with heaps of dried chilli and cumin, and lajiao lei pidan – green peppers and preserved eggs served in a mortar and pestle that you grind into a lip-smacking paste. Over-designed to the point of insanity, the bizarre cubist interiors are crying out for #Instagram snaps.
49 Gongmenkou Toutiao; +86 10 8306 3022
Royal Palace Crisp Beef Pies
This Tang dynasty-era snack is fast disappearing from Beijing’s streets, but here, just down the alley from the Cathedral of Our Saviour, is an authentically rustic hole-in-the-wall that still bakes xiang su niurou bing – puck-shaped beef-and-leek pies in a moreishly crisp, layered pastry, rolled by hand and cut through with the faint tingle of Sichuan peppercorns. They’re a steal at ¥4 per pie, but you’ll want at least two, plus another bag to take home.
宫廷香酥牛肉饼; Gongting Xiang Su Niurou Bing; 93-1 Xi’anmen Dajie
You can pick just about any of the Xisi alleyways overlooked by the gorgeously bulbous Miaoying Temple White Dagoba for a stroll, but this hutong is notable in being impossibly narrow (two metres wide on average), and forming part of a winding network of lanes that feels thrillingly local. A stroll in the area reveals traditional pigeon lofts, wandering residents decked out in blue Mao caps and suits, little storefronts toasting sesame shaobing bread, and some fine old phoenix trees, also known as China parasol trees for the way they spread their leafy canopy over the grey rooftops.
七贤巷 ; Qixian Xiang
Make it happen
Xisi has its own subway stop on Line 4 (handily named Xisi), located in the midst of the action. Once here, everything is easily reachable on foot.
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