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Back Lakes Ramble

Start: Huitong Ci (metro: Jishui Tan).

Finish: Mei Lanfang Guju, west side of Qian Hai (metro: Jishui Tan).

Time: 4 hours.

Best times: Any time between 9am and noon.

Worst times: Mondays, when some sites are closed. Weekends can also be crowded.

There is, quite simply, no finer place to walk in Beijing. The Back Lakes area (Shicha Hai) is composed of three idyllic lakes -- Qian Hai (Front Lake), Hou Hai (Back Lake), and Xi Hai (West Lake) -- and the tree-shaded neighborhoods that surround them. Combined with other man-made pools to the south, these lakes were once part of a system used to transport grain by barge from the Grand Canal to the Forbidden City. Prior to 1911, this was an exclusive area, and only people with connections to the imperial family were permitted to maintain houses here (a situation that seems destined to return). A profusion of bars and cafes has sprung up around the lakes in recent years, providing ample opportunities to take breaks from your walk.

Beyond the lakes, stretching out to the east and west is the city's best-maintained network of hutong. Many families have lived in these lanes for generations, their insular communities a last link to Old Beijing. The energetic (or those with bikes) may wish to combine this stroll with the "Lidai Diwang Miao & Huguo Si" walking tour.

Begin at Mei Lanfang Guju, at the northwest corner of Deshengmen Nei Dajie and Huguosi Jie:

1. Mei Lanfang Guju

Look for the red lanterns outside this superbly preserved courtyard residence (tel. 010/6618-3598; ¥10; daily 9am-4pm) that belonged to Peking Opera star Mei Lanfang, who rose to the height of his fame in 1935. Pictures displayed inside the home demonstrate the wide-ranging number of facial expressions used in the art form.

Turn left out of Mei Lanfang Guju and cross Deshengmen Nei Dajie onto Dingfu Jie. Continue and on the left you'll walk past:

2. Former Campus of Furen Daxue (Furen University)

The original campus of Furen University (Dingfu Jie 1), a Catholic institution set up by Chinese priests, was built in 1925. The university was shuttered after the Communists came to power and was moved to Taiwan. Note the ornate facade featuring an arched doorway and the traditional sloping Chinese roof.

Walk to the end of Dingfu Jie through the messy five-way intersection, turn left onto Liuyin Jie, and follow the road as it curves. On your left is:

3. Prince Gong's Mansion (Gong Wang Fu)

This is the most lavish courtyard residence (Liuyin Jie 14; tel. 010/8328-8149; ¥40; daily 7am-4:30pm) in the Back Lakes. The 1777 mansion was occupied by Heshen, a corrupt official who was rumored to be the Emperor Qianlong's lover. Later, it became the home of Prince Gong, who negotiated on behalf of China at the end of the Second Opium War.

Turn right when leaving the mansion, and follow Liuyin Jie to the end. Make a left at the T onto Yangfang Hutong. Take a right at the gray brick pedestrian path, walk through the park, and turn right on the path next to the lake:

Take A Break -- At the Teahouse of Family Fu (tel. 010/8328-6313), you can relax lakeside on Ming Dynasty furniture while sipping longjing, a green tea from Hangzhou, one of China's famed tea-producing areas. The English-speaking owner is particularly friendly.

From the teahouse, turn left and follow the path along the lake to:

4. Wild Duck Island

Beijing is full of loopy attractions, including this man-made island built of steel in Hou Hai Lake for the ducks in the area. March is a particularly busy time on the island as it's mating season.

Continuing along the path, you'll pass Kong Yi Ji, one of Beijing's most famous restaurants on the left. Turn right at the footbridge and continue around the lake. On the left is:

5. Jiumen Xiao Chi (Nine-Gate Snacks)

The sprawling restaurant (tel. 010/6402-6868; 10am-10pm) is worth a peek even if you aren't hungry -- the vendors crammed down one hall of the dining room offer snacks that are disappearing from Beijing's streets, including quick-fried tripe soup (baodu), dumplings shaped to resemble large stubby door nails, and an array of sweet glutinous rice cakes.

Return to the path along the lake and continue to:

6. Former Residence of Soong Ching-ling (Song Qingling Guju)

This former imperial palace (tel. 010/6404-4205; ¥20; daily 9am-5pm, winter 9am-4:30pm) once famously housed the wife of Sun Yat-sen, modern China's founder. This feminist hero later became a friend of Mao's and a Communist sympathizer. China's last emperor, Henry Puyi, is said to have been born on this site. On weekends, there's a risk of being trampled by soon-to-be-wed brides in their finery.

Turn left from the residence and continue along the lake. After passing the outdoor exercise equipment, continue for a few minutes until you see on your left:

7. Dazang Longhua Si

This temple dates back to 1719. Though it's now the grounds of a kindergarten, the facade -- with intricate animal-shaped stone gargoyles -- has been nicely preserved.

Continue along the lake and turn left at Lotus Place Hotel, and then take a quick right on Ya'er Hutong to:

8. Guanghua Si

Though this temple is not officially open to the public, monks have snuck us in more than once. China's last known eunuch was a caretaker of this temple for two decades and died here in 1996.

Continue and turn right down a narrow alley, then left at the lake path and walk until you reach:

9. Yinding Qiao (Silver Ingot Bridge)

This bridge separates Hou Hai from Qianhai (Front Lake). It's usually a mess of tourists, aggressive rickshaws, and cars.

Turn left at the bridge onto Xiao Shi Bei Hutong, then right onto the pedestrian alley:

10. Yandai Xiejie (Tobacco Alley)

This touristy pedestrian street houses a few gems. No. 63 on the left, a folk-art store, features stylish Chinese pillow covers, framed paper cuttings, and cloth coasters. On the left, in between nos. 37 and 51, is Guangfu Daoism Temple, built in 1459. No. 20 on the right sells cute totes and lipstick cases made with Chinese patterns. No. 12 is the Tibetan Jewelry & Tea Bar, where you can stop for a drink in the airy back room and browse their collection of Tibetan bracelets, rings, and clothing.

The end of Yandai Xiejie brings you to Dianmen Wai Dajie. Turning left, you will see a number of kitchen supply shops on your left, and in front of you, the looming:

11. Drum Tower (Gulou)

Drumming performances are held daily every half-hour (9-11:30am and 1:30-5pm) underneath the bright yellow tile roof of the looming Drum Tower (¥20; daily 9am-4:40pm). Highly recommended. For an extra ¥10 you can get a ticket that also allows entry to the more understated Bell Tower (Zhong Lu) just behind the Drum Tower.

Winding Down -- Just across the street from the Drum Tower, on the right, is Excuse Café (Zhonglou Wan Hutong 68; tel. 010/6401-9867; daily 7:30am-10pm), serving terrific coffee and sandwiches.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.