In the old days, lives in all Chinese cities revolved around the drum tower (gulou), which announced the time. The Drum Tower of Beijing was built in 1272 during the reign of Kublai Khan. It functioned as the official timepiece until 1924, when the last emperor of the Qing Dynasty was forced to leave the Forbidden City, and Western-style clockwork was made the official means of time-keeping. But the drum tower structure still exists in Beijing today. From the top of the tower, you will be able to see hutong (traditional alleyways), one-story houses and courtyards in the area. For a small sum, you can also experience beating the drum.
The area around Gulou is popular among young people, with hip-looking shops, restaurants, cafes and live music venues. Some of the foreigners who hang out here even speak with the Beijing accent. Among the dignitaries who have dined near the drum tower area are US Vice-President Joe Biden, who had lunch at Yaoji Chaogan'er in August 2011. It is in places like this that you see how ordinary Beijingers live their lives. Check it out, and order a bowl of soybean drink instead of a Coke.
If you happen to be strolling along Nanluoguxiang, a hutong off East Gulou Street with many souvenir shops, check out Wenyu cheese store, which sells Beijing-style double-boiled cheese jelly. There is usually a long line of people waiting. From Gulou, take a short walk to Houhai, a lake that has become known for its nightlife. The lake itself is an attraction. Here you can row a boat in summer or ice-skate in winter.
For a panoramic view of the lake, sit by the window on the third floor of Nuage. The wooden structure of the restaurant exudes historic character. It offers both French-style Vietnamese food and Shandong-style cuisine. There are numerous bars around Houhai, but the problem is that they all look identical. For places with more personalities, go back to Gulou. Check out Zajia Lab, a former Taoist Temple that offers gigs of original music, various beverages and delicious homemade dumplings.
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