Sanlitun has gained national and even international notoriety as Beijing’s original international nightlife hub, but there’s far more to this neighbourhood than cheap cocktails and tacky nightclubs. In a way, Sanlitun is a microcosm of modern Beijing. Luxury apartment blocks tower over old hutongs and trendy fusion restaurants face charming mom-and-pop restaurants that serve authentic Tsingtao. The location is excellent. Sanlitun is near downtown, the CBD, Chaoyang Park and many foreign embassies and international schools. However, many residents barely leave, as the area is home to some of the best shopping, eating and nightlife in the city. The proximity to the embassies and the CBD has attracted expat residents for years, and consequently there are plenty of international supermarkets, restaurants and English-speakers.
Many expats describe Sanlitun as having two distinct personalities: by day, a popular cafe spot for locals, tourists and expats calmly socializing or strolling among the shops; by night, one of the most popular spots in Beijing, reaching a level of rowdiness on weekends that rivals a Western university campus. There’s food for every taste, particularly on the main drag Gongti Xi Lu, and if you’re into clubbing, Workers Stadium is the centre of the action. On the other hand, Sanlitun definitely gets noisy, is somewhat polluted and dirty at times, and lacks recreation space. Many families prefer living further away from downtown, where you can find some calm and more spacious housing. But if you’re looking to meet people from London and Accra while being digested by Beijing, Sanlitun is your best bet.
Expats who reside in Sanlitun tend to live in modern, high-rise complexes with modern facilities. Housing around Gongti Xi Lu is relatively expensive per square metre, and is predominately defined as ‘luxury’, although the amenities vary greatly depending on rent and proximity to the main drag. A luxury flat with access to excellent amenities at Season’s Park, for example, will set you back around RMB15,000 for a two-bedroom, and a four-bedroom near Workers Stadium can cost as much as RMB30,000 per month. A more local-style compound with an elevator and security passkey can cost half that, but don’t expect an on-site gym and daycare.
Health and Wellness
Sanlitun is centrally located, providing access to all the international health facilities in Chaoyang District. The most convenient option is Beijing International SOS Clinic on Sanlitun Xiwujie. Beijing SOS is a respected hospital among expats, with staff that speak English, French, German, Italian and Spanish. Beijing SOS offers house calls, and there’s a well-stocked pharmacy as well as a range of specialty services. Hong Kong International Medical Clinic in nearby Dongcheng focuses on general medicine but also provides pediatrics and has a good pharmacy. There are English-speaking staff and direct billing to many international insurance companies. SDM Dental and Arrail Dental have several locations in Chaoyang. For reproductive services, the most popular option is American-Sino Obs/Gyn (ASOG), a US-based joint venture with comprehensive services for women. Counselling for teenagers is also available. For a good workout, the nearby CBD has several international fitness clubs, including Bally Total Fitness and California Fitness Beijing. Sanlitun has several good yoga studios with instruction in English and an international clientele. Bikram Hot Yoga and the Yoga Yard are both popular with experienced practitioners and beginners alike. Sanlitun is a dense, urban neighborhood and is far from a nice park where you can spread out or enjoy a game.
Sanlitun is historically an expat enclave, and several large international schools have campuses in the area. The British School of Beijing is conveniently located on Sanlitun Xiliujie, and follows the National Curriculum for England (including GCSE), and offers pre-kindergarten through year six. The Canadian International School of Beijing uses a Montessori model that operates under the direct guidance of the Ministry of Education of Canada with teachers certified by Canadian standards. It has state-of-the-art facilities and advertises a 10:1 student to teacher ratio. Beijing Zhongguancun International School (BZIS) is an independent private school founded in 2002 to serve the Zhongguancun Science & Technology Zone, the ‘Silicon Valley of China’. The school was originally set up as the first international school in China to serve the educational needs of returning overseas Chinese, but has since expanded to serve the children of expats. BZIS offers curriculum from Elementary (Pre-Kindergarten to Grade 5) to High School (Grades 9-12). It has modern facilities and offers an American curriculum approved by the California Department of Education. The Beijing World Youth Academy caters to both Chinese and foreign students for grades six to 12, offering the International Baccalaureate curriculum or Chinese national curriculum as well as a plethora of interactive after school activities. There are two campuses in Chaoyang. For German-speakers, the Deutsche Botschaftsschule Peking, a small German embassy school, provides German Board of Education curriculum for students from kindergarten to year 13.
The area is arguably the best-serviced expat district in Beijing, given its central location, access to subway lines, frequent taxis and the plethora of shopping, eating and entertainment options reachable on foot. Sanlitun is essentially sandwiched between the Second Ring Road to the east and the Third Ring Road to the west. The Airport Expressway shoots out to the northeast towards Shunyi and the Capital International Airport from the northern edge of the neighborhood. This means that, in theory, you can quickly get to most of the city in a car. However, traffic is stifling during rush hours and parking is limited. If you don’t like taking the subway, taxis are your best bet, as they pass constantly. The subway, on the other hand, is a fast and convenient option from virtually anywhere in Sanlitun. Line 2 follows the Second Ring Road on one side, quickly connecting commuters to the main east-west route, Line 1 heads to the south and to the Airport Express Line, and Line 13 goes to the north at Dongzhimen. Basically, from Sanlitun you can reach anywhere in the city by merely changing stations after a few stops. Line 6 is slated to open in 2015 and will cross Sanlitun, making underground travel even more convenient. Dozens of bus routes run along all of Sanlitun’s main roads, useful if you want to go downtown or to the CBD. Sanlitun is a great place to get around on foot, as most housing is near a good supermarket, several restaurants, shopping and even an international school.
Shopping and Amenities
Shopping, eating and entertainment in Sanlitun cater to foreigners. There’s a Jenny Lou’s on Sanlitun Beixiaojie, and an equally good (if not better) April Gourmet in northern Sanlitun, offering an impressive selection of imported cheeses, fresh-baked bread, wine and a great deli. If you still can’t find the right French cheese or Australian wine, Sanlitun also has a Friendship Store. Sanlitun, and Chaoyang generally, has the best shopping in Beijing. Pacific Century Place on Gongti Bei Lu stocks several international brands. Nali Mall and Yashow are popular places for knock-off labels, though most locals consider them tourist traps. Bainaohui Computer Shopping Mall is a Beijing hub for electronics. Two of the neighborhood highlights are bookstores. Bookworm has an extensive selection of English-language books and hosts events almost nightly, and Charterhouse Booksellers, located in the basement of The Place, rivals Bookworm’s selection. Despite all the shopping, the highlight of Sanlitun is the dining and nightlife. Gongti Bei Lu arguably boasts the best variety of international restaurants in the city, with Norwegian, Thai, Italian, Mexican and American pizza all represented. If you want actual Chinese food, turn off on one of the side streets for dishes from Yunnan, Beijing, Guangdong and Shanghai. Gongti Bei Lu is also littered with bars that draw Westerners from all over the city. If clubbing is your thing, there’s a concentration of dance clubs around the Workers Stadium.