Beijing's hutongs are a glimpse - fast disappearing - of what the city used to look like before the skyscrapers started munching the skyline. A hutong is a narrow alleyway formed by joining together courtyard residences. When you hear people speak of 'the hutongs', they will often be referring to the neighborhoods formed by these alleys.
Development has destroyed many of these traditional neighborhoods, but some have been preserved, most notably those around the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower. These hutongs, close to the Forbidden City, are the spacious and orderly kind that would have belonged to aristocrats and top-ranking officials.
Beijing's poorer hutongs are far more haphazard and cramped, but are still an important part of the city's history. Each hutong has its own name - sometimes many layers of names - and its own set of stories.
Most of the oldest and most beautiful hutongs, those visited on the majority of tours, are clustered around the Forbidden City. This is because the hierarchy of the Imperial Court was concentrically arranged, with the most important officials living close to its gates and the residences of the less important officials radiating outwards from it.