One of my favorite spots in Beijing was the Summer Palace (Yíhé Yuán, 颐和园), a former royal residence surrounded by a breathtaking landscape mainly constituted by the Kunming Lake and the Longevity Hill.
After visiting the Forbidden City, I thought I had seen the major royal remains of old China, but this palace situated on Beijing’s northwestern side really impressed me. The Summer Palace was enlisted as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998 because it’s “a masterpiece of Chinese landscape garden design. The natural landscape of hills and open water is combined with artificial features such as pavilions, halls, palaces, temples and bridges to form a harmonious ensemble of outstanding aesthetic value.” What you will see is a sumptuous remnant of an imperial way of living where luxury was perfectly combined with nature, peace, and tranquility.
Introducing Beijing Summer Palace
Its name evokes the fact that Chinese Emperors and their entourage liked to indulge here during the hottest months of the year, but the Summer Palace’s original purpose, when it was started in 1750, was mainly to be a luxurious royal garden. It was destroyed by a fire during the Anglo-French occupation, re-built in 1888, and finally open to the public in 1924.
Today it’s the largest and best-preserved royal park in China, so it’s heaven for those who want to explore the Chinese gardening style that widely employs rocks in their natural shape to follow ancient Chinese culture that considers stones a gift from Mother Nature.
Needless to say, I did try to picture myself walking along the peaceful and quiet corridors, enjoying the breeze coming from the lake, imagining some tiny, skinny, silk-clad women swan around finely decorated pavilions and halls, but I couldn’t manage to.
In Beijing, in August, there is absolutely no lake breeze, and none of the royal gardens, residences, or pavilions are peaceful and quiet, but simply crammed with tourists, both foreigners and Chinese. Despite all this, however, I loved my trip walking around the harmonious combination of natural settings such as hills and water with manmade elements including pavilions, temples, and bridges.
How to Visit Beijing Summer Palace
After my own experience, I suggest you explore Beijing Summer Palace to appreciate its architecture, its history, and high artistic value, taking your time to enjoy the views all around. For the fit and brave, especially if you are visiting under the unforgiving summer sun rays, you can climb your way up to the Tower of Buddhist Incense, the main building of the complex where the Empress Dowager Cixi used to worship Buddha, for stunning views. This is what I did and, sweating like never before while reaching the Tower, I loved taking pictures of the gorgeous panorama that step by step unfolded before my eyes.
Another area to visit in the Summer Palace area is the Hall of Dispelling Clouds, mainly used for public functions, usually where the Empress Dowager Cixi from the Qing dynasty welcomed her guests and organized ceremonies.
The halls and buildings that form of the Summer Palace complex are absolutely beautiful. Even the smallest detail was looked after, the view on the lake is stunning, and once on top, you will absolutely enjoy the scenery, especially if that entailed a tiring climb, because you will be starting to breathe again before undertaking the descent towards the real world.
Some of the activities you can do during your trip to the Summer Palace include cruising on the Kunming Lake, attending a traditional Chinese play at the local ancient theater, and of course walking the Long Corridor, a tree-lined boulevard featuring a covered colonnade and beautifully decorated ceilings. This, and considering that it’s a 15-minute drive from downtown Beijing, you should carve out of your time in Beijing at least half a day.