Located 15 km northwest from central Beijing and occupying an area of about 300 hectares, the Summer Palace features both grand historical palaces and peaceful natural scenery on the outskirts of the city. Recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998, the Summer Palace is famed the world over as a symbol of traditional imperial architecture and garden design.
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The Summer Palace is most famously associated with the Qing Dynasty's Empress Dowager Cixi but has a history of more than 800 years as an imperial garden that dates back to the 1150s. The name of the Summer Palace in Chinese, Yiheyuan, means "garden of restful peace." The garden served as a suburban escape for the emperors, a peaceful retreat in the countryside that was still within easy access of the capital. The Summer Palace in its present form dates from the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) and became a public park in 1924.
The former court area is a must-see spot within the Summer Palace complex. This is the royal palace complex where the emperors, including Empress Dowager Cixi, once lived and handled court affairs. The court area is found in the flat space between the East Palace Gate and the northeast shore of Kunming Lake. The furniture and decorations inside the halls are displayed as they were a hundred years ago, although visitors are not allowed to access the interior of these rooms. Among the many buildings in this area, the Hall of Benevolence & Longevity and the Garden of Virtue & Harmony (where the huge Chinese Opera Stage is located) are two unmissable sights. If you don't mind a climb, the Tower of the Fragrance of the Buddha, situated at the the top of Longevity Hill, is a good place to enjoy a panoramic view of the park.
In the lake area, there are a number of scenic sights that deserve a visit. The first one is the famous Long Corridor, which is over 700 meters long and interspersed with a quartet of double-eave octagonal pavilions symbolizing each of the four seasons. Corridors in traditional Chinese gardens were intended to offer shelter from sunlight and inclement weather when passing between buildings. The horizontal support beams inside the corridor are painted with scenes from West Lake in Hangzhou, as well as historical figures, landscapes, and flowers.
Near the west end of the Long Corridor is the infamous Marble Boat, which was completed in 1893 using money that had been earmarked for the creation of a modern Chinese Navy in 1886. Linking the eastern edge of Kunming Lake with the Dragon King Temple on Nanhu (or Penglai) Islet, the 150-meter-long Seventeen Arch Bridge was built in 1750 by the Qing emperor Qianlong and now serves as a good backdrop for photos.
Surrounding Kunming Lake, there are several piers from which you can take a boat ride around the lake. Different kinds of boat are available at different piers. The traditional dragon boats are docked at the pier closest to the Marble Boat. Please note that the boat tours may not be available in case of bad weather or strong winds.
As a famous imperial garden with ample green space, the Summer Palace is a popular place for both locals and tourists, so be prepared for crowds, especially on peak days. (Read our tips for avoiding the crowds when traveling in China here.)
The Summer Palace complex is enormous, but two hours is usually enough to see the park's major highlights and enjoy a leisurely walk around the scenic lake. Be sure to wear comfortable shoes.
There are many food and beverage vendors inside the park. While these may take away from the authenticity and peaceful atmosphere of the palace complex, they are a convenient option if you need refreshment while exploring the park.
Wheelchair users can enter the Summer Palace via the East Palace Gate. There are two accessible loop routes that allow visitors in wheelchairs to visit the popular sights inside the park. Wheelchair rentals are also available for free after paying a deposit of 500 RMB, which will be returned after you return the wheelchair. Restrooms in the Summer Palace are wheelchair-accessible as well.
April to May is the peak season for the Summer Palace, as the weather is warm and many flowers are in bloom. In July and August, you can see lovely lotus blossoms covering some areas of the lake. September and October are also a nice time to visit due to the moderate weather. Winter is the low season with fewer tourists, but from December to January, visitors can skate on the frozen lake.
Opening hours: 6:30am-6:00pm (April to October); 7:00am-5:00pm (November to March)
Entrance fee: 60 CNY (April to October); 50 CNY (November to March)
Average time for this activity: 2-3 hours
The Summer Palace can be reached by subway, bus, or taxi. Beigongmen Station on subway line 4 is the closest subway stop to the Summer Palace. The north gate entrance is a short walk from Exit D.