The Summer Palace

The stunning Summer Palace is a cacophony of serene gardens, stately palaces and sumptuous sights. The 2.9 square kilometer complex is mainly covered with water in the form of Kunming Lake. The area had served as an imperial Summer Palacegarden since the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234), but took on something approximating its current form in the reign of Qing Dynasty Emperor Qianlong (1735-96). He had the lake widened and deepened and many of the buildings on the site date from his reign. In 1860 the complex was destroyed by Anglo-French forces and had to be rebuilt. The Empress Dowager Cixi took on the task and, despite another thorough bombardment from foreign troops in response to the Boxer Rebellion in 1902, the present Summer Palace still bears her imprint.

Entering via the main East Palace Gate brings you immediately to the court area. The centerpiece of this area is the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity (first built in 1750), which served as on office of the emperors. Peering inside the hall will reward you with the sight of a suitably stately throne, while the courtyard around the hall houses bronze statues of phoenixes and dragons. Also in this area are the Hall of Joyful Longevity where the Empress Dowager Cixi resided, the Hall of Jade Ripples which functioned as the living quarters of Emperor Guangxu and the Hall of Virtue and Harmony – a venue of entertainment. Just to the south of the court area is the Wenchang Gallery, home to some mildly interesting exhibitions of jade, porcelain and Qing Dynasty artifacts.

From the court area running all the way along the north bank on Kunming Lake is the 728 meter Long Corridor. Thousands of paintings of landscapes, animals and other serene scenes are displayed along the length of this ornate corridor. About halfway along its length Longevity Hill rises to the north. On a north-south axis starting at the southern base of the hill are a number of halls and Buddhist shrines and temples. The first is the luxurious Hall of Dispelling Clouds. The next noteworthy structure is the Tower of Buddhist Incense, a stunningly sumptuous three-storey structure that is the symbol of the whole Summer Palace. The top floor affords some lovely panoramic views of the palace complex. On top of Longevity Hill is the Hall of the Sea of Wisdom, a shrine to Buddha.

Returning to the Long Corridor and following it further to the west brings you to the MarbleSummer Palace Boat. Built in 1893 by Cixi, it took the place of an earlier construction which, unlike the Empress Dowager’s version, was in Chinese style and made of wood. From this area you can take a ferry across Kunming Lake, where the major feature is the Dragon King Temple with origins apparently dating back to the Ming Dynasty. Connecting the island to the east shore is the serene seventeen-arch bridge which seems to blend perfectly with the landscape.

The remaining major sights of the complex lie near the northern gate, directly north of Longevity Hill. Here Kunming Lake has narrowed into a stream, along the banks of which stand an array of shops, stalls and cafes. This area is known as Suzhou Street. Meanwhile on the north incline is the Buddhist Tenants Hall, an imposing collection of buildings which appear like a palace but actually formed a Buddhist monastery.

Depending on how much of the complex you want to see, it can take a long time to explore. Just checking out the major sights mentioned above will take a good three hours. If you wish to delve into the multitude of gardens, pavilions and pagodas not mentioned above, then exploring the Summer Palace could easily fill a full day.

Admission: ¥30. Open: 6:30-18:00 (from April 1st-October 31st); 8:00-17:00 (winter). Address: 19 Xinjian Gongmen.

Tel: +86 (010) 6288 1144-611.

Directions: Take Line 4 of the Subway to Beigongmen station. This deposits you at the north gate of the Summer Palace.

Show the taxi driver: 请带我去颐和园,谢谢。 (Please take me to the Summer Palace. Thank you.)