What is the Summer Palace?Although it sounds like it’s just one building, the Summer Palace is actually a huge complex of gardens, lakes, pavilions, and palaces covering 1.1 square miles (2.9km²). It was built in stages from 1750 onwards in the area surrounding Kunming Lake and used the shape of the lake and Longevity Hill as a framework. Its buildings were used for political and administrative offices as well as residential, spiritual, and recreational spaces for the Imperial family and its staff. The palace grounds were largely destroyed during the Second Opium War in the 1850s, then rebuilt by Emperor Guangzu. Though it was damaged again during the Boxer Rebellion, it was restored and was opened as a public park in 1924.
Why was the Summer Palace built?The layout of the Summer Palace is based on the Chinese philosophy of balance and specifically sought to balance the works of man with the natural beauty of the landscape. While the buildings were intended to serve a range of practical purposes, there were also spaces deliberately left empty so that there was space to walk in spiritual contemplation and to enjoy the scenery. Despite all the philosophy, however, Kunming Lake is actually an artificial lake! It was created after the Qianlong Emperor decided to build a palace in honor of his mother’s 60th birthday, and the expansion of the lake was also undertaken in the name of improving the capital city’s water system. Excess soil from the excavations was also used to make Longevity Hill taller than it originally was. The lake provided water for surrounding agriculture, and also made for a stunning location for the palace complex.
What will I see on a visit?It depends on which route through the park you want to take! Most people arrive via the East Gate, where you’ll see the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity, which was the retirement home of Dowager Empress Cixi - although she still influenced politics from the rooms you’ll see, even after her son officially took the throne in 1889. Watch out for a number of peacock statues, plus dragons and phoenixes, representing the power of the Emperor, Empress, and their dynasty. Close to the hall, you’ll find the three-story Grand Theater, which can be explored if you’ve bought the all-inclusive ticket. You can also see the Hall of Joyful Longevity, and if you’re feeling brave you can take a picture of the huge Blue Iris stone outside it - the stone enthusiast who wanted to take it home with him abandoned it halfway due to bankruptcy, and there’s a superstition that even photographing it can bring ruin to the photographer. You can take a trip over the Seventeen-Arch Bridge, lined by lion statues, and climb over the steep arch of the Jade Belt Bridge, whose high arch allowed the Emperor’s dragon boat to pass underneath. Speaking of boats, you can also visit the Marble Boat, a stone replica of an original structure destroyed in 1860. Following the Long Corridor (a covered walkway) and climbing Longevity Hill, you’ll be able to visit the Baoyun Bronze Pavilion, the majestic Tower of Buddhist Incense, and the Sea of Wisdom, a green and yellow building containing over 1,000 Buddhist statues. From the top of the hill, you’ll also enjoy stunning views of the park and downtown Beijing.
Do I need to take a guided tour?It can be helpful to have a guide with you who can explain what you’re seeing and to take you straight to the most interesting parts of the park. However, watch out for guides who try to pick up tour groups at the entrance for an inflated price, or for tours which are an hour or shorter because you’ll probably end up feeling rushed.
Can we have a picnic on the grounds?Yes! Feel free to bring lunch with you and enjoy it in the picturesque surroundings. There are also food stalls scattered throughout the park if you’d rather pick something up along the way.