Where China meets Beijing
Even in modern-day Beijing, it’s possible to imagine how the emperors used to live by spending a day at the Summer Palace. Once an imperial garden, the Summer Palace (Yiheyuan) now attracts thousands of visitors a day with temples, gardens, hilly ascents and an enormous lake. History buffs can easily spend a whole day exploring the administrative and residential courtyards of days gone by. However, the massive park also offers plenty of outdoor pursuits and hidden corners to keep kids and families busy.
Adults and kids alike will enjoy the Garden of Virtue and Harmony. Three stories tall, it is supposedly China’s best-preserved ancient theater. The Empress Dowager Cixi used to watch actors perform Peking opera here, but now visitors can view short performances of dance, acrobatics, and martial arts, accompanied by musicians on traditional string instruments.
The biggest draw of the Summer Palace, especially in the summer, is Kunming Lake at the center of the park. Designed to imitate West Lake in Hangzhou, man-made Kunming Lake is over two square kilometers in size. You can rent an electric boat, or a pedal boat to get in some exercise and explore at a more leisurely pace. You can also take a dragon boat ferry that crosses over to Nanhu Island.
Another way to reach Nanhu Island is by strolling across the impressive Seventeen Arch Bridge. It’s lined with hundreds of stone lion statues, making for great photo-ops against the scenic lake backdrop. Once you reach Nanhu Island, there is no shortage of hills to climb, with impressive views of the park from the top.
Back on the mainland, Longevity Hill offers plenty of climbing for energetic kids. The back part of the hill has more natural scenery, thick with trees, shrubs, and flowers. Keep climbing and you’ll soon reach a complex that resembles a Tibetan lamasery, supposedly modeled after the Potala Palace in Lhasa. On a clear day this spot offers great views of surrounding Haidian. Around the complex there are also a few mini caves to roam through and rocks to climb on.
Not far from Longevity Hill is Suzhou Market Street, modeled on the southeastern city of Suzhou. The market was meant to be a place where emperors could pretend to shop like ordinary people; eunuchs and maids of the court would add to the game by playing shopkeepers and other customers. Today, visitors can also wander around the market and make-believe they are in 18th century Suzhou. Over 50 old-fashioned shops – handicraft stands, teahouses, clothing stores and the like – line the banks of the canals. Shop assistants also dress in Qing dynasty costumes to add to the atmosphere.
Suzhou Market sits on what is called Back Lake (Houhu), a narrow branch of Kunming Lake. Outside Suzhou Market, the banks of Back Lake are lined with lush vegetation. The stone paths, tall trees and serene surroundings appear more like postcard New England than Beijing. This area receives fewer visitors and is perfect for a long quiet walk or picnic away from crowds. Going east, the lake ends at the Garden of Harmonious Interests, where the classical Chinese surroundings appear again. With willow trees, mini footbridges, pagodas and a lotus pond in the center, this Suzhou-style garden is an ideal spot for a late afternoon break.
Most visitors to the Summer Palace arrive by bus or car, but one particularly fun way to go (in the summer only) is by canal boat. The motorized canopy boat, which you can board from the Beijing Exhibition Center, runs past the Beijing Zoo and the Beijing Aquarium before it reaches the Summer Palace. But whether you arrive by land or water, allow yourself at least five to six hours to explore. There is no reason to hurry through one of the most nostalgic and relaxing places in modern-day Beijing!
Daily 6.30am-8pm (6pm last ticket).
RMB 30 (Apr 1-Oct 31), students