This post was last updated on April 28th, 2020 at 01:33 pm
The Summer Palace is one of the most impressive palaces in all of China. Located on Longevity Hill near an artificially created lake, it consists of many palaces, temples, pavilions, bridges, pagodas, and literally hundreds of walking paths in extensive gardens. For centuries it was used as an outdoor palace by the Chinese emperor and his entourage when it got too hot in the city center during the summer. The Summer Palace has the largest and best-preserved Chinese style garden and has been on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1998.
The Summer Palace is open from 6:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. in the high season (April 1 – October 31) and from 7:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. in the low season (November 1 – March 31). The sights within the park that require a separate ticket (see below) open two hours after opening time and close one hour before closing time.
There are different types of tickets for sale at the entrances to the Summer Palace, but the simplest is the combination ticket (联票 / liánpiào) with which everything can be visited. This costs 60 Chinese Yuan in the high season (April 1 to October 31) and 50 Chinese Yuan in the low season (November 1 to March 31).
Access to the single park itself is also possible (门票 / ménpiào) for 30 Chinese Yuan in the high season and 20 Chinese Yuan in the low season, but you may not enter the Wenchang Exhibition, Suzhou Street, the Tower of Buddhist Boswellia and the Dehe Gardens. If you still want to, you can buy tickets at the entrances to those attractions for 20, 10, 10, and 5 Chinese Yuan respectively.
How to Get There
The Summer Palace is easily accessible by taxi or metro. Most taxi drivers will drop you at the New Gate (新建宫门 / Xīnjiàngōngmén), near the Bridge of the Seventeen Arches, from where it is a ten-minute walk to the main attractions. The Summer Palace can be reached using the metro by taking line 4 to Beigongmen, the second last stop. Take exit D, from there it takes a few minutes to walk to the north entrance (北宫门 / Běigōngmén).
Best Sights at the Summer Palace
Below you can find the best sights within the Summer Palace. The order we took is that of a walking route from the north entrance, but there is no fixed or even recommended route. There is so much to see that no matter how you walk, you will always come across something beautiful.
Suzhou Market Street
Mandarin Chinese: 苏州街 / Sūzhōujiē
Suzhou Market Street, at the back of Longevity Hill, the first thing you see when you enter the park through the north entrance, is a picturesque canal with boats and authentic Chinese shops like in the city of Suzhou in southern China. Emperor Qianlong was very impressed by the beauty of Suzhou and had part of the city recreated in his palace. When he came to visit with the Empress or his concubines, the imperial eunuchs and maids dressed as market vendors and visitors, making it look like the Emperor was really in Suzhou. Today, souvenir shops are available all along the canal.
Hall of the Sea of Wisdom
Mandarin Chinese: 智慧海 / Zhìhuìhai
At the very top of Longevity Hill stands the Buddhist Hall of the Sea of Wisdom. The special thing about this building is that no wooden beams have been used in the construction, it consists entirely of masonry glazed tiles in all kinds of warm colors. Inside it is possible to pray to a statue of the Buddhist goddess Guanyin, the goddess of comfort and grace. Although the building itself survived the multiple destructions of the Summer Palace, more than a thousand smaller Buddhist statues have been lost.
Tower of Buddhist Incense
Mandarin Chinese: 佛香阁 / Fóxiānggé
The tallest and most eye-catching building of the Summer Palace is the 41-meter-high Tower of Buddhist Incense, built on a 21-meter-high plinth just below the top of Longevity Hill. Initially, Emperor Qianlong wanted to build a pagoda here, but when it was almost finished he changed his mind, and this tower was replaced. The tower itself was also destroyed by the British in the Second Opium War but then reconstructed by the Chinese. During their stay at the Summer Palace, the Chinese emperors came to pray in this tower twice a month.
Hall of Dispelling Clouds
Mandarin Chinese: 排云殿 / Páiyúndiàn
The Chinese emperors had a solution for everything, including the solution to too much cloud cover. Like the entire hill on which the Summer Palace is built, Emperor Qianlong also had this Hall of Dispelling Clouds built in honor of his mother’s sixtieth birthday. His mother liked sunny days very much. The buildings are located where a temple had stood for centuries before the construction of the Summer Palace. On the northern side, it borders the pedestal of the Tower of Buddhist Incense. On the southern side, where the entrance gate interrupts the Long Gallery described below, there are statues of the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac.
Mandarin Chinese: 长廊 / Chángláng
The Long Gallery is exactly what the name suggests and was built around 1750 by Emperor Qianlong at the foot of Longevity Hill, along the shores of Kunming Lake. At over 700 meters long, it is the longest gallery in the world. There are 273 open rooms with a total of thousands of different paintings of the southern Chinese city of Hangzhou and surroundings, of events in Chinese history and of the Chinese flora and fauna. If it is not too busy in the Summer Palace, this is a pleasant environment to rest and enjoy the surroundings.
Pavilion of Precious Clouds
Mandarin Chinese: 宝云阁 / Baoyúngé
A much-overlooked landmark is the Pavilion of Precious Clouds, to the right (seen from the lake) of the Hall of Dispelling Clouds. It is a 7.5-meter-high pavilion that is completely made of bronze so that whenever foreign or Chinese troops entered the Summer Palace again to set everything on fire, this building was spared. When the Chinese government and Tibet were on better terms, Buddhist monks from Tibet traveled to Beijing to pray in this pavilion.
Mandarin Chinese: 昆明湖 / Kūnmínghú
There’s plenty of life in and around Kunming Lake
Kunming Lake was once a natural lake and was known, among other things, as Great Lake. During the Ming Dynasty, a large number of Lotus flowers were planted in the lake, and nearby were plenty of rice fields, temples, pavilions, etc. For this reason, the lake became known as West Lake, after its namesake in the southern city of Hangzhou.
During the reign of Emperor Qianlong (1736-1795) it expanded to its current size, and the Emperor changed the name to Kunming. The current lake has an area of more than 200 hectares, three quarters of the entire garden.
The temples on Nanhu Island, accessible via the Seventeen-Arch Bridge, were already there before the expansion of the lake. Since the emperor wanted to keep them, the lake was dug around the temples, so the island was created. There are 544 different lions on the columns of the white marble spandrels. It is possible to take a boat trip on Kunming Lake, e.g. with a Dragon Boat. The boats depart from the end of Long Gallery and at the Bronze Ox.
Mandarin Chinese: 清晏舫 / Qīngyànfang
The Marble Boat is a structure rather than a real boat and is clearly visible at the end of the promenade along Kunming Lake. Many Chinese gardens have similar boats that are only intended for drinking tea or strong liquor. Originally, the Summer Palace had a Chinese-style marble boat, but after it was severely damaged by wars in the nineteenth century, regent Cixi had a new Western-style boat built, the one that still stands today.
She received a lot of criticism for this, because the boat, like the rest of the restoration of the Summer Palace, was paid using the cash register for the modernization of the Chinese navy. It’s understandable because the marines could not do much with this Marble Boat.
East Palace Gate
Mandarin Chinese: 东宫门 / Dōnggōngmén
The main entrance to the Summer Palace, the eastern gate, has three large doors: one for the emperor’s family, one for the bureaucrats, and, of course, one for the emperor and empress. Above the gate is a large sign 颐和园 (Yiheyuan), which has been the Chinese name for the Summer Palace since 1888. Around the eastern gate are all the rooms that were used during the emperors’ stay for the administrative management of the empire and for receiving important guests. Most people who visit the Summer Palace with a tour will arrive at this gate by bus.
Hall of Benevolence and Longevity
Mandarin Chinese: 乐寿堂 / Lèshòutáng
Immediately after passing the eastern gate, you can find the administrative rooms from which China was controlled during the hot summer months. The Hall of Benevolence and Longevity, the imperial throne room where the most important guests were received, stands in the center here. The name comes from a Confucian saying that a benevolent ruler will live a long life. In the courtyard stands a bronze statue of a Kylin, a mythical animal with a dragon head, a deer antler, and a lion’s tail, as well as statues of phoenixes and dragons.
Mandarin Chinese: 大喜楼 / Dàxilóu
The Grand Theater, located in the Garden of Virtue and Harmony (德和园 / Dehe Garden on your ticket), was built in the late nineteenth century to commemorate regent Cixi’s sixtieth birthday. The theater, one of the most important of its time, consists of three floors and is 21 meters high in total. Opposite the tower is a separate hall with a throne, specially built for the regents to view the theater. If she thought the performances were boring, she could withdraw to one of her five personal rest halls behind her throne room.
Hall of Jade Ripples
Mandarin Chinese: 玉澜堂 / Yùlántáng
Also located close to the eastern gate, on the shore of Lake Kunming, stands the Hall of Jade Ripples. Originally, after the construction of the Summer Palace, this was used by Emperor Qianlong for his state affairs. It is more famous, however, as the living quarters of Emperor Guangxu, who was placed under house arrest here at the end of the nineteenth century by regent Cixi, his aunt, a shrew and de facto ruler of China, and thus unable to exercise political power.
Mandarin Chinese: 十七孔桥 / Shíqī Kong Qiáo
The Seventeen-Arch Bridge is indeed a bridge with seventeen arches. With a length of 150 meters, it is by far the longest of all bridges in and around Kunming Lake. Furthermore, the marble bridge, which connects the lakeshore to Nanhu Island, is lavishly decorated with more than 500 carved lion heads. At the start of the bridge, there is also a bronze ox, following the custom of Chinese emperors to place bronze oxen on the water. Bronze oxen are said to be able to stop flooding. It must have worked because, in all those hundreds of years, it has not been flooded once.
Wenchang Pavilion and Wenchang Gallery
Mandarin Chinese: 文昌阁 / Wénchānggé and 文昌院 / Wénchāngyuàn
The Wenchang Pavilion is an imposing gate that separates the administrative part of the Summer Palace from the extensive gardens along the lake. Near the gate, you can find the Wenchang Gallery, home to thousands of surviving paintings, statues, carvings, jewelry, furniture, old books, and more. For those who like to look at old Chinese things through a glass window, this exhibition is ideal to spend the afternoon.
Although we haven’t described all the sights within the Summer Palace, despite having already written a full page about it, the list above is a good overview of the main attractions. However, those who will visit the palace themselves will come across many more interesting temples, towers, and parks.
History of the Summer Palace
The Summer Palace was built during the Jin Dynasty (1135-1234). It is built as a summer residence for various emperors from different dynasties. She normally lived in the Forbidden City in the current center of Beijing. The life of the Emperor in the Forbidden City, however, was very oppressive. That is why it was then decided to build the Summer Palace. It was not built in one go as it can be seen today but was expanded by various emperors.
The park has an area of more than 70,000 m² (about 17.3 acres). It is laid out along a large artificial lake; Kunming Lake. This lake was dug by hand for Emperor Qianlong in the 18th century by more than 100,000 men. The earth from the excavation was then used for the construction of the large Longevity Hill in the park.
Fire in the Summer Palace
Like many parts of Beijing, the Summer Palace has also been destroyed by fire. The fire in the palace was caused during a raid by the English and French during the Second Opium War (1856-1860). Empress Cixi had the entire complex rebuilt and expanded in 1888. However, she did this with the money originally intended for the renewal of the Chinese fleet that was needed during the (opium) war against the British. Only in 1949, when the Summer Palace had seriously fallen into disrepair, did serious renovation work begin.