View of Kunming Lake from Longevity Hill

The Royal Summer Palace of Beijing

The Summer Palace (颐和园, Yiheyuan) in Beijing is a collection of palaces, pavilions, and gardens, built in an extensive 70.000 m² area of hills and lakes. During hot and humid summer months, Chinese royals used to head to the breezier palace complex at the edge of the city. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is an enormously popular tourist destination, known for its masterfully landscaped Chinese gardens and impressive architectural style. Besides tourists, many locals also visit the park for recreation and relaxing walks by the water.

Not too far removed from the city centre, the summer palace is quite easy to reach by public transport. A few days before the start of summer school, my sister and I decided to go on an excursion and simply took the subway. You only need to get on Line 4 and get out at Beigongmen (北宫门) station. From there, it’s a 5-minute walk!

Kunming Lake at Sunset

Kunming Lake

The centrally situated Kunming Lake is a prime feature of the Summer Palace grounds, covering about 75% of the whole area. The lake is completely man-made and is currently still only 1.5 metres deep. Nevertheless, the lake’s location is not entirely random. Situated between three mountains, there were originally a number of natural springs that joined up exactly where the lake is now located. The area used to be a reservoir for about 3500 years before it became the ornamental lake it is today.

View of the 17-arch Bridge

The 17-Arch Bridge

17-Arch Bridge

The biggest bridge of the Summer Palace is called the 17-Arch Bridge. It has 17 different types of arches and 544 stone lions on its columns. The bridge stretches 150 metres across Kunming lake to Nanhu Island (South Lake Island). The island was created when Qianlong Emperor (1711-1799) decided to expand Kunming Lake, but wanted to preserve the existing temples and buildings. The 17-Arch Bridge was then built to connect the island to the shore.

Summer Palace

Longevity Hill

The other primary landmark of the Summer Palace is Longevity Hill. The hill was previously known as Urn or Jar hill (Weng Shan, 瓮山), since it looks so much like an urn-like. The dug-up soil from creating the artificial Kunming Lake was later used to put on top of Urn hill, resulting in Longevity Hill. The Qianlong Emperor decided to change the name into ‘Longevity Hill’ (Wan Shou Shan, 万寿山) to celebrate his mother’s birthday.

Tower of Buddhist Incense

Tower of Buddhist Incense

Longevity Hill is home to many famous buildings, including the Tower of Buddhist Incense (Foxiangge, 佛香阁). The tower was originally intended to be a nine-story Buddhist pagoda. However, the Qianlong emperor suddenly ordered for construction to be stopped. The tower became a spiritual place of prayer. The structure is well-known, since Empress Dowager Cixi used to visit the tower to offer incense and pray. There is also a 5000 kg Buddhist statue (no photos allowed, understandably), but the best feature is the amazing view of Kunming Lake and the sprawling city of Beijing in the distance.

Suzhou Street

Suzhou Street: The Legend of the Concubine

Suzhou Street (Suzhoujie, 苏州街) was constructed after the Qianlong Emperor ordered a shopping street to be built, resembling Shantang Street in Suzhou city. The emperor had just returned from a visit Jiangsu Province and wanted to create a place where the royal household could feel like they were strolling down a market street. Apparently, eunuchs and maids of honor would pretend to be customers or shop assistants to imitate market activities.

There is a legend about Suzhou Street: some say the Emperor created the street for his favourite concubine. The concubine was originally a Buddhist nun from Suzhou city and eventually became homesick in Beijing. Instead of taking her back to Suzhou, the emperor decided the build a Suzhou Street at the Summer Palace. All the customers and shop-owners were told to speak Suzhou dialect. The whole scene was so overwhelming that she decided to stay [source].


This blog post is far from a complete picture of the entire Summer Palace. I wish I could tell you all about things like Paifang and Qilin, but this post would just go on forever. I also took way too many photos! If you wish, you can explore some more and view the full Flickr album over here.

Thanks for reading!

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8 Replies to “Best of Beijing: The Royal Summer Palace

  1. Beautiful shots!

    The summer palace is actually a refined version of the west lake in Hangzhou. I visited both places some years ago, and liked the summer palace better: It is more concentrated and easier to walk around 🙂

    To me, the best part of Summer Palace is its long corridor with historical paintings. Unfortunately, much of those paintings is ruined by modern maintenance: the government seems to hire amateurs for the most delicate job. Similar fate falls on the Suzhou Street: it was rebuilt in 1980s (?) with little original stuff left.

    Still, Summer Palace is my favorite spot in Beijing 🙂

    1. Thanks a lot for your comment. I didn’t know most of that 🙂 I thought the long corridor was wonderful too!

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