One of my favourite and most iconic places in the Chinese capital is the old Summer Palace in Beijing. This historic gem is a must-visit when you’re in the area. The enormous heritage site, stretching out over the lakes and hills, gives you the opportunity to admire multiple palaces, classic pavilions, and incredibly lush gardens.
When the hot and humid summer months reached their peak, many Chinese royals used to head to the breezier palace complex at the edge of the city. So, what’s stopping you from doing the same? Nothing, I tell you! Well, except for a plane ticket to Beijing, probably (but that’s a minor detail).
Visiting the Royal Summer Palace of Beijing: All You Need to Know Before You Go
The Royal Summer Palace in Beijing, unmistakably a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has become an enormously popular tourist destination. History lovers can’t get enough of the masterful, classic landscape estate and its timeless architectural style. But besides the usual tourists, many locals also like to visit the park for a relaxing walk along the water’s edge. Trust me; you’ll want to have visited the summer palace at least once in your life.
How to Get to the Summer Palace in Beijing
Since it’s not too far removed from the city centre, the summer palace is easy to reach by public transport. A few days before the start of our summer school programme in central Beijing, my sister and I decided to go on an excursion. So, we 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! If we can do it, so can you.
The entrance fee for the Summer Palace in Beijing is usually between 20 and 30 CNY. Keep in mind that some locations and activities within the park require their own, optional tickets.
Before you go, here are a few other important things about the old Summer Palace in Beijing that you’ll probably want to know.
The History Behind the Gigantic Kunming Lake
Kunming Lake isn’t hard to notice, since it’s a major feature of the Summer Palace grounds. Actually, the lake alone covers about 75% of the landscape, so you won’t have any trouble finding it. Yet, I wouldn’t quite call it a natural wonder: the lake is completely man-made. Nevertheless, the lake’s location is far from random. The lake lies between three mountains, where there were originally a bunch of natural springs. The springs eventually joined up at the exact spot where the lake is now located. So before Kunming became the ornamental lake it is today, it had been a reservoir for thousands of years.
Don’t Miss the 17-Arch Bridge and the ‘Floating’ Islands
The biggest and most impressive bridge at the Summer Palace ground is the 17-Arch Bridge. It has 17 different types of arches (which explains the name) and a whopping 544 stone lions resting on its columns. The bridge stretches all the way across Kunming lake to reach Nanhu Island, the South Lake Island.
But what’s the story behind this peculiar bridge and its 17 arches? The history books say that the island was created when the 18th-century Qianlong Emperor decided to expand Kunming Lake, but wanted to keep the temples and buildings that would have to make way for the water. The 17-Arch Bridge was then built to connect the little islands with their temples to the ‘mainland’.
Check out Longevity Hill: The Coolest Birthday Present Ever
Another major landmark within the Summer Palace grounds is the infamous Longevity Hill. Some people used to call it Urn or Jar hill (Weng Shan), since it looks so much like….well, an urn. Interstingly, Longevity Hill and Kunming Lake have a lot to do with each other. How, you may wonder? Well, one basically led to another; the soil that was dug up to create artificial Kunming Lake was later added on top of Urn hill. This resulted in the new and improved Longevity Hill. The Qianlong Emperor decided to officially change the name into ‘Longevity Hill’ to celebrate his mother’s birthday.
Spiritual Vibes at the Tower of Buddhist Incense
Longevity Hill itself is full of interesting architectural hotspots, including the Tower of Buddhist Incense. The plan was for the tower to become a nine-story Buddhist pagoda. However, the Qianlong emperor suddenly ordered for construction to be stopped. Instead, the tower ended up as a spiritual place of prayer.
The tower is quite famous in Beijing, 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), which is definitely worth the climb. But the best feature is probably the amazing view of Kunming Lake and the sprawling city skyline of Beijing in the distance.
Suzhou Street and The Legend of the Concubine
Suzhou Street (Suzhoujie) was created after the Qianlong Emperor ordered the construction of a shopping street. He specifically wanted the street to resemble Shantang Street in Suzhou city. The emperor had just returned from a visit Jiangsu Province and felt inspired. Apparently, he wanted to create a place where the royal household could feel like they were strolling down a market street. The stories even talk about eunuchs and maids that would pretend to be customers or shop assistants to imitate market activities.
But there’s another legend about Suzhou Street: some say the Emperor created the street to please his favourite concubine. The concubine was originally a Buddhist nun from Suzhou city and slowly became homesick in Beijing. Yet, instead of taking her back to Suzhou, the emperor decided the build a ‘Suzhou Street’ imitation at the Summer Palace. All the customers and shop-owners were instructed to speak in a Suzhou dialect. According to the legend, the whole scene was so overwhelming and heart-warming that the concubine decided to stay (source).
Want to Know More about Beijing?
Well, I tried my best, but I’ll admit this overview is far from complete. But that’s actually good thing; there’s so much to explore at the summer palace, I don’t think anyone could write a complete guide. Besides, it wouldn’t be fun if there weren’t any surprises left, right? Anyway, I did write a few other articles about my adventures in Beijing. You might want to check these out as well: