The Summer Palace on the shore of Kunming Lake was built as a retreat in the 1750s by China’s last great ruling dynasty, the Qing. It later became their principal residence and, although it suffered damage during the Second Opium War and the Boxer Rebellion, it has gone on to become one of Beijing’s most-loved attractions.
The 60-metre hill in the middle of Kunming Lake is a stunning location for the magnificent buildings and manicured pavilions that UNESCO describe as “a masterpiece of Chinese landscape garden design”. Along with the remarkable temples, halls and bridges, there is plentiful natural beauty here. In fact, the unique setting and one-of-a-kind architecture led to the palace being declared a world heritage site in 1998.
The entrance to the complex is at the East Palace Gate where you’ll be faced with the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity, which houses ornate furnishings including intricate engravings and bronze sculptures. Further along the north-west shore from here is one of the man-made island’s most remarkable structures: the Boat of Purity and Ease. It has the appearance of a lavish boat but it is in fact a wooden pavilion constructed on a stone base.
The earth that was excavated to create Kunming Lake created Longevity Hill, the foot of which is just a short stroll from the boat. Take a deep breath, then set off up the steep front slope towards the towering Hall of Dispensing Clouds, taking time to admire the symmetrically laid-out buildings on both sides. At the top, you can enter the three-storey Tower of Buddhist Incense for a small additional charge where you’ll find an incredible gold statue of the Buddha with a thousand eyes and hands.
After you’ve admired the view, make your way back down the rear end of the hill which is covered in natural woodland and scattered ruins. The best way to get to the Summer Palace, located in the Haidian district, north-west of Beijing, is via a 30-minute taxi ride as the subway can take twice as long. There is a small charge for admission to the complex.