The Chinese name for Summer Palace is Yihe Yuan which means gardens of nurtured harmony. Nice name.
Don’t be confused by the name, The Summer Palace is not an actual palace, it is more of an imperial garden and lake. The Summer palace site covers 2.2 square kilometres and a lake, Kunming lake, makes up 75% of this space. The other 25% consist of graceful Chinese gardens, temples and palaces/living quarters for the imperial royal family.
Located 15 kilometers the north west of Beijing’s city center, the Summer Palace is easily accessible and a must see tourist attraction. With stunning gardens, classical architecture and great scenery, the Summer Palace is one of Beijing’s must see tourist attractions and a great way to enjoy a morning or afternoon.
After spending a few hours enjoying the Summer Palace, it is easy to understand why the Imperial family preferred to spend their summers their instead of the wall locked Forbidden City.
The initial construction of the Summer Palace began during the reign of Emporer Hailingwang of the Jin Dynasty around 1149 when Hailingwang made Beijing the capital of his part of China.
The park was continuously extended and developed over the next few hundred years by successive emperors. By the time the Qing Dynasty took control of China in 1644, the park had developed as a luxurious royal garden for the royal family who used it for rest and entertainment during the summer months.
In 1869 the park and palace complex suffered an attack by the British and French troops during the Anglo-French invasion of China in 1860 during the second opium war. The old Summer Palace was also ransacked and destroyed at that time. The park and palace complex was again attacked by war mongering foreigners in 1900 during the boxer rebellion. When arguing with locals about history and politics, the attacks on the Summer Palace are often used as symbols of foreign aggression and humiliation in China. An example I never have a good comeback to.
The Summer Palace was rebuilt after each attack with the Empress Dowager Cixi embezzling funds (some things never change!) from the navy in 1888 to have it built just the way she liked it.
The only other notable events in the history of the Summer Palace was its opening to the public after the 1911 revolution and declaration as a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1998.
The Summer Palace is divided into Longevity Hill area, the Court area and the Kunming Lake area
Longevity Hill Area – The lake is manmade and the soil dug out from the excavation of the lake was used to make Longevity hill which is 60 meters high. The top of the hill houses the Temple of Buddhist Virtue and center of the temple holds the Tower of Buddhist Incense which is built on a 20 meter stone base and is 41 meters high. The hill also holds a number of other halls, temples and wonderfully decorated gates.
Court area – Contains the palace buildings where the Imperial family stayed and conducted (at gave the appearance of) business. These buildings include the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity, the Hall of Jade Ripples and the Hall of Joyful Longevity.
Kunming Lake area – This is the larger part of the Summer Palace and include most of the lake frontage . In the Kunming Lake area you can see the Bronze Ox (just ok), Nanhu Island (good walk), the Seventeen Arch Bridge (impressive) that connects Nanhu Island to the mainland, and the Marble Boat (kinda boring).
Subway – Catch the subway to Beigongmen station on the line 4.
Buses – There are literally dozens of buses that will take you there. Go to any major bus stop in Beijing city and ask which bus goes to Yiheyuan. There should be at least two to three.
Ticket prices vary but should not be more than 20-30 RMB for an entrance ticket and 50-60 RMB for a full ticket. Don’t be surprised if you pay your money, buy your ticket, enter the Palace and are then charged tickets for many of the main buildings. It happened to me the first time I went there and both local and foreign tourist are gouged alike. Best to buy the full ticket so you can enjoy the Summer Palace fee free in the inside.