The Beginner’s Guide to the Beijing Summer Palace

With its pavilions, paddle boats and and a stunning pagoda topped on a sunny hillside, Beijing’s Old Summer Palace is undoubtedly charming.

While the world’s third most populated city is not best known for it’s calming energy, here, tranquility surrounds.

Beijing7Located just 15kms from central Beijing, in the Haidian district, the Summer Palace can be easily reached by metro or taxi.

Also read: Crown Yourself Emperor at the New Yuan Ming Palace (Zhuhai’s replica of the Beijing Summer Palace).

A basic guide of the 290 hectares of the Old Summer Palace in Beijing. Source:


Historical highlights

As it’s name suggests, the Summer Palace, built in 1750, was a place where the ruling Chinese royalty of the day could go to put their feet up and soak up the serenity.

The extravagant dynasty retreat was a gift from Emperor Qianlong to his Mum, celebrating her 60th birthday. (Couldn’t have done with a nice box of choccies like the rest of us).


It’s here the Dowager Empress Cixi (an Imperial concubine) spent many of her days living in opulence, as many of her Chinese subjects struggled.

History doesn’t look back on Cixi well. She is often demonized as an evil ruler, whose scolding glare practically brought down the Qing Dynasty. 

Like that time she she imprisoned her nephew, Emperor Guangxu, in 1898 after his reform movement failed. Oh and also threw his favourite concubine down a well.

Read more on the life and power of Empress Dowager Cixi here.


Cixi paid for this stunning, decorative ‘Marble Boat’ with funds intended to upgrade the Imperial Navy.

However, the boat is only made of wood, painted white to look like marble.

Our guide told us this was in fact, made of marble. He is in fact, made of lies.


The naval budget also was siphoned off for extensive renovations at the Summer Palace, after Anglo–French forces plundered and burned much of it down in 1860.

A steep climb with many stairs to reach the ‘Tower of Buddhist Incense’ perched on Longevity Hill.

Looks like the renos went well …

Ancient Chinese architecture is most often timber framework, decoratively painted and carved.
Imperial architecture would almost always see yellow roof tiles and dragons depicted, symbolizing Chinese nationality.
The Chinese mythical creature, Qi Lin, with the head of a dragon, antlers of a deer, scales of a fish, hooves of an ox and tail of a lion.

At the turn of the 19th Century, Cixi moved the seat of government (and herself) from the Forbidden City to the Summer Palace permanently, until her death in 1908.

What a lady!


Stay tuned! Next up on the China Highlights Tour – a trip to the Temple of Heaven.




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