Beijing's best day trips: scenic parks

Head to the Beijing borderlands for some of the finest natural parks

It's a common complaint that Beijing is somewhat lacking in the natural life department, being more of a concrete jungle than anywhere near an actual one. Give yourself a whole day, however, and you can reach some pretty scenic spots around the city that are sure to scratch that plant-based itch.
Xishan Park

Xishan Park

Avoid the tourist crowds at this lesser known national park

Xishan is both the biggest national forest park in the city and the closest to town. Built over a sprawling mountainside vista, the park boasts kilometres of well-maintained trails. There's not much to do here beyond wandering through the woodland paths, but with fewer historical artefacts than its more famous neighbour, the Fragrant Hills, it also offers peaceful solitude – once you're up the mountain, you'll hardly see another soul. Walk all the way up to 'The Rock of Ghost Laugh', the highest point on the mountain, for one hell of a view.

Getting there Take the 360 bus from Beijing Zoo subway station (Line 4) to Nanhetan – the park is a five-minute walk away.

Travel time One hour.

Fenghuangling Nature Park

Fenghuangling Nature Park

A natural park offering a range of hikes

Located in the nearby Western Hills, Fenghuangling, or Phoenix Hill Nature Park, offers an escape from the city without the long trek. Three routes cover the ridge and offer their own unique hike. The Middle Route is short – a round trip takes about an hour – and offers a mixture of lookout points, cultural structures and rock and cave formations. The North Route is longer and has even more pagodas, towers and caves. If you want more nature than culture, choose the South Route; it winds out towards the reservoir.

You’re coming here to hike, or, as you’ll witness at some of the temples, to pray. The presence of the monks keeps things subdued, too. That said, on the road up to the paths you will find plenty of vendors selling food and colourful toys.

On the main road up to the ticket office, just past the bus stop, is a pick-your-own fruit orchard. Depending on the time of year (fruit picking is available from May to October) you’ll find apricots, peaches, plums, pears and apples on the trees.

Getting there Take Line 4 to Beigongmen station and then the 346 bus to Fenghuangling.

Travel time 90 minutes.

Cost 25RMB( Apr-Oct); 15RMB (Nov-Mar).

Songshan Nature Reserve

Songshan Nature Reserve

Total seclusion on the outskirts of Beijng

Songshan has two hiking trails. The more popular eastern route follows a fast-moving stream up to a rocky water fall. Along the way there are places to picnic, rest in the shade and dip your feet into the frigid stream.

You’ve probably never been somewhere this secluded around Beijing (that wasn’t empty for a reason). For some reason or another, tour buses don’t make the trip out here which means it’s just small groups who drive up in private cars.

The main, and only, draw here is the gorgeous reserve. There’s a handful of the obligatory scenic markers, like the ‘Duck Rock’ and ‘Three Stairs Stream’, but otherwise this is where you come if you want to avoid the usual touristy developments. Pack a picnic lunch (there are no restaurants or vendors in the area) and unfold your blanket next to the stream or at one of the tiny tables set off from the path.

Getting there Songshan is best reached by private car; the public transport doesn’t really cut the mustard here.

Travel time Two hours.

Cost 50RMB (Apr-Oct).

Purple Bamboo Park to the Summer Palace

Purple Bamboo Park to the Summer Palace

An idyllic float to one of Beijing's most famous palaces

Purple Bamboo Park (zizhuyuan) is one of Beijing’s largest and most spectacular inner-city parks. It’s made up of small islands and bridges dotted around three lakes, and filled with beautiful (duh) bamboo. From here you can take a boat trip (40RMB; 70RMB return) on the Changhe River up to the Summer Palace.

You’re never going to find total solitude in a Beijing park, or in one of the city’s biggest tourist attractions, but there are surprisingly tranquil spots in both. The north part of Purple Bamboo Park is your best bet for some peace. There's also plenty going on, with a small amusement area near the south gate (around 20RMB a ride) and local park life – pensioners playing hacky sack (jianzi), basically. As for the Summer Palace… What, a Unesco World Heritage site isn’t enough?

The boat trip to the Summer Palace is a must-try. You may have to sit on rickety seats, most likely squeezed uncomfortably close to an ayi with garlic breath, but it’s definitely a unique experience. The view on the 30-minute ride isn’t always postcard-perfect, taking in a few factories and random suburbs, but, as you draw closer to the Summer Palace, the view improves massively. You also go under some historic bridges as you follow the path Empress Dowager Cixi would have taken to her warm-weather pad.

The Summer Palace can get rammed in the summer (obvs), especially around the famous Longevity Hill. If you’ve been to the palace before, skip the big-name tourist draws and head to the Garden of Harmonious Pleasures (xiequ yuan), in the Summer Palace’s northeast corner. A mini-lake with ornate footbridges decorate this quiet spot, which is aptly described as ‘a park within a park’.

Getting there Take Line 4 to National Library subway station and walk to the park.

Travel time 30 minutes from Dongzhimen.

Cost Summer Palace entrance fee is 30RMB or 15RMB for students.

Badachu Park

Badachu Park

A peaceful temple site within the Beijing borders

Nestled in the Western Hills, the slopes of Badachu Park host an array of Buddhist temples, nunneries and shrines. Centred around the Temple of Divine Light and its ‘Buddha Tooth’ relic, the park offers a real sense of spirituality.

If you think the handful of monks at the Lama Temple make it a spiritual hub, think again. At Badachu, monks, nuns and Buddhists far outnumber tourists; the quiet shrines are active places of worship where locals come to pray for guidance, health and luck in the lottery. They may also come for the exhilarating toboggan slide (60RMB) from the top of the hill back down to the entrance of the park.

The final courtyard of the Temple of the Fragrant World is a shady haven thick with incense. Sit beneath the trees and have a refreshing slice of watermelon (which you can buy from a nearby vendor) before continuing your pilgrimage uphill.

Getting there Take the subway to Pingguoyuanstation (Line 1); leave via the north exit and take bus 972 (first bus 6am; last bus 8pm) to the entrance of the park.

Travel time Two hours.

Fragrant Hills

Fragrant Hills

Popular and picturesque park on the western edge of Beijing

Originally cultivated in 1186, Fragrant Hills Park has been a dynastic hang-out spot for centuries. Upon entering the park (15RMB), the etymology of the name is obvious: the delicate aroma of the cypress trees lingers in the air. Enter through the north gate and amble towards the unique Biyun Temple (10RMB). First built in 1331, it’s a beautiful house of worship in its own right, made even more outstanding by its harmonious marriage with nature: thick shrubbery shrouds the buildings, wild ivy climbs the walls, cedar trees tower above the halls of worship; mountains perfectly frame the whole scene. 

A good route is to follow the signs to Mao’s former residence (Shuangqing Villa) for an hour-long stroll through the gardens. Be sure not to miss Jingcui Lake on your left. With lily pads resting on the glistening water and wilting willow trees all around, Jincui looks like a classic Chinese watercolour, so picture perfect it almost feels clichéd.

Shuanqing Villa is equally as beautiful. Mao stayed here in the summer of 1949, overseeing the last few months of the revolution. He directed ‘the crossing of the Yangtze River’ campaign from here – a battle that was one of the final few key victories for the Communists. As military bases go, it’s not a bad place to overthrow the decadent bourgeois class. You can also enter the modest villa to peer at his office and austere sleeping quarters.

Getting there Take bus 360 (5.30am-10pm) from Beijing Zoo (Line 4) and get off at Fragrant Hills (Xiangshan; 香山) after 25 stops.

Travel time One hour

Cost 15RMB to enter the park.

Beijing Botanical Gardens

Beijing Botanical Gardens

Release your inner botanist amongst the cultivated flora and fauna

A mere 40-minute drive from Dongzhimen, a trip to the Beijing Botanical Gardens is perhaps the quickest and easiest way to escape the city and immerse yourself in nature; hell, most cab drivers will take you out there. Pay the meagre 10RMB entrance fee and meander through these beautiful gardens; a rambling, exquisitely cultivated space made up of 12 unique areas specialising in different plants, of which there are over 6,000.

Walk straight ahead to the Peony Garden and amble among the 200-plus examples of this traditional Chinese flower. Favoured by emperors and courtesans since the Tang Dynasty (618 AD-907 AD), the flower is an ancient symbol in China and is known, unofficially, as the PRC’s national flower. Keep going to the equally beautiful rose garden – a large square with park benches reminiscent of a garden in an English stately home – or turn left towards the greenhouses.

These rusty, grubby-windowed hotboxes might not look much on the outside, but they hide a world of tropical, rare species of plant inside. The greenhouses are a maze of over a dozen interconnected rooms, meaning you can walk between different areas without going outside – the perfect way to get stuck into nature on a rainy day. Every plant in the garden is labelled in English and Chinese.

Getting there Take Line 1 to Pinguoyuan (苹果园) and then bus 318 (5am-10.20pm) to Beijing Botanical Garden (北京植物园). It takes about one hour and 30 minutes from Pingguoyuan to Beijing Botanical Gardens.

Travel time About one hour and 30 minutes from Pingguoyuan.

Cost 10RMB entrance fee.

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