Time Out's ultimate guide to Beijing's Summer Palace

Our walkthrough tour of the spectacular palace's biggest and best sights

Along with the Forbidden City, the Great Wall and the Temple of Heaven, the Summer Palace is undoubtedly one of Beijing’s hottest attractions, offering a different experience for visitors in every season. Whether you’re coming to whizz across its frozen lake in winter, soak up some sun in the spring or summer, or admire its splendid autumn colours, the palace makes for a fantastic day out.

As far back as the Jin dynasty (1115-1234), the site of Beijing’s Summer Palace was used as a spot for retreat, relaxation and even residence by imperial families and their entourage. Successive dynasties made their alterations and additions to its gardens, lakes, halls and pavilions, but it was during the late Qing dynasty and the regency of Empress Dowager Cixi (1861-1908) that it gained its current grandeur.

It’s also a whopper of a complex – one trip might not be enough to see it all – so get to ready to flex those legs and follow us through on a tour of the palace’s best.
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The Hall of Benevolence and Longevity (仁寿殿)

The Hall of Benevolence and Longevity (仁寿殿)

Though the vast park has several entrances, the most popular and perhaps most logical starting point is the east gate. Once you’ve grabbed your tickets and skirted round a few tour groups, you’ll be greeted by the first of many impressive structures to come, The Hall of Benevolence and Longevity.

Even when the young Emperor Guangxu came of age and formally took power in 1889, Empress Dowager Cixi continued to influence political goings-on from her ‘retirement’ residence here at the Summer Palace; it was in this lavishly decorated building that state affairs would be handled, and officials from far and wide greeted.

Inside, the hall’s centrepiece is an ostentatious throne surrounded by a series of peacock statues and golden ornaments, and backed by a mirrored screen engraved with over 200 variations of the character ‘寿’ (shòu) – ‘longevity’ or ‘long life’, a recurring theme throughout this palace that was rebuilt as a place for retirement and relaxation.

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Dragon and phoenix statues

Dragon and phoenix statues

As you face the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity, note the pair of bronze phoenix and dragon statues perched either side of the door; traditionally, the phoenix, representing the empress, sits outside the central dragon – the emperor – yet here, it is the phoenix who takes the central position, representative of the power that Empress Dowager Cixi held.

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The Garden of Virtue and Harmony (德和园)

The Garden of Virtue and Harmony (德和园)

Heading to the right of the administrative Hall of Benevolence and Longevity, you’ll very quickly be met by the Garden of Virtue and Harmony – the imperial leisure complex that is home to the imposing Grand Theatre.

Peking opera was an imperial favourite, and Cixi was such an avid fan that during the rebuilding of the Summer Palace in the 1890s, she requested the construction of a performing space that to this day remains one of the country’s largest, and is still considered among its most impressive. Its three tiers are connected by a series of trapdoors, while various winches and other special effects fittings would have made for some exceptionally intricate histrionics.

Directly opposite is the ornate Hall of Nurtured Joy, where the Empress Dowager would have occupied the best seat in the house; other guests – by invitation only – would have perched to the sides of the stage.

If you didn’t buy the all-inclusive through ticket, this is a paid attraction that will set you back 10RMB, but one that is worth popping into. 

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The Hall of Joyful Longevity (乐寿堂)

The Hall of Joyful Longevity (乐寿堂)

After you’ve gone back out through the in door of the Garden of Virtue and Harmony, take a right and continue west until you reach the Hall of Joyful Longevity, and the unmissably huge rock plonked in front of it. 

Over the course of its existence, this siheyuan-style courtyard largely served as a residence, and was first built in 1750 under the direction of Qing dynasty emperor Qianlong as a birthday gift for his mother’s 60th. A century later, it was one of the many palace structures burned down by French and British forces, but was rebuilt in 1891 for Empress Dowager Cixi.

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What is that great big rock?

What is that great big rock?

As for the the eight-meter-wide, four-metre-tall stone that sits in the courtyard of the Hall of Joyful Longevity, it’s a rock with a mixed history and an even rockier reputation. First discovered to the southwest of the city in modern-day Fangshan district by Ming dynasty official and stone enthusiast Mi Wanzhong (1570-1628), he squandered his whole fortune trying to transport it back to his city residence. Ultimately, his ruin left him with no choice but to abandon it halfway.

From this point, the Blue Iris Stone gained its unofficial name of Baijiashi (败家石) – roughly ‘the stone of family financial ruin’. When Qing emperor Qianlong (1711-1799) first came across it, he too was so enamoured that he wished to have it moved to here at the Summer Palace – a move that his superstitious mother opposed, fearing it would bring financial ruin to their family, too.

After telling his mother that the stone resembled a formerly famous fungus revered for its supposedly miraculous life-extending powers, she acquiesced, and the stone arrived. Today, many suspicious visitors still consider it bad luck to photograph the stone, fearing their own bankruptcy.

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Water calligraphers

Water calligraphers

There’s no convenient way to see it all here, so you’ll need to double back on yourself, past the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity to reach our next destination, the Heralding Spring Pavilion. On the path just before the pavilion, however, you will come across the elegant handiwork of the water calligraphers who paint fleeting character artworks on the pavings.

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The Heralding Spring Pavilion (知春亭)

The Heralding Spring Pavilion (知春亭)

The Heralding Spring Pavilion is a pleasant little canopy that juts out over the water and offers near-panoramic views across the lake all the way to the western mountains – perhaps even the best views; it was given its name as it was appreciated as the top spot in the whole palace to admire the bursting colours of spring, on Longevity Hill, in the park's western reaches and further ahead on the mountains.


In addition to the pavilion itself, the rocks around its small spit of land make for a nice little scenic perch, if you're already in need of a quick pause.

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Wenchang Gallery (文昌院)

Wenchang Gallery (文昌院)

Next up is the Wenchang Gallery, an exhibition of some of the stunning relics and heirlooms kept at the Summer Palace by generations of imperial families. Thousands of artefacts are collected in its darkened hall, including priceless porcelains, jades, enamelwares, bronzes and furniture, with some reportedly dating back as far as the distant Shang dynasty (c.1600-1046 BC).

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The Spacious Pavilion (廓如亭)

The Spacious Pavilion (廓如亭)

It’s now time to head south, so take a left out of the gallery and make for the Spacious Pavilion, which, as its name suggests, is the palace’s largest. Step inside and look up – the colourful and intricate woodwork is pretty impressive, right?

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The Bronze Ox (铜牛)

The Bronze Ox (铜牛)

Just before the pavilion is a bronze statue of an ox dating back to 1755, which proudly looks out over the Kunming Lake. Inscribed upon its back is an 80-character poem written by the Qianlong Emperor that, like much of the palace’s contents, is an ode to longevity.

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The Seventeen-Arch Bridge (十七孔桥)

The Seventeen-Arch Bridge (十七孔桥)

You will have already caught sight of this one on the way down, but now’s your chance to get a good close-up ogle at the Seventeen-Arch Bridge before heading across it to South Lake Island. The steep 150-metre crossing is lined by hundreds of lion statues, but it saves its best for clear summer evenings, when the setting sun strikes against its many arches to create one of the park’s most spectacular sights.

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South Lake Island (南湖岛)

South Lake Island (南湖岛)

The shady South Lake Island is home to a number of interesting sights, including the Hall of Embracing the Universe, an imperial favourite for gazing at both the surrounding scenery, and further into the starry night sky. You’ll get some of your best snaps across the lake to Longevity Hill from here.


If you’re not pushed for time – or energy – head back across the bridge, and continue south for a ramble around the entire Kunming Lake. Otherwise it’s time to set sail and skip to stop 17, via a pleasure cruise back to the park’s northern shores. A variety of options are available around the park, and at different price points, including self-driven motorboats and pedalos, or quicker passenger crossings.

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The southern end of Kunming Lake

The southern end of Kunming Lake

If you chose the leg-stretching option, you’ll soon realise that the Kunming Lake is rather large – around 6 kilometres in circumference, in fact – but a jaunt to its further reaches is rewarding; the tourist hubbub is centred largely around the northern Longevity Hill, so this area is the reserve of the intrepid, as well as the season ticket-holding old Beijingers who come here to relax. It’s perfect for a midday picnic.

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The West Causeway (西堤)

The West Causeway (西堤)

Continue up the West Causeway, the narrow corridor of land built to imitate a similar feature at Hangzhou’s famous West Lake. It’s a relatively quiet strip that’s home to a series of charming bridges and pavilions, and is lined by leafy shade-giving trees and colourful flowers in spring and summer.

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The view to the west

The view to the west

If the pollution has been kind to you, you’ll have already taken in clear views of the city’s spectacular western mountains already, as well a protruding tower perched on a hill before it. 

What you’re gazing at is Jade Spring Hill – previously home to a spring that produced fine water appreciated by many an emperor – crowned by the Jade Peak Pagoda, a seven-storey, 30-metre structure that is unfortunately no longer open to the public.

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The Jade Belt Bridge (玉带桥)

The Jade Belt Bridge (玉带桥)

Your saunter along the West Causeway culminates at the Jade Belt Bridge, a dramatically steep and arching marble structure that will probably test your tiring legs by this point. But we’re just getting going…

This type of crossing is known as a ‘Moon bridge’, and is a feature of many Chinese and Japanese gardens; when viewed from slightly further away, its high arch reflecting on the water below it creates the illusion of a circle, evoking the full moon. The high arch was also jacked up to such great heights to allow the Qianlong Emperor’s elaborate dragon boat to comfortably pass beneath it.

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The Marble Boat (清宴舫)

The Marble Boat (清宴舫)

Keep on following the path around to the right until you reach the Marble Boat, an intriguing piece of architecture with a history to match. The original that stood here was burned down by the British and French in 1860 during the Second Opium War, and the current boat – a stone-based structure with a European-inspired two-storey wooden pavilion atop it –  dates back to 1893. 

Ironically, this completely immobile ‘paddle steamer’, like most of the Summer Palace, was rebuilt with funds diverted by Cixi from an intended reinforcing of the nation’s naval fleet – boats that could actually, you know, move and what not.

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The Long Corridor (长廊)

The Long Corridor (长廊)

We’re now getting to the best bits of the tourist goodie bag, so continue east into the Long Corridor. This 728-metre-long walkway was built in 1750 by the Qianlong Emperor to allow his resident mother to take sheltered strolls whatever the weather, and is adorned with over 14,000 intricate paintings, which depict famous Chinese legends, historical battles, landscapes and wildlife.

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Up Longevity Hill (万寿山)

Up Longevity Hill (万寿山)

Follow the corridor to its centre; it’s now time to start climbing that big old hill you’ve been admiring all this time. The 60-or-so-metre-tall Longevity Hill is a man-made mound of packed earth, taken from the excavation that created Kunming Lake, and they sure did make it steep – you’ll work up a sweat on the various in-your-face staircases that head towards the top.

Its shape – a hill – means that getting round to all the sights stationed on either side of it is fairly demanding, but it’s worthwhile undertaking.

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Baoyun Bronze Pavilion (宝云阁)

Baoyun Bronze Pavilion (宝云阁)

About halfway up Longevity Hill, veer off to the left down a sloping track that leads to one of the palace’s best anomalies. Nestled amongst the reds, blues and greens of its surrounding buildings, the 207-tonne, blackish-green Baoyun Pavilion sticks out like a sore thumb. It’s made entirely of bronze and has a sombre and sinister air about it. Heavy metal in more ways than one.

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The view back to Beijing

The view back to Beijing

You’ll need to head back on yourself, and back up a few more steps to reach the park's finest lookout, at the entrance to the Tower of Buddhist Incense. It's a fantastic viewpoint over the park and beyond – on a clear day, the views back into downtown Beijing are simply spectacular.

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The Tower of Buddhist Incense (佛香阁)

The Tower of Buddhist Incense (佛香阁)

You've reached the centrepiece of the park, the Tower of Buddhist Incense. The elaborately decorated three-tiered structure is as magnificent close up as it has been from afar, not to mention the equally impressive five-metre-tall Thousand-Handed Guanyin Buddha that stands inside it.

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The Sea of Wisdom (智慧海)

The Sea of Wisdom (智慧海)

To the rear of the tower sits another striking Buddhist monument, the Sea of Wisdom, the highest building in the palace, whose glazed green and yellow façade adorned with innumerable repeating buddhas makes for quite the sight. Inside, it’s home to buddha statues big and small, who perch imposingly in the dimly lit hall.

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The Four Great Regions (四大部州)

The Four Great Regions (四大部州)

What goes up must come down, and it’s time to do just that, scaling down the back of Longevity Hill via the Four Great Regions. A complete change of style and scenery, it’s a series of temples that mixes the whites and reds of Tibetan architecture with traditional Chinese styles, housing plentiful shimmering buddhas and even more steep steps along the way. Of course, you can do the whole route in reverse, but when you get a look at some of these staircases, going down seems the much better option.

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Suzhou Street (苏州街)

Suzhou Street (苏州街)

After reaching the base of the Four Great Regions, you're now on the home strait to the finish line. Heading north, you'll shortly arrive at a bridge over not-so-troubled water, and a strip of traditional-looking structures lining the banks.


Originally built during the time of the Qianlong Emperor to resemble the canals and architecture of the southern city of Suzhou, and all to impress one of his homesick concubines, the strip suffered substantial damage at the hands of French and British forces in 1860 and was only restored and opened to the public in 1990. It now houses a string of shops and boat rides upon its 300-metre-or-so canal.

Suzhou Street is a paid attraction, with entrance a cool 10RMB for those who didn't opt for the through ticket. It's an interesting little change of scenery from what you've been seeing so far, though if you're tired of walking (and of boat trips), it's also a largely missable attraction lined mainly by overpriced souvenir shops.

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Beigongmen (北宫门)

Beigongmen (北宫门)

Before you exit via the northern gate, Beigongmen, take a look back at the impressive Four Great Regions clasping to the hillside in its entirety. Take a breather, take one last snap, and head for the hills. Metaphorically, that is. No more hills, please.


Conveniently, you won't need to head back to Xiyuan subway station to head back into the city; Beigongmen station (also Line 4) is just a two-minute walk to the east of the gate. Onto the next attraction!

Before you go

Essential info

Essential info

When to go The peak season (April 1-October 31) sees a fairly consistent stream of visitors, so weekdays are your best bet for a pleasant trip. Public holidays? Forget it.

Pack a picnic You’re likely to be here for a few hours, and all that walking is hungry work. Come prepared, otherwise you’ll find yourself paying premium for some strictly average sustenance.

Price Be sure to buy the 60RMB access-all-areas ticket, which includes entrance to four paid attractions, including the Wenchang Gallery and Tower of Buddhist Incense; all are 10RMB each otherwise, with park entry 30RMB. Off-peak: Entrance 20RMB, 5RMB for paid attractions; through ticket 50RMB.

Opening times Apr 1-Oct 31, 6.30am-8pm (last entry 6pm); Nov 1-Mar 31, 7am-7pm (last entry 5pm). Paid attractions in the park, such as the Tower of Buddhist Incense and Wenchang Gallery, shut early than the rest of the park; peak season, 5pm; off-peak, 4pm.

Getting there Take subway Line 4 to Xiyuan station (Exit C2) to reach the East Gate of the park.

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