Summer Palace Beijing: Facts, History, Map, Travel Tips

The Summer Palace (Yiheyuan), in northwest Beijing, is said to be the best-preserved imperial garden in the world, and the largest of its kind still in existence in China. It is only a short drive of 15 km (10 miles) from central Beijing, but it seems like another world.

Most people find they need to spend at least half a day there, as there’s so much to see and enjoy.

Close to the Summer Palace, 3 kilometers (2 miles) southwest of it, there is another imperial garden called the Old Summer Palace. They are two different gardens.

Summer Palace Facts

  • Chinese: 颐和园 Yíhé Yuán /ee-her ywen/ ‘Nourishing Peace Garden’
  • Area: 2.9 square kilometers (1.1 sq mi)
  • Age: 257 years (in 2021, completed 1764)
  • Popular activities: boating on Kunming Lake, walking the Long Corridor, watching a traditional Chinese performance in the ancient theater
  • Suited to: anyone
  • Time needed: half a day

Why Is the Summer Palace Famous?

The Summer Palace
The Summer Palace

The Summer Palace was listed as World Heritage in 1998. UNESCO reported that the Summer Palace is “a masterpiece of Chinese landscape garden design”.

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The ‘Imperial Garden Museum’

The Summer Palace is known as the ‘Imperial Garden Museum’ in China as its purpose now is the preservation of national heritage material. It harmonizes plants and paths, water and land, architecture and horticulture, epitomizing the philosophy and practice of Chinese garden design.

The Summer Palace played a key role in the development of this Oriental cultural form, and perhaps represents its pinnacle.

A Summer Retreat for the Royal Family

The Summer Palace was used as a summer retreat by the Chinese royal family. During the hot Beijing summers, the imperial family preferred the beautiful gardens and airy pavilions of the Summer Palace to the walled-in Forbidden City. Dowager Empress Cixi took up permanent residence there for a time, giving rise to some wonderful tales of extravagance and excess.

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Summer Palace History

The Summer Palace at Sunset
The Summer Palace at Sunset

Construction — Began in 1750

Emperor Qianlong ordered the construction of the Summer Palace to celebrate his mother’s sixtieth birthday. The Summer Palace was built in 1750 and completed in 1764. At that time, the Summer Palace was not called the Summer Palace, or even Yiheyuan, but Qingyiyuan (‘Clear Ripples Garden’).

Burned — 1860

In the late Qing Dynasty, due to the weakening of national power, the garden was gradually abandoned.  In 1860, it was destroyed by British and French allied forces.

Rebuilt — 1884–1895

The Empress Dowager Cixi rebuilt the garden as her summer resort and changed its name to the Summer Palace (Yiheyuan), its present name.

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In order to rebuild the Summer Palace, military expenditure was diverted, which contributed to the Qing government’s defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War in 1895.

In 1900, it was destroyed by the Allied Forces of the Eight Powers during the defeat of the Boxer Rebellion, but it was rebuilt again in 1902.

Opened to the Public — 1914

In 1912, the Qing Dynasty ended, and the Summer Palace became the private property of the former imperial family of the Qing Empire. Two years later, the Summer Palace was opened to the public.

In 1924, the Beijing municipal government took charge of administrating the Summer Palace and turned it into a public park.

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The Summer Palace’s Layout

The Summer Palace Map
The Summer Palace Map

The Summer Palace’s largest features are Longevity Hill and Kunming Lake.

Longevity Hill is in the north of the Summer Palace, accounting for about a quarter of the whole garden.

Most palaces and gardens were built along the north–south axis of Longevity Hill.

These palaces fall into several sections, each with its own distinct character, some meant for administration, some living, and others relaxation.

People usually divide Longevity Hill into the ‘front hill’ area and ‘back hill’ area.

Kunming Lake takes up three quarters of the whole garden and is dotted with several small islands. These small islands also host some halls and pavilions.

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Summer Palace Attractions

Palaces, halls, pavilions, the long corridor, and the marble boat are the main things to see in the Summer Palace gardens.

Tower of Buddhist Incense (Foxiangge)

Tower of Buddhist Incense
Tower of Buddhist Incense

It is the main building of the Summer Palace complex, built halfway up the front of Longevity Hill. Empress Dowager Cixi went there every month to worship Buddha.

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Hall of Dispelling Clouds (Paiyundian)

Hall of Dispelling Clouds
Hall of Dispelling Clouds

This was the Summer Palace’s main place for Empress Dowager Cixi to receive guests, host grand ceremonies, and celebrate her birthday. Like the Tower of Buddhist Incense, it is located on the central axis of the ‘front hill’ area.

Hall of Benevolence and Longevity (Renshoudian)

This was the main place for administering government affairs, receive greetings, and receive foreign envoys.

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The Long Corridor

The Long Corridor
The Long Corridor

The paths beside the lake lead you under shady trees, or along the roofed colonnade known as the Long Corridor, with its magnificently painted ceilings. Bridges, boats, willows, lotus flowers, and other attractive landscaping make this a pleasant place to soak up the atmosphere and lovely views.

Facing Kunming Lake, it’s 728 meters (2,388 feet) long. In 1992, it was recognized as the longest corridor in the world and listed in “The Book of Guinness World Records”.

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The Garden of Virtue and Harmony (Deheyuan)

The Garden of Virtue and Harmony
The Garden of Virtue and Harmony

It was built as a theater for the Empress Dowager Cixi. The three-story theater stage is the biggest and best-preserved wooden stage in China. Famous Beijing opera actors of the Qing Dynasty would come to perform for the Empress Dowager and the stage was regarded as the “Cradle of Beijing Opera“.

Sea of Wisdom (Zhihuihai)

It is located on the peak of Longevity Hill. The outer layer of the building is decorated with exquisite yellow and green glazed tiles.

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Hall of Jade Ripples (Yulantang)

This hall was the living quarters of Emperor Guangxu (1871–1908). When Empress Dowager Cixi gained real power, Guangxu was confined there.

Hall of Joy and Longevity (Leshoutang)

This hall was the living quarters of Empress Dowager Cixi. Facing Kunming Lake, and leaning against Longevity Hill, reaching out to the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity in the east and the Long Corridor in the west, it is the best place for living and relaxation in the Summer Palace complex.

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Suzhou Street

Suzhou Street
Suzhou Street

Suzhou Market Street recreates a selection of traditional riverside shops (as would have been found in Suzhou), many of which can only be reached by boat. The story goes that former Emperors, or their concubines, used to enjoy ‘pretend-shopping’, as normally everything was bought for them.

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The Marble Boat

The Marble Boat
The Marble Boat

The Marble Boat, at the northern edge of the lake, is a decorative building that imitates a real boat. Erected in 1755, it is the only Western-style structure in the park, inlaid with colorful glass windows and wheels, and paved with colored bricks.

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Kunming Lake and 17-Hole Bridge

Kunming Lake and 17-Hole Bridge
Kunming Lake and 17-Hole Bridge

Kunming Lake, in the center of the park, takes up about 75% of the park. Boating on Kunming Lake is highly recommended. It takes about 10 minutes and gives a tranquil and relaxing break away from the crowds of tourists confined to the pathways. The boating fee is not included in the entrance fee.

The famous 17-hole bridge spans between Nanhu (‘South Lake’) Island and the east bank. The bridge is 150 meters (490 ft) long, and is curved like a long rainbow frame above the blue water.

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