Beijing’s Imperial Summer Palace is a masterpiece of Chinese landscape garden design, a UNESCO World Heritage treasure in perfect harmony with the surrounding nature and a perfect place for a stroll on a summer’s day.
So well preserved that it is often called the ‘museum’ of royal gardens, the parkland surrounding the palace is the largest imperial garden of its kind in the country. Conceived by the Qing emperor Qianlong between 1750 and 1764 as the Garden of Clear Ripples, it was built according to the Chinese principles of balance and harmony and as a result, is a pleasure to explore.
During the heat of the summer in Beijing, the Imperial Family preferred the breeze of the gardens and airy pavilions of the Summer Palace to the walled-in Forbidden City, and you can see why. The breezeways – hallways especially designed to carry a pleasing draft through the linked structures – are an architectural delight, and for some spiritual contemplation away from the pressures of the city, there is nowhere better. For one of the most peaceful experiences at the palace, take a stroll along the lake, where willows stroke the gently rippling waters as the sun shimmers.
The palace has an interesting history, and you can sense the regal air to the landscape as you make your way through the park. One particularly intriguing story involves the Empress Dowager Cixi, who, between 1984 and 1985, ordered a large scale enlargement of the palace for her 60th birthday celebrations. After 1949, the Summer Palace also briefly housed the central party school of the Communist Party.
The Imperial Summer Palace has something new to discover at every turn: the park covers nearly three kilometres in total, with the centrepiece of Longevity Hill surrounded by pavilions, temples, halls, bridges, statues and the Kunming Lake.
Summer is the best time to visit the palace, when you can appreciate the purpose that it was designed to fulfill. It also means you will be able to enjoy the many boat trips available to tourists here – in winter, the lakes can freeze over, putting a halt to the cruises.
The final icing on the cake for visitors keen to take in the peace and tranquility of the palace gardens is their proximity to the city of Beijing. Though the gardens feel enjoyably removed from all the hustle and bustle of Beijing, this area of outstanding natural beauty is actually just a short 15km drive from the centre.