The Summer Palace is a great place to spend a few hours or an entire day any time of the year when visiting Beijing. It is important to distinguish the Summer Palace (Yihe Yuan) with the Old Summer Palace (Yuanming Yuan) although both sites are fascinating and beautiful places to visit. First built as a traditional Chinese garden in 1750 by Emperor Qianlong (although the site was in use as early as the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234 A.D.), the Summer Palace has a number of very interesting features including the huge, mostly man-made Kunming Lake, and the 60-meter/200-feet tall Longevity Hill, which was built with the dirt removed in the building of Kunming Lake. Numerous examples of traditional Chinese architecture abound throughout the complex. Some of the main highlights of the massive park include:
1. The Long Corridor (aka Long Gallery). This is an extremely long covered walkway of 728 meters (almost 800 yards) that features traditional Chinese paintings on the underside of the roof.
2. The Seventeen Arch Bridge. Built in 1750, this ancient bridge has 544 uniquely carved lions sitting atop its white marble balustrades - keep the kids busy by asking them to count them all.
3. The Marble Boat. First built in 1755 and destroyed by invading forces in 1860, the Empress Dowager Cixi helped to bankrupt the Chinese navy, a bankruptcy which was at least partly responsible for the eventual downfall of the Qing Dynasty, by using military funds to rebuild the Marble Boat and other parts of the Summer Palace.
4. Hall of Benevolence and Longevity. This building as well as several others inside the park is still furnished as it was during the Qing Dynasty, and it still contains the original 9-dragon throne that was used by Cixi.
5. Garden of Virtue and Harmony. This area has the 3-story Grand Theater building where Cixi watched Peking Opera performances; musical performances are still shown here at various times. There is also the Dressing House displaying vintage costumes and what is supposedly the first car ever in China, Cixi's Benz.
6. Suzhou Market Street. As the name suggests, this area of the Summer Palace was built in the style of the city of Suzhou's riverside markets, which was allegedly built to entertain one of Emperor Qianlong's concubines who originally came from Suzhou.
7. Tower of Buddhist Incense. A climb to the top of this pagoda allows for a panoramic view over Kunming Lake and the Summer Palace area. It also contains an interesting Ming Dynasty era statue with 12 heads and 24 arms.
8. The Bronze Ox. By Chinese tradition, the ox has flood control powers. This ox was cast in bronze in 1755 by order of Emperor Qianlong and placed alongside Kunming Lake. On its back there is an 80-character inscription written by the emperor.
The main sights of the Summer Palace can be seen in a whirlwind 2 or 3-hour tour, but to truly appreciate its beauty and numerous historical sites, plan to spend a full day here if you have the time. Be sure to wear comfortable clothing appropriate for the season and good walking shoes because it takes a lot of walking to see everything that there is to see here. Good luck and have fun!