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This expanse of elaborate Qing-style pavilions, bridges, walkways, and gardens, scattered along the shores of immense Kunming Lake, is the grandest imperial playground in China, constructed from 1749 to 1764. Between 1860 and 1903, it was twice leveled by foreign armies and rebuilt; hence it is often called the New Summer Palace, even though it predates the ruined Old Summer Palace (Yuan Ming Yuan). The palace is most often associated with the Empress Dowager Cixi, who resided here for much of the year and even set up a photographic studio. The grounds were declared a public park in 1924 and spruced up in 1949.

Essentials

The Summer Palace (tel. 010/6288-1144) is located 12km (7 1/2 miles) northwest of the city center in Haidian. Take bus no. 726 from just west of Wudaokou light rail station; or take a 30- to 40-minute taxi ride for ¥60 from the center of town. A more pleasant option is to travel there by boat along the renovated canal system; slightly rusty "imperial yachts" leave from the Beizhan Houhu Matou (tel. 010/8836-3576), behind the Beijing Exhibition Center just south of the Beijing Aquarium (from 10am to 4pm every hour, or every 30 min. during student summer holidays [early July to late Aug]; 50-min. trip; ¥40 one-way; ¥70 round-trip; ¥100 including entrance ticket), docking at Nan Ruyi Men in the south of the park. The gates open daily at 6am; no tickets are sold after 5:30pm in summer and 5pm in winter. Admission is ¥30 for entry to the grounds or ¥60 for the all-inclusive lian piao, reduced to ¥20 and ¥50, respectively, in winter (Nov-Mar). The most convenient entrance is Dong Gong Men (East Gate). Go early and allow at least 4 hours for touring the major sites on your own. Overpriced imperial-style food in a pleasant setting is available at the Tingli Guan Restaurant, at the western end of the Long Corridor. The area around the lake is perfect for a picnic, and Kunming Lake is ideal for skating in the depths of winter.

Exploring The Summer Palace

This park covers roughly 290 hectares (717 acres), with Kunming Lake in the south and Longevity Hill (Wanshou Shan) in the north. The lake's northern shore includes most of the buildings and other attractions and is the most popular area for strolls, although walking around the smaller lakes (Hou Hu) behind Longevity Hill is more pleasant. The hill itself has a number of temples as well as Baoyun Ge (Precious Clouds Pavilion), one of the few structures in the palace to escape destruction by foreign forces. There are literally dozens of pavilions and a number of bridges on all sides of the lake, enough to make for a full day of exploration. Rather slow electric-powered boats may be rented; they are an appealing option on muggy summer days.

Long Corridor (Chang Lang) -- Among the more memorable attractions in Beijing, this covered wooden promenade stretches 700m (nearly half a mile) along the northern shore of Kunming Lake. Each crossbeam, ceiling, and pillar is painted with a different scene (roughly 10,000 in all) taken from Chinese history, literature, myth, or geography. Politely rebuff the "students" who offer to show you their "original art" at this spot.

Marble Boat (Shi Fang) -- Docked at the end of the Long Corridor is an odd structure which is "neither marble nor a boat," as one novelist observed. Locals, keen to blame the Empress Dowager for China's decline during the Qing dynasty, wring their hands and cite it as the symbol of China's demise. Cixi funded a general restoration of the palace using money intended for the Chinese navy, and the (completely frivolous) boat is said to be Cixi's backhanded reference to the source of the funds. Shortly after the restoration was completed in 1888, China's paltry fleet was destroyed in a skirmish with Japan, the most glaring evidence yet of China's weakness in the modern era.

Renshou Dian (Hall of Benevolence and Longevity) -- Located directly across the courtyard from the east gate entrance, Renshou Dian is the palace's main hall. This is where the Empress Dowager received members of the court, first from behind a screen and later, all pretenses dropped, from the Dragon Throne itself. North of the hall is Cixi's private theater, now a museum that contains an old Mercedes-Benz -- the first car imported into China.

Seventeen-Arch Bridge (Shiqi Kong Qiao) -- This marble bridge, 150m (492 ft.) long, connects South Lake Island (Nan Hu Dao) to the east shore of Kunming Lake. There is a rather striking life-size bronze ox near the eastern foot of the bridge.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.