Summer Palace walking tour
Full circle route
Summer Palace is huge and it is very hard to navigate without a big map. Luckily very good map is available for purchase (CNY10) at the ticket counter. There are three entrances to Summer Palaces: East Palace Gate (main gate), North Palace Gate and South Palace Gate (New Palace Gate).
Using different gates as a starting point for a visiting Summer Palace will give you a different perspective and experience of the place. One thing is certain: from whichever gate you enter into this beautiful complex enjoyment is a guaranteed. Yet, we can recommend North Palace Gate to start your Summer Palace visit, because it provides a good starting point for a fluent, easy and pleasure tour. Plus, it is just about 400 meters away from the metro station.
Depending on your time, physical strength and preference you can do full circle tour (about 4 hours with resting time) where you would see almost everything in Summer Palace. Or you can take a path from North to East Gate (about 2.5 hours), where you would cover only main buildings. If you can do it, full circle tour is rewarding and highly recommended.
Walking tour itinerary
North Palace Gate – Suzhou Market Street – Four Great Regions – Sea of Wisdom Temple – Tower of the Buddhist Incense – Hall of Dispelling Clouds – Long Corridor (Gallery) – Hall of Happiness and Longevity – Garden of Harmonious Interests – Garden of Virtue and Harmony – Yiyun House – Hall of Jade Ripples – Hall of Benevolence and Longevity – Wenchang Gallery – Bronze Ox – Seventeen-Arch Bridge – South Lake Island – Marble boat (by boat) – Suzhou Market Street (by boat)
Soon after the North Palace Gate you will come to the three arch bridge. Don’t cross it, but turn left and go down the stairs to enter in the Suzhou Market Street (苏州市场街; Sūzhōu Shìchǎng Jiē; CNY10). Admission to this attractions is included in the through ticket. If you decide to buy a regular ticket, this attraction is very well worth 10 yuans extra.
Suzhou Market Street was built during the period of the Qing Dynasty, more precisely under the reign of Qianlong (1711-1799), but it had many reconstructions since then. In the second half of the 19th century, it was burned down by Anglo-French and rebuilt two decades later. Officially, it was opened for public in 1990. Many things can be found in today’s market, including souvenir shops, herbal shops, teashops, clothing stores, and the most interesting thing is that the sellers are dressed in Qing Dynasty costumes. The street goes around 300 meters along the bank of Back Lake, and it covers an area of 3,000 square meters. In the past, it was best known by the name “buy and sell street” and it served as an entertainment place for the emperors and concubines.
Just across the three arch bridge is an interesting gate which will take you to the plateau in front of the fort-like building, Four Great Regions (四大部洲; Sì Dà Bù Zhōu).
Four Great Regions is a Tibetan style temple, concretely, a complex of buildings in Tibetan Buddhist manner, and it is considered to be the largest in Beijing. Throughout the history, it basically shared the same destiny as Suzhou Market Street; both build by the Emperor Qianlong and suffer the destruction during the Anglo – French invasion. In the past, it was a part of Summer Temple, and several things remained untouched from that period, such as two stone sutra pillars and a pair of stone lions. It was believed that the Buddha lived in a sacred mountain surrounded by the sea, named Xumi Mountain and that in the surrounding sea there were four great regions called the Jambudvipa, Purvavidewa, Uttarakara, and Aparagodahiya.
From Four Great Regions take the path to the right toward the Tower of the Buddhist Incense and you will pass Sea of Wisdom Temple (智慧海; Zhìhuì Hǎi), which is constructed entirely of stone and brick, though it resembles the wooden structures. It was built during the reign of Emperor Qianlong, and it has the statue of Guan Yin. It is set on the very top of Longevity Hill (万寿山; Wànshòu Shān). This hill is about 60 meters high, and there are many buildings on it such as; Sea of Wisdom Temple, Tower of the Buddhist Incense, Hall of Dispelling Clouds, Long Corridor and many more. It has many functions, but the landscape and religious function are the most important among the locals and tourists as well. On the south, there is Kunming Lake (昆明湖; Kūnmíng Hú), which is the central lake of the Summer Palace, covering three-quarters of the surface of this complex. Kunming Lake, formed by extending the natural lake has seven bridges.
After finishing with the previous sites, go to the Tower of the Buddhist Incense (佛香閣; Fó Xiāng Gé) which is a classic example of Chinese architecture, built on the mountain side of the Summer Palace, more precisely, in the middle of the Longevity Hill. It is 41 meters high, with three floors, four eaves and it is supported by eight pillars. Such position gives you a chance to have a breathtaking view from it. The Emperor Qianlong had the idea to use the land to make an impressive garden, but when a tomb of a concubine from the Ming Dynasty was discovered there, the idea to build a religious temple emerged. The tower was officially opened for public in 1989, and the last reconstruction occurred in 2006. After this reconstruction, The Tower of Buddhist Incense kept its original beauty, the same one it had during the celebration of Empress Dowager Cixi’s 60th birthday. Without through ticket admission for the tower is CNY10. Although it is not allowed to climb on the tower, view even from the base of the Tower of Buddhist Incense over the Kunming Lake and surrounding buildings is fantastic.
When you go down the stairs on the south side of the Tower of the Buddhist Incense, you will dive into series of buildings including Hall of Moral Glory and Hall of Dispelling Clouds (排云殿; Pái Yún Diàn).
The Hall of Dispelling Clouds was initially the Da Baoen Yanshou Temple built by the Emperor Qianlong for his mother’s 60th birthday. It stands in the main part of the magnificent area of the Longevity Hill. This breathtaking structure with golden yellow tiles that cover the roof and red columns is built on a platform surrounded by white marble and decorated with bronze phoenixes and dragons. In the hall, there is a throne bordered by incense burners. The Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908) used the hall only once a year, for her birthdays, though it was always richly and extravagantly furnished. Most of the objects that can be seen are gifts from the ministers and diplomats for her birthdays, including the portrait of the Empress when she was 61 years old, painted by an American painter Katharine Carl in 1903. In 1906, Katharine Carl published the book With the Empress Dowager.
On foot of the Longevity Hill, the Long Corridor (or Long Gallery; 长廊; Cháng Láng) is stretching along the north shore of the Kunming Lake. Go along the east wing of Long Corridor (when you look toward the Kunming Lake go left).
The Long Corridor was built by Qianlong Emperor in 1750 when he made a decision to convert the area into an imperial garden. This corridor was a perfect path to enjoy long walks through the gardens. Of course, the Second Opium War and the invasion of Anglo-French forces in 1860 did not miss this place as well, so eventually it was severely damaged, but rebuilt less than three decades after that. Today it is 728 meters long corridor and at the same time the longest corridor in Chinese classic gardens.
On the eastern end of the Long Corridor is Hall of Happiness and Longevity (乐寿堂; Lè Shòu Táng).
The Hall of Happiness and Longevity served to the Empress Dowager Cixi as a staying place while in the Summer Palace, and each of the four chambers it consists of had a different purpose during her stay. You cannot say for the building itself that is something of extraordinary beauty, but it is still worth visiting, especially because of the bronze statues, trees, and flowers in front of. One of the main characteristics of the hall is the chandelier, which was a gift from Germans in 1903 and the first electric light in China.
The north-east path from the From Hall of Happiness and Longevity will take you to the very restful Garden of Harmonious Interests (谐趣园; Xié Qù Yuán). Here, you can take a break and enjoy the serenity of this beautiful imperial garden. This is the place where you can refresh and replenish your body with food (if you take snacks with you), and your soul with peace. This is a place where you should just sit, relax, and give your all senses to the surrounding ponds, fishes, lotus flowers, trees.
The Garden of Harmonious Interests is the largest and best-preserved imperial garden in China. It was designed after the Emperor Qianlong visited Jichangyuan (Garden for Ease of Mind) in Wuxi, Jiangsu Province, and being impressed by it, he ordered something similar to be made in the Summer Palace. Today, this garden with its unique style is the best representative of the classical gardens of China. It consists of five halls, seven pavilions, small bridges, and numerous corridors. It is divided into remarkable eight settings, each with a different theme, such as; seasons, water, bridge, calligraphy, pavilion, painting, corridors and imitation.
From the Garden of Harmonious Interests come back using the same path as earlier to the main stroll. Continue sightseeing with a group of buildings that are next to each other and lined in north-south direction: Garden of Virtue and Harmony, Yiyun House, Hall of Jade Ripples, Hall of Benevolence and Longevity, and Wenchang Hall (Gallery).
The Garden of Virtue and Harmony (德和园; Dé Hé Yuán) consists of the three main buildings, The Grand Theater, Hall of Nurtured Joy and Hall of Celebrating Virtue. The three buildings served as the place where the royalty enjoyed watching the opera shows, so it is not surprising that it has one of the best stages on three levels, usually known as The Great Stage. All the three levels have their names and symbolize different things; fortune, salary, and longevity. The Hall of Nurtured Joy directly faces the theater, so it was easy to sit there and watch performances. The Hall of Celebrating Virtue serves as the resting place after the show. Without through ticket admission for this garden is CNY5.
Yiyun House (宜芸馆; Yí Yún Guǎn) got its name from the word “Yun”, which is a Chinese name for a plant that they use to protect books from moths since collecting books was the main purpose of this building, built during the reign of the Emperor Qianlong. After being damaged, it was repaired in the reign of Emperor Guangxu, and served as a dwelling for his Empress, with whom he did not spend most of his time.
The Hall of Jade Ripples (玉澜堂; Yù Lán Táng) was built by the Emperor Qianlong for the purpose of dealing with state affairs, but in the later period it was used by the Emperor Guangxu’s as a staying place, and eventually as the place for his home imprisonment that lasted for ten years, after the failure of the Reform Movement. It consists of the main hall and two subsidiary halls, and it is constructed in traditional Chinese Sanheyuan style.
The Hall of Benevolence and Longevity (仁寿殿; Rénshòu Diàn) is the first building you will see when entering the Summer Palace from the East Palace Gate, and it is the main hall in the whole complex. It was of a huge importance for political activities as well, and served as the place where the Emperor Guangxu and Empress Dowager Cixi would receive foreign visitors. Its main characteristic is a red sandalwood throne, carved with nine dragons, with a screen behind, and the word “Longevity” written on the mirror. Above the throne, it is also written that those who act well towards the government of the people will have a long life.
Wenchang Gallery (文昌院; Wénchāng Yuàn) is a huge and extraordinary gallery, and one of the biggest of its kind in any classical Chinese garden. It exhibits some of the great historical objects, and provides an excellent insight into the lives of the royal families, especially from Qing Dynasty. In its six halls, it has numerous artifacts, jewelry, chinaware, clocks, gold, silver, and other items, from the period of Shang and Zhou Dynasties to the fall of the Qing, covering around 3600 years. Without through ticket admission for this gallery is CNY20.
Walk along the East Causeway of Kunming Lake toward South Lake Island. On the way, you will see Bronze Ox (铜牛; Tóng Niú) as protecting Palace from flooding.
The Bronze Ox is made in the real size, and it is perfectly shaped, resembling the real one. It was made in 1755, and its main purpose is, according to the belief, to prevent the floods. The inscription on his back was written by the Emperor Qianlong, and it tells the whole story of how the idea for the ox appeared throughout the history.
Near the Bronze Ox, you will see the Seventeen-Arch Bridge (十七孔桥; Shí Qī Kǒng Qiáo) which stretches over the wide Kunming Lake with the length of 150 meters and width of 8 meters. It got its name due to its composition of seventeen arches. There are no bigger bridges in Summer Palace, so this one is quite important. It is full of different figures, and its main characteristic are 544 stone lions of different sizes and shapes. It connects South Lake Island with the mainland.
South Lake Island (or Nanhu Island; 南湖岛; Nán Hú Dǎo) was made when the Emperor Qianlong wanted to enlarge the lake, but in a way to save all of the buildings and temples, thus giving orders to dig up the land around them. Today it is considered to be one of the three fairy islands on the ocean, and the largest island in the Summer Palace, covering the area of 1 hectare. Among the most important buildings on the island there are; Chamber of Heartfelt Contentment, Hall of Embracing the Universe, Tower of Moonlight Ripples Hall of Foresight, and Dragon King Temple.
From South Lake Island take boat to the Marble boat (CNY8; 9-16:00) and you will enjoy magnificent views of the central buildings of Summer Palace from the middle of the Kunming Lake.
The Marble Boat (石舫; Shí Fǎng), with its second name the Boat of Purity and Ease is a pavilion along the lake. Today it completely resembles western style, while originally it was built in Chinese, until it was burnt down in 1860. It was mostly used by the royal family to enjoy a tea and the magnificent view over the lake.
About 200 meters north of Marble Boat is a dock. From there you can take a small boat that will take you to the Suzhou Market Street, and near the North Palace Entrance. This boat ride goes through the Back Lake which is on the north side of the Longevity Hill. The Back Lake is an artificial canal, with water taken from Kunming Lake. Some sections of the canal are narrow, there are several bridges that you will pass under, and shores are bounded with trees. This delightful and calming ride would be a perfect way to finish your visit of Summer Palace.
If from any reason you can’t do full circle visit of Summer Palace, although you should try your best to do so, you can still have a great time in Summer Palace with shorter sightseeing. If you would like to visit only main buildings, you can take this route (about 2.5 hours):
North Palace Gate – Suzhou Market Street – Four Great Regions – Sea of Wisdom Temple – Tower of the Buddhist Incense – Hall of Dispelling Clouds – Long Corridor (Gallery) – Hall of Happiness and Longevity – Yiyun House – Hall of Jade Ripples – Hall of Benevolence and Longevity – Wenchang Gallery – East Palace Gate
Or you can take same itinerary vice versa, from East Palace Gate to North Palace Gate.