One of Beijing’s must-see attractions, the Summer Palace is a lavish imperial playground whose grounds are large enough to have an almost rural feel. Once the private haunt of the notorious Empress Cixi, it functions today as a lovely public park, two-thirds of which is taken up by Kunming Lake. During the hottest months of the year, the imperial court would decamp to this perfect location, the site surrounded by hills, cooled by the lake and sheltered by judicious use of garden landscaping.
The palace buildings, many connected by a suitably majestic gallery, are built on and around Wanshou Shan (Longevity Hill), north of the lake and west of the main gate. Many of these edifices are intimately linked with Cixi – anecdotes about whom are the stock output of the numerous tour guides – but to enjoy the site, you need know very little of its history: like Beihai, the park, its lake and pavilions form a startling visual array, akin to a traditional Chinese landscape painting brought to life.