The Summer Palace
It must have been quite a schlep for emperors of old—who traveled in slow-moving palanquins along with hundreds of courtiers to get to this beautiful, serene lakeside palace. These days, though, it doesn’t take much longer than a half-hour car ride to get here, and it’s well worth the journey. Commissioned by the Empress Dowager Cixi in the 1880s (with funds that were famously misappropriated from the Imperial Navy), the palace and its surrounding temples, pavilions, and gardens are a memorial to the staggering extravagance of the imperial era. Make a special effort to climb the temple steps to the summit of Longevity Hill, which has splendid views south across the entire complex, Kunming Lake, and, to the south and east, over central Beijing.
Tip: Avoid weekends in summer. At times it can seem as if the country’s entire population—some 1.3 billion people—is here.