The imperial garden—the Summer Palace—is "a masterpiece of Chinese landscape garden design" (UNESCO). The palace is famous for its gardening techniques which combine human-made buildings and natural landscapes. UNESCO listed it as the world heritage in 1998. Now it is the largest existing imperial garden in China after surviving after two lootings and destructions. Even though the palace was repaired, some beautiful parts of the landscape are still missing.
With an area of 293 hectares (724 acres), the palace complex contains more than 3,000 garden buildings of various form and can be roughly divided into three functional areas. The administrative area centred at Hall of Benevolence and Longevity was where Empress Dowager Cixi and Emperor Guangxu held imperial meetings and received guests. Behind the administrative section, you will find the living area with three large siheyuans (a courtyard with houses on four sides). The recreation area, mainly composed by Longevity Hill and Kunming Lake, is for sightseeing. Some of the must-see attractions of the Summer Palace garden include Longevity Hill, Kunming Lake, The Marble Boat, The Long Corridor, and the Garden of Virtue and Harmony.
During the Qing period, the Garden of Clear Ripples (the original name of the Summer Palace) hosted rich collections of literary and artistic works with about 40,000 items on record. After the robbery of French and British troops in 1860, only about 530 relics were left, most of which were broken. Later on, Empress Dowager Cixi repaired the Summer Palace and vigorously enriched the collections in the park. The number of collections reached 40,000 again after the founding of the People's Republic of China. These collections cover almost all categories of Chinese heritage, along with relics from other countries, bronzes, porcelain, wood, calligraphy and painting, lacquerware, ancient books, clocks, bamboo, root carvings, and musical instruments.
To explore all the hidden corner and major attractions of the Palace, you might need at least half a day there. There’s so much to see and enjoy. One of the best ways to explore the gardens is a boat tour. Boating on Kunming Lake covers three-quarters of the Summer Palace grounds and provides views of most landscapes. Along the lake, there is the longest wooden covered promenade in the world. This promenade is an art gallery where you can see pictures of flowers, birds, and other ornaments.
The boating trips are offered between April and October. This is the best time to visit the Summer Palace (excluding major holidays) to view the landscape on a boat on beautiful Kunming Lake. If you go in spring or autumn, you'll enjoy the most comfortable weather in Beijing, neither too cold nor hot. The Summer Palace is also a great summer-time relaxation area, so many people would choose to visit it in the season and walk along the promenade. Otherwise, the gates of the palace complex are open year-round, but in winter months the lake freezes, and the weather conditions aren't that pleasant for exploring the gardens.