Old Summer Palace

These once extravagant imperial palaces and gardens were all but destroyed in the 19th-century, but the crumbling ruins are still worth visiting.

The Old Summer Palace with its ponds and lakes was once the jewel of the Chinese Empire. Having served as an imperial park for more than 500 years, the halls, towers, pagodas, pavilions, gardens and galleries were proud displays of wealth. The antiques and art were plundered and the buildings were burned during the 19th century. The site is now also referred to as the Ruins of Yuanmingyuan.Despite all the destruction, the garden complex is still very picturesque. Bridges, terraces and some ornamental buildings still stand and there are many scenic spots by the lake suitable for picnics. The sprawling park covers an area of 860 acres (348 hectares), so be prepared to walk a lot. Set out to explore the crumbling ruins, solemn remnants of the Qing Dynasty during the 18th century. The complex was the object of revenge of British and French forces during the Second Opium War. Many of the stolen artifacts are still held in foreign museums and private art collections. For the Chinese, the fragmented remains act as a reminder of what happened.Visit the Garden of Perfection and Light, the Garden of Blossoming Spring and the Garden of Eternal Spring. Children will enjoy playing in the Wanhuazhen labyrinth, an octagon-shaped pavilion in the center of a walled maze.To see a reconstruction of the original park, pay extra for the Yuanmingyuan exhibition hall that shows a model of the gardens at their peak. You can also pay more to visit the stone European-style palaces.The Old Summer Palace is located about 5 miles (8 kilometers) northwest of the imperial city walls. To get there, take a subway or bus to the nearby Yuanmingyuan Park Station. The south gate is closest to central Beijing and you pay a small fee to enter. During the summer holiday months, the parks stays open in the early evenings.