Things to do
Closed off from the public eye, the Forbidden City's Qianlong Garden has lain dormant for nearly a century under the care of the Palace Museum. This 18th century treasure, built for the Qing-era Qianlong Emperor as a planned retirement lodge where he could indulge his love of art, architecture and music, contains some of the rarest and most elaborate relics in the world.
The Qianlong Garden comprises 27 buildings in the north-eastern corner of the Forbidden City. A decade ago, a 20-year project between the Palace Museum and the World Monuments Fund was launched to restore the complex to its former glory.
The Qianlong Emperor's money-no-object brief to courtiers and craftsmen was simple: build a miniature version of the imperial palace, an aesthetic wonderworld, using the very best materials. The enclave also had the finest views: the highest point looks out over the orange roofs of the Forbidden City and towards Coal Hill north of the compound.
For all the intricate interior design and architectural extravagance, one of the emperor's favourite spots was a custom-built rockery containing grottoes, steep trails and a pagoda. It is a place of peace and solitude, with only birds singing to break the silence; it is possibly the quietest place in the entire city of 20 million people.
Things to do
Although Emperors of yore travelled in pomp and style when decamping to the cooler climes of the Summer Palace from the downtown Forbidden City, it was a desperately slow journey that took the best part of a day. Modern-day commuters have a speedier option: a subway that deposits passengers a few hundred metres from one of the city's most majestic imperial sites.
The Summer Palace, with its shaded greenery, was where the emperor fled to escape insufferable summers. The palace park benefited from a US$7 million renovation leading up to the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. The Fragrant Buddha Pavilion, Long Corridor and Cloud Fairyland Hall were all given facelifts, leaving them in pristine condition; next is the Four Great Regions, a cluster of lama Tibetan temples which was recently reopened to the public.
As with most major attractions in China, the early bird catches the worm. In this case, arriving early guarantees the peaceful environment that would have prevailed during imperial times. Bring a picnic if you plan to spend any length of time in the expansive grounds – a perfect spot being the banks of the gorgeous Kunming Lake.