Beijing's most elegant park is built around the Beihai (North Lake). The lakes in Beijing are often mistakenly referred to as seas because the Mongolian word for lake sounds like "hai," a homophone for the Chinese character for sea, which is also the character used in their names. Once exclusively restricted to the emperor and his court, Beihai Park's features include pavilions, gardens and a stunning Tibetan-style pagoda.
Beihai Park's imperial connection began in the 13th century, when Kublai Khan chose the site for his palace, a marvellous structure according to Marco Polo. Little has survived of Khan's pleasure dome except an enormous green jade jar that was given to him in 1265 and was purportedly used to store his wine. You'll find this 3.5-ton jar displayed in the Round City, a former royal barrack near the park's main (southeast) entrance. The main structure in the Round City is the Hall of Receiving Light, so named because the emperor would come here to watch fireworks. A Buddha given by Burma to the Empress Dowager Cixi is now exhibited there. The statue is carved out of white jade and wears a crown and a garment of gold sheet.
Jade Isle lies across the bridge from the Round City. In summer, lotus flowers bloom in the channel to the east of the bridge and this flowery motif is echoed on the bridge itself, which is decorated with carved lotus flowers and petals. At the foot of the manmade hill that dominates Jade Isle is the Yong'an Temple.
Far more dramatic than the temple is the White Dagoba that stands on top of the hill. Erected in 1651 in honour of a visiting Dalai Lama, it was destroyed by an earthquake and later rebuilt. From a tiered base, with a height of 36m, it is said to contain Buddhist scriptures, robes and other sacred objects. Though visitors aren't allowed inside the dagoba, they can inspect the Tibetan sutras carved inside its front gate. The views of the city from the top of the hill are dazzling.
Ringing the northwest shore of Jade Isle is the Painted Gallery, a double-tiered covered veranda. Midway along the length of the gallery, near the boat dock, is the Hall of Rippling Waters that's home to the famous Fangshan Restaurant and its elaborate imperial banquets.
You can reach the north side of Beihai by taking a boat to Five Dragon Pavilion or by walking around the park via the isle's east bridge. Sticking out from the northwest shoreline, the Five Dragon Pavilion was built on 1543 for a Ming dynasty emperor who wanted a place to fish and admire the moon. Neighbouring Minor Western Heaven is a square-shaped temple dedicated to Guanyin, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, which Emperor Qianlong built for his mother. Don't miss the delightful botanical gardens in the park's northwest corner that features a greenhouse and lotus-filled pools. By the northern exit is the Nine Dragon Screen, a 27m long structure covered in tiled dragons that was designed to ward off evil spirits, built in 1756.
It should be noted that historic monuments are only half the fun of visiting the park. Like all parks in Beijing, Beihai is a hive of fascinating human activity, especially in the morning when it's overrun with kung fu masters wielding swords, couples waltzing, calligraphers writing poems on the pavement with water, choirs of senior citizens, badminton players and Peking opera singers who exercise their voice by bellowing across the lake. What's more, you can rent paddle boats when the weather permits.
06:30-20:00 (January, February, March, November, December)
06:00-21:00 (April, May, September, October)
06:00 to 22:00 (June, July, August)