The Old Summer Palace, as Yuanmingyuan is known in English, is a great spot to ponder China’s imperial past, but minus the usual crowd of tourists. This 350-hectare complex once contained 800 palace buildings and was a seat of power during the Qing dynasty; controversially razed to the ground by Anglo-French forces in 1860, all that remains are the beautiful lakes and gardens with a smattering of ruins in the eastern section (called Changchunyuan). To the west is Fuhai Lake, where you can rent out a boat and admire the distant Fragrant Hills. In summer, the front section of the park, Qichunyuan, is packed with water lilies – and their Chinese admirers – though by October, the plants have faded and so too the crowds.
Best spot The Fuhai area provides very historically significant context; the garden ruins give you a peek of the destruction caused by the Opium Wars and are also a good place to channel your inner Indiana Jones.