Where to best enjoy Beijing’s spring and autumn.
At first sight, Beijing may seem like an uninhabitable city. Building blocks from the ’80s and ’90s adorn one side of the city and a sea of skyscraper adorn the other. In fact, this city that may seem barren at first, hides within it, plenty of picturesque green pockets. Now that I think about it, it shouldn’t really be a surprise considering how obsessed Chinese imperial families and scholars were with gardens.
After exploring plenty of parks (mainly in Xicheng district, where I live), it is a fair assessment to say that: firstly, wherever you live in Beijing, you are probably less than 30-minute walk away from the nearest lush spot of greenery; secondly, no two parks are alike. So here’s a guide to starting sampling the green (or in any case, a burst of pink, purple and yellow in spring) spots that Beijing has to offer:
玉渊潭公园 Yu Yuan Tan Gong Yuan
Come spring, you’ll find 2,000 pink, yellow, and white cherry trees in bloom, rendering the sky at Yu Yuan Tan. While most of these trees were diplomatic gifts from Japan, the huge variety is also sourced from the wild mountains of Hangzhou all the way to Mount Yoshino in Japan. By the west gate, you’ll also find clusters of white blossoms that are the result of a ginkgo cross-breed.
The Chinese proverb 春暖花开 ‘Warm spring weather arrives and the flowers blossom’ describes the season of cherry blossom perfectly. Due to its early and short bloom period, cherry blossoms can be seen as the spring prelude.
This was also one of the few parks where you can spot mandarin ducks. When I visited this park in the deep, dead winter of January, the beautiful male ducks with their jade green and orange feathers were such a contrast to the grey scene around. While this animal is a symbol of love and fidelity in China, Japan, and Korea, they actually don’t mate for life. What’s more, the handsome ducks actually make horrible dads who leave once the ducklings hatch, leaving the mother ducks to care for the 9 to 12 ducklings on her own.
OK back to the park, after soaking in this sea of pink, drop by the old CCTV tower in the west gate where you can enjoy a 360-degree view of the city at the height of 238m for 70 RMB. Otherwise, check out the exhibition is on at the China Millennium Monument 中华世纪坛 Zhong Hua Shi ji tan.
Cost: 2 RMB for most of the part of the year, or 10 RMB during cherry blossom season around March and April.
Highlight: cherry blossom 樱花 ying hua in March and April, mandarin ducks, suitable for running
Yuan Da Du City Walls Ruin Park 元大都城垣遗址公园
Part urban park, part historic site — here lies the northern city wall of Khanbaliq or Dadu, the capital of the Mongol Yuan dynasty of Kublai Khan. The remains of this 10m high earthen wall called Tucheng built between 1267–1276, run along the south side of the park. If you find yourself here, don’t miss the impressive mural dedicated to this Mongol dynasty.
The proverb 百花齐放 ‘Hundreds of flowers blooming at the same time’ may be fitting to describe the scene of crabapple trees blooming here starting from the end of March, except by the last count, there were more than 3,000 trees. Crabapple trees bloom later than peach and cherry trees, and the flowering season lasts longer.
The 9km long paths running on each side of the canal, make this park perfect for runners. Bridges link two sides every so often, complete with winding paths and willow trees, ponds with reeds, teahouses, sculpture and creative evening lighting.
Right outside the northern exit of the park, you can find the Olympic Park and Chinese Ethnic Culture Park 中华民族园 zhong hua min zu yuan— which can feel quite gimmicky but nevertheless provides a good overview of the different architecture of China’s ethnicities, such as the Hakka’s tulou, Miao people’s diao jiao lou, Bai people’s san fang yi zhao bi house layout principle.
Highlight: crabapple 海棠 in March and April, suitable for running
Jiang Tai Park 将府公元
I couldn’t believe my eyes when I found myself surrounded by a meadow awash with purple in the middle of metropolitan Beijing. The purple flowers that render Jiang Tai park is called February orchid, aka Chinese violet cress 诸葛菜 zhuge cai, come thick and fast between the end of February and May, depending on the weather.
This native Chinese flower does flower in February, but it is not an orchid. It’s a member of the brassica clan that is .. edible! Its hardy nature allows its mild but tasty leaves to be used in salads or cooking greens throughout the winter. You can treat the leaves like spinach and sauté in a little it of butter, or shred them and add them to a salad. The flavor is sweet and fresh, a little like pea shoots with a tinge of brassica. For prepping, soak the leaves in a big bowl of cold, salted water for a few minutes (the salt isn’t strictly necessary for February orchid but it helps draw out any bitterness in other greens such as dandelions and kale).
The Chinese violet cress is also planted across the cities in China, as it is attractive, inexpensive, and easy to grow. This is a tough plant that can grow up to 50 centimeters in height and survive very cold conditions.
Imagine that, a flower that’s not only pretty but also edible and hardy!
Highlight: fields awash with violet cress 诸葛菜 zhuge cai
Beijing Botanical Garden 植物园 Zhi Wu Yuan
Beijing Botanical Garden has the largest peach garden in the city. Lose yourself among the thousands of peach trees at the end of April to early May.
Chinese proverb 春和景明 ‘The weather is mild and comfortable in spring and the scenery is colorful and bright’ perfectly sums up all the tulips, cherry blossoms and peach blossoms blooms at Zhi Wu Yuan. This park also boasts a conservatory (extra fee) filled with cactus but it was closed when I was there (indoor public spaces are closed due to coronavirus pandemic).
Zhi Wu Yuan is only one tram stop away from the Summer Palace 颐和园 so you can definitely make it part of your day trip — but it’ll be a big day since both sites’ grounds are YUGE. On your tram journey, you may pass some patches of purple/blue wildflowers that resemble bluebells.
Cost: 10 RMB
Highlight: peach blossom 桃花 tao hua, tulip 郁金香 yu jin xiang
宣武艺园 Xuan Wu Yi Yuan
This was the original site of Shanguo Temple which has been destroyed. While you can’t see any remnant of this Ming Dynasty temple, the garden has been meticulously landscaped with Chinese pavilions perched on little hills and a geese pond surrounded by crabapple and lilac trees.
Come in April to smell the lingering fragrance of lilac blossoms. It is, however, less suitable for running. It’s more of a neighborhood park perfect for a family — with badminton courts and various open spaces for dancing.
Highlight: white and purple lilac flower 订花 ding hua in April, yellow Forsythia 连翘 bush, badminton court
莲花池公园 Lian Hua Chi Gong yuan
The main part of this park is the lake of Lianhuachi, which literally means Lotus Pond. The pond is regarded as the birthplace of the city of Beijing and bears a history of over 3,000 years.
As mentioned in the Commentary on the Water Classic, the water from this lake supported Beijing from the very beginning of the city history until the Yuan Dynasty (1276–1368), during which the city of Beijing was rebuilt and shifted towards northeast a bit. Since then, the lake lost its importance as a water source. In the following Ming and Qing dynasties, the lake became an attraction for royal family and noblemen to enjoy nature —didn’t I tell you, imperial families loved their gardens.
The most stunning scene here is in summer where all 80,000 lotuses of 250 species blossom are in full bloom. If one can ignore the 20-storey buildings rendering the background outside of this park, you may be mistaken this lake-side promenade as the Hangzhou’s West Lake, with its carved marble balustrade and willow trees. Lastly, the 2.1 and 1.7km looping tracks are perfect for novice runners.
Cost: 2 RMB usually but free when I visited.
Highlight: lotus flower in summer, stone forest, swans, perfect for running
月坛 Yue Tan
This small but charming park is a great refuge from the hectic city. Historically, it was the place where emperors of Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368–1911) offered sacrifice to the God of the Moon and the Gods of the Stars.
While the moon altar which this park was named after is no longer there, the park is meticulously maintained and its landscaping offers a haven of tranquillity — along with the few locals who venture here. The 576-meter wall encircles its perimeters, protectively concealing the beautiful features of this park: the 20m high tree-lined footpath right upon entrance, little bamboo forest nooks (where many cats hid within); a Chinese pavilion with its very own pond. You can also find a small park gym in the park’s corner.
Highlight: the 5 metre high wall enclosure itself which 'hides' this little neighbourhood gem, ceremonial bell replica, crabapple 海棠 hai tang in March and April, suitable for running.
Ren Ding Park 认定公园
This is perhaps the experimental park of Beijing. The southern part boasts a Versailles Garden and Italian Terrace-styled lawn and fountain, complete with a row of Greek/Italian curving collonades and sculptures. The middle section of the park is the Garden of Eden with its multi-level plaza with Egypt and Babylon inspired murals.
Lastly, the northern part is where you can find modern spiky sculptures (as pictured, they resemble something out of the Japanese manga 20th Century Boys) towering on the surface of a peaceful lake.
Highlight: contrasting themes of the park.
紫竹院 Zi Zhu Yuan
This park is renowned for its bamboo scenery. Every year, people crowd to the Bamboo Culture Festival held from April to June. Pavilions, corridors and bridges hide in the tall bamboo all across the park. In the north of the park, there is enchanting and quiet Yunshi Garden. A hexagonal pavilion, an elaborate courtyard, and bamboos disperse in picturesque disorder, harmonising with the gentle slope and artificial hills in this garden.
Entering the park, visitors find themselves in a bamboo world: the entrance, tables, and chairs are made of bamboo; even the bridges and pavilions are decorated with bamboo. A grand Dai-style bamboo bridge lets visitors see how the Dai people find shelter from the rain. Slowly revolving bamboo waterwheels; visitors dancing the eerie ‘bamboo dance’; actors performing on a bamboo stage-all of these give you a glance of southern China’s Dai culture. Stores along the lake bank also sell fancy bamboo crafts.
The three lakes filled with lotus, occupy one-third of the area. These lakes used to be connected to the Summer Palace 颐和园 but when I tried to board a boat from one park to the other in 2019, I was told this route was no longer in operation.
Highlight: 3 lakes connected by islets and bridges, lotus, lots of pigeons, hidden pavilions, suitable for running.
景山公园 Jing Shan Gong Yuan
The peak of Jingshan hill is perhaps one of the best places to view the Forbidden Palace in its entirety. Once you finish touring the Forbidden Palace and exit the northern gate, continue straight ahead into Jing Shan park.
In spring, this is also one of the best spots for peonies. Formerly grown only for the emperor, the peony is the floral emblem of China and is associated with fortune, prosperity, and nobility. The “king of flowers” produces massive, heavy blooms that range in color from fuchsia to pure white, canary yellow, and cotton candy pink.
Cost: 55 RMB
Highlight: peony 牡丹花 mu dan hua in mid-April to late May, panoramic view of the Forbidden Palace
Zhong Shan Park 中山公园
Located just south-west of Tian’anmen square, Zhongshan Park is Beijing’s prime spot for tulip appreciation. The first tulip bulbs were a gift from the Queen of the Netherlands during her visit in 1997–39 bulbs. Today, Zhongshan has enough of these multi-colored bulbs to make a tulip carpet.
Head to the northern side of the park to find a path shaded with wisteria before ending up in Zhongshan Hall where you can see a collection of precious goldfish on the ‘wall aquarium’.
Highlight: tulips 郁金香 yu jin xiang in mid-April to mid-May, wisteria 紫藤 zi teng path, halls and altars from Ming-Qing dynasty.
Beijing Garden Expo
Located in the southwestern suburb of Beijing, near the Yongding River and Marco Polo Bridge, this was the site of the 2013 Garden Expo. After the expo, the park was reconstructed and open to the public as an urban and forest park.
Inside, there are five sub-parks that hold different landscapes made up of different pavilions inspired by gardens and architecture from all over China. While the Beijing garden reminds one of Summer Palace and Bei Hai park, a personal favorite was the Jiangsu Garden, inspired by the Classical Gardens of Suzhou.
What’s even cooler about these gardens is its usage of green landfills. The gardens are built out of construction waste. It is also home to an important area of wetlands in Beijing.
Lv ti Park 绿提公园
Located in Fengtai district of west Beijing, this is the largest country park in the city. Since it’s located in the outer west ring, Lv Ti can feel like a solid countryside getaway from Beijing. There is a lotus pond in the park, filled with lotus flowers, purple water chestnuts, reeds, etc.
The boardwalk on the reservoir was what drew me to this park. By the water, you’ll get a good view of one of Beijing’s most important highways — a quick glance at the map tells me that the highway can take you all the way south to Wuhan and Guangdong.
Follow a narrow path that will take you to cross the water to the other side of the reservoir, and here is a great spot for picnics and kite-watching. I spoke to one of the kite-flyer (pictured), and he told me he spent two hours of his day making his own kites. What a skill.
Highlight: board walk, suitable for running
Bai Yun Park 白云公园
Start from this park and follow south along the Yongding 永定 canal to enjoy the scenic path along the waterway. You’ll pass a stone bridge seemingly built during Imperial China before coming across an underpass that overlooks the impressive overlap of looping highways of Beijing’s second ring roads.
Highlight: waterway, ancient bridge, looping highway, perfect for running
Of course, other than these less-known parks, some of the famous sights in Beijing also offers incredible sights in all seasons.
Old Summer Palace 圆明园 Yuan Ming Yuan
During imperial China, this majestic park was used exclusively by the imperial family of the Qing Empire. Unlike other parks, YMY featured European style gardens and buildings with Chinese features, such as the Haiyantang Water Clock Fountain. The fountain might seem European at first but the animal head figures represent the animals from the Chinese zodiac.
Unfortunately what is left here are merely ruins. In 1860, during the Second Opium War, the British High Commissioner Lord Elgin ordered the complete destruction of the palace, which was then carried out by British and French troops. The palace was so large that it took 4,000 men 3 days of burning to destroy it.
The burning of this palace is still a very sensitive issue in China today. This destruction has been perceived as barbaric and criminal by many Chinese, as well as by external observers.
Two robbers breaking into a museum. One has looted, the other has burnt. … one of the two conquerors filled its pockets, seeing that, the other filled its safes, and they came back to Europe laughing hand-in-hand. … Before history, one of the bandits will be called France and the other in England
— Victor Hugo describing the looting of Yuan Ming Yuan.
However some have also speculated had it not been YMY, the troops would’ve gone straight to the Forbidden Palace. I honestly can’t say what’s worse.
You can still visit the ruins of the Old Summer Palace, located right next to the busier ‘new’ Summer Palace 颐和园 Yi He Yuan. I personally prefer YMY, precisely because the ruins have been left to preserve history, which is a different approach to how Chinese traditionally preserve its historical building.*
Summer Palace 颐和园 Yi He Yuan
Remember I said Chinese imperial families were obsessed with gardens? This garden is one solid evidence to that statement; it was recorded that Empress Dowager Cixi** embezzled navy funds to reconstruct Yi He Yuan as a resort where to spend the rest of her life.
Known as China’s largest and best-preserved imperial park, YHY’s Kunming lake is turned into an ice-skating rink in winter.
北京动物园 Beijing Zoo
This zoo is a part historical site, being over 100 years old and built towards the very end of Imperial China. This is the only place in the middle of Beijing where you can see pandas up close. On top of having an incredibly diverse collection of lemurs and birds, the zoo also offers a hire-a-dog service.
It’s incredibly large so covering the entire grounds will probably require at least two visits. If you still have the energy, you can take a leisurely boat ride to the Summer Palace 颐和园 Yi He Yuan. Otherwise, drop by the planetarium next door.
Cost: 10 RMB + 4 RMB (to access the panda zone)
Highlight: the animals obviously, dog-rent service, willows
Bei Hai 北海
This park is a good example of a classic Yuan dynasty imperial garden. First built in the 11th century, Beihai is among the largest of all Chinese gardens and contains numerous historically important structures, palaces, and temples.
Most people ending up walking by the lake-side before ending up on the island in the middle of the lake, however meandering around the little forests adjacent to the lake-side will lead you to the different sites and scenes that Bei Hai has to offer. Either way, you cannot miss the gigantic Tibetan white overturned-bowl shaped pagoda 覆钵形藏式石塔 Fù bō xíng cáng shì shítǎ right in the middle of the lake’s island. If you find yourself here in spring, right after crossing the bridge to climb up the stupa, you’ll spot a trellis covered in wisteria to your left.
Bei Hai is connected at its northern end to the Shichahai, where you can finish your day in one of many cool bars around.
Cost: 10 RMB (April-Oct), 5 RMB (Nov-March)
Highlight: peony 牡丹花 in April, wisteria 紫藤 zi teng, white stupa temple
Other than the parks in the main city of Beijing, you can also access some of these impressive sites in the periphery of the city.
Fenghuangling Nature Park
Every spring, visitors flood into Fenghuangling Nature Park to see apricot buds burst into a sea of pink flowers. Apricot trees cover approximately 400,000sqm of the park; families can also enjoy hiking the green hills and exploring thick forests.
Fenghuangling’s edifice would remind anyone of Hua Shan, China’s most dangerous Taoist mountain. While impressive, Hua Shan which is located near Xi An is often shrouded in mist. Overall I think Fenghuangling is really worth a visit since its entrance fee here is 10% of what you may spend to see the entirety of Hua Shan.
Cost: 25 RMB
Highlight: apricot blossoms 杏花 xing hua in early-mid April, mountain face, solid 3-4 hour hike
Yu Du Mountain 玉渡山
The Yudu Mountain Natural Scenic Area is located in the deep mountains. It is a little-known virgin land in the suburbs of Beijing.
The core attraction Yudu Mountain is climbing to the top of the mountain (it’s less than 100 steps) to see three straight pine trees called three incense stick 三木想 san mu xiang. There is also a beautiful alpine meadow where many locals set up their tents.
However, I personally like it for the quiet bush that is minimally landscaped, where birds can be heard loud and clear. I even found spider webs in some of the trekking paths, which I assume is only there because these paths are rarely walked on.
Very few people venture out here, perhaps since public transport access is quite difficult. If you do, you can also stop by the more popular Long Qing Xia 龙庆峡 next door. There, you can find a scenic canyon landscape — a reminiscent of the karst in Guilin, along with a dragon-shaped escalator.
Cost: 60 RMB
Highlight: virginal trekking path, quiet scenery, san mu xiang pine trees, alpine meadow
Wu Cai Qian Mountain 舞彩浅山
Every year comes autumn, Beijingers flock to mountains around the city to enjoy the change of season. While autumn is easily the best season in this city, it is also them most fleeting. You spend too much time indoor for a couple of weeks and you could easily miss the almost-vulgar burst of red and gold.
So knowing half of Beijing would go to the famous Po Feng Shan 坡峰山 south west of Beijing, my friends and I ventured here in the north west Shunyi district. Boy was I wrong, turns out the other half of Beijing came this way. However, while the start and the end of the hike was crowded, the middle provided the much needed respite. Besides, this was where the best view was — a fiery carpet of red lay for everyone to see.
FYI, another spot to enjoy the red leaves in Beijing is the Mutianyu part of the Great Wall in Huai Rou district. Hopefully I’ll have time to see it before autumn leaves us.
Highlight: red leaves in autumn, mid October-late April
Tan Zhe Temple 潭柘寺
The ancient magnolia tree was favoured by Chinese emperors and produces large, fragrant flowers. The magnolia trees at Tianzhe Temple are the most famous, as some of the specimens are over 300 years old. The blossoms are made even more enjoyable by the tranquillity of the surroundings.
Here in the courtyard grows ‘the Emperor Tree’, a name given by Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty named it during his visit. It is said that during the Qing Dynasty when a new emperor came to the throne a branch would grow up from the root, which made the 1000 year old ginkgo tree more auspicious. When the last Emperor Puyi visited the temple, he pointed toward a small branch on the tree and said, “This little branch is me. I made the tree askew because I don’t have the skills to be a good emperor.”
While the Ming Dynasty architecture is impressively built, my favourite spot here is Pagoda Forest, where nearly 70 tomb pagodas built in different dynasties are entirely preserved. They are of various types, such as stone column pagodas (石经幢式塔), monolayer square pagodas (方形单层浮屠式塔), dense-eave brick pagodas (密檐式砖塔) and overturned-bowl shaped pagodas with Tibetan style
Cost: 55 RMB
Highlight: magnolia 玉兰花 yu lan hua in April and May
Li Hua Village 梨花村
Panggezhuang Town, Daxing District
The most beautiful flowers are often the most fleeting. Chinese adore pear blossoms but they only seem to flower for a few days each year, so it’s important to know where to look. Though better known for the quality of its watermelons, Daxing District is also home to Lihua Village which boasts more than 30,000 pear trees. Make a weekend of it by staying at one of the many guesthouses there, and visit some of the local shops and restaurants.
Highlight: pear blossoms 梨花 li hua in mid April
Meandering in parks around China is actually one of my favourite activities — I usually allow at least one visit to an urban park in any of the Chinese cities I get to visit. You should do the same since these parks are often the best spot for people-watching. If you are especially into gardens, visit the mecca of Classical Gardens in Suzhou.
*I know critics argue that Chinese often rebuild its ancient temples or pavilions, to its original design — sometimes almost in a Disney-like recreation However throughout dynasties, Chinese buildings have been destroyed (by war, fire, lightning or earthquake) and the predecessors have rebuilt them to their original design. My training as an interior architect makes it difficult for me to agree to with this approach but one can argue that this is the ‘Chinese’ way of preserving history. There are places in Beijing that have been preserved in this manner, such as Nanluoguoxiang and the main avenue of Dashilar (brothel district) but if you look closely there are plenty of spots in Beijing that have been adaptively reused respectfully along with inputs from its residents, like Wudaoying hutong and the smaller hutongs in Dashilar.
**Ci Xi as a figure has been vilified in mainstream Chinese history. While some records are representative of facts, I suspect this judgment may have been incomplete. For example, according to Jung Chang (author of Wild Swan, another excellent book about the intergenerational story of 3 women’s lives during the most tumultuous time in modern China), Ci Xi outlawed the practice of footbinding. You can read more about this imposing character on Jung Chang’s book Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China.
This post is part of the Life in China series.1. China Survival Guide
Apps that will make your Chinese experience a whole lot better2. China Through Films
Cinematic trips into the voyage of the breathtaking world of traditional and contemporary China, and whatever lies in between.3. Beijing Coronavirus Diary: Part 1
and the rest of my my Life in Coronavirus series, which details my experience as a bystander in the midst of the pandemic in China.I hope they will help you begin to understand this mind-boggling country.