Also known as the harmoniously sounding Ruins of the Yuanmingyuan (Garden of Perfection and Light), the Old Summer Palace is located northwest of Beijing and east of the site of the present-day Summer Palace. Once a collection of grand palaces, this royal site dates back to the 12th century.
Destroyed in the Second Opium War by Anglo-French troops, the majority of the buildings (mainly Chinese-style wooden edifices) burned leaving only the European stone architecture designed by Jesuits standing. The treasures and now priceless relics housed within the palaces were plundered by the marauding soldiers and now reside in museums in Europe.
The Old Summer Palace covers a huge area and consists of three idyllic parks: the aforementioned Garden of Perfection and Light, Wanchunyuan (Garden of 10,000 Springs), and Changchunyuan (Garden of Everlasting Spring) which house the ruins of the European buildings which were fashioned after the palace of Versailles in France. The result is ancient Chinese landscape gardening and European architecture. One of the best preserved relics is the Great Fountain Ruins – a lion head fountain built in 1759. Elsewhere you'll find scattered remains of ornately carved pillars and fallen stone blocks. Other popular sites include the Grand Waterworks and an engraved concrete labyrinth known as Huanghuazhen (yellow flower). In winter, you can ice skate on the frozen lake.
Entry to the park is CNY10 and an extra CNY15 to view the sites and palace ruins. The gardens measure 2.5km from east to west so be prepared for walking or take advantage of the electric carts around the park. The closest metro station is Yuanmingyuan Park and from there it's a 40-minute walk to the European ruins.