IT'S GOOD TO BE THE EMPRESS
While in China, you will learn a lot about the good and the bad influence of foreign powers, especially the English and the French. But nowhere is this as obvious as is in the Summer Palace. The palace you will visit is the new palace built at the end of the XIX century by the notorious empress dowager Cixi. It's a great place to spend an afternoon, so if you have enough time in Beijing this should be on your short list. It is very beautiful and peaceful.
The old palace was destroyed in mid XIX century during the Second Opium War (learning about opium trade and Opium Wars will put Chinese suspicion of foreigners in a new light). Following the destruction of the old palace, the new palace was created, and it was a mosaic of imperial pleasure gardens and grand buildings, harmoniously arranged on hills around a beautiful lake. The new palace was also destroyed by the Eight Powers Allied Forces in 1900, but quickly rebuilt, and it has since survived civil war and the Cultural Revolution. If you are curious who were the 8 powers, its alliance consisted of Great Britain, France, Austria, Russia, the United States, Italy, Japan, and Germany.
The story of Cixi is an intriguing one - a former concubine who rose through the ranks upon giving birth to a son and providing the emperor with the male heir, was said to be ruthless leader of China for decades, responsible for some dubious deaths. Some alternative views of her are less harsh, believing she was a puppet of the officials who made the policy.
To get to the Summer Palace you can use the subway- Line 4 (Beigongmen Station, Exit D, walk to the North Palace Gate). Both Lines 4 and 16 also stop at the Xiyuan Station, Exit C2, which will get you to the East Palace Gate. The ticket to the whole complex is less than $10.