If you can take only one overnight side trip from Beijing, go to Chengde. During the Qing Dynasty, the imperial family would pack their bags and make the journey by horse in a slow procession to this summer resort. Nowadays, a highway connects Beijing to Chengde, and the hunting grounds, pagodas, and pavilions are open to all. Make sure you focus on the old, preserved part of Chengde, which is more charming than the new city. Walking through the parks and the temples decorated with Buddhism art is a relaxing change of pace if you’ve been in Beijing for a few days.
To reach Chengde, you can take train N211, which departs from the Beijing Railway Station at 7:16 am daily and arrives around 11am. You can return the next day on train N212, which leaves Chengde at 2:30 pm and arrives at Beijing Railway Station around 6:30 pm. Buses depart regularly from Beijing’s Liuliqiao Long Distance Bus Station and arrive at the Chengde Long Distance Bus Station in 4.5 hours.
I recommend staying at the Puning Si Shangketang Dajiudian, a hotel in the Temple of Universal Peace run by monks. The cozy accommodations in the west wing of the temple are decorated with wood furniture and handmade paper lamps. The courtyards feature rock gardens and ponds, and the main restaurant serves vegetarian food. Late sleepers beware—the temple bells begin ringing at 7:30 am.
If you prefer a standard hotel, try the Sheng Hua Dajiudian, Chengde’s best hotel in terms of decor and service, with well-appointed rooms and an English-speaking staff.
Chengde Mountain Resort (Bishu Shanzhuang)
Chengde was just another village until the end of the 17th century, when the Qing emperor Kangxi decided to build this summer resort. The first structures were commissioned in 1703. A century later, the resort included nearly 100 imperial structures enclosed by a 9.5km (6-mile) long wall. Until recently, emperors used these gigantic grounds dotted with lakes and pavilions for hunting, archery, and horseback riding. The park makes for an idyllic ramble, during which you can duck into several of the buildings. Not far from the Dehui Men Gate is the Main Palace (Zeng Gong), the most important of the remaining buildings. Meander along the lakes and through a rock garden to reach the Pavilion of Literary Delight (Wenjin Ge). Northeast of the pavilion is the Pagoda of the Six Harmonies, a nine-story, brick structure with green and yellow tiled eaves featuring bells and topped by a golden knob.
Potala Palace (Putuozongcheng Zhi Miao)
Modeled after Lhasa’s most famous temple, this mini version gives travelers who aren’t able to go to Tibet a sense of the original. Potala Temple was built in 1771 and has more than 60 halls and terraces. It’s no longer a functioning temple, but rather a museum with interesting items including various statues and drinking vessels made from silver.
Temple of Universal Peace (Puning Si)
A 22m high copper statue of Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy, stands at the center of this temple. Climb three levels of interior galleries to look the figure in the eye. The temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, still attracts worshipers and contains several halls of smiling Buddhas, steles covered with Chinese characters, and red walls.
Hammer Rock (Qingchui Feng)
The cable car ride to the rock offers pleasant views of the surrounding hills and fields where farmers harvest cabbages.
Temple of Universal Joy (Pule Si)
This is a Tibetan style temple. The main element is the circular Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, just like Beijing’s Temple of Heaven. Shady benches around the quiet courtyard make perfect picnic spots.