Azure Clouds Temple

Top choice in Beijing

Though it dates back to the Yuan dynasty, this enchanting Buddhist temple complex was enlarged to its current splendor by Emperor Qianlong in 1748, adding the all-marble Diamond Throne Pagoda at the rear, inspired by the Mahabodhi Temple in India, and the astonishing Hall of Arhats, housing a merry retinue of 500 lifelike Buddhist disciples. The hillside forest setting, on a quiet weekday, is a tranquil delight.

Crossing a Ming-era stone bridge, Azure Clouds Temple rises gracefully up the hillside towards the Mountain Gate Hall (Shanmen). It's guarded by Heng and Ha, generals of the mythical Shang dynasty charged with protecting Chinese Buddhist temples. (They met their match in Mao's Red Guards, though – these two were recarved in 1992).

The Maitreya Buddha Hall beyond the complex's Drum and Bell Towers houses a rotund bronze Maitreya, coal-black with age. Further on, a pair of octagonal stone stupas topped with royal yellow tiles enclose stelae recording the temple's restoration by Qianlong. It's thanks to his veneration of Chinese culture (technically the Qing were Manchu, not Chinese), together with no small amount of hubris, that so much coin was lavished on restoring China's imperial and religious architecture during his long reign.

Between 1925 and 1929, the innermost hall, rechristened the Sun Yatsen Memorial Hall, contained the revolutionary leader's body while his grand mausoleum in Nanjing awaited completion. The garish glass coffin on display, donated by the USSR, was never used. Mr Sun's clothes and hat were sealed up in the ornate and unusual Diamond Throne Pagoda, reached through an exquisitely carved stone páilóu (triple-arched gate). Sadly, these days you can only admire the pagoda from behind a fence. Console yourself by seeking out the Hall of Arhats to the left of the complex (when facing uphill). One of only four in China, the dim chamber contains 500 painted clay statues, almost human-sized, of Buddhist luohan (those freed from the cycle of rebirth), each sculpted with a unique personality. See if you can find the statue of one giving another a piggyback!

The entrance to the temple is inside the main north entrance of Fragrant Hills Park and requires a supplementary ticket.

Lonely Planet's must-see attractions

Nearby Beijing attractions

1. Fragrant Hills Park

0.51 MILES

A great swath of Beijing's Western Hills (Xīshān) was once an imperial pleasure resort, acres of undulating pine-cypress forest peppered with temples,…

2. Fragrant Hill Hotel

0.55 MILES

This forgotten architectural landmark is all the more intriguing considering it was only built in 1982. The work of Chinese-American architect IM Pei (of…

3. Beijing Botanical Gardens

0.95 MILES

Feed your inner florist with a jaunt to the Botanical Gardens, established in 1956 on land that was once part of a swath of royal real estate set against…

4. Sleeping Buddha Temple

1.07 MILES

Established in the Tang dynasty but rebuilt many times in successive eras, this temple within the Beijing Botanical Gardens is home to a 54-tonne bronze…

5. Cao Xueqin Memorial

1.09 MILES

Inside the Beijing Botanical Gardens is the former home of Cao Xueqin, author of the classic novel Dream of the Red Chamber.

7. Changguan Hall

3.96 MILES

Constructed in the 18th century, Changguan Hall was destroyed by Anglo-French soldiers in 1860 and subsequently rebuilt.

8. Jade Belt Bridge

3.97 MILES

With its startlingly steep 'moon' arch, this is the best of the six bridges on the West Causeway of Kunming Lake. Its height also permitted the more…