If you're planning your summer holidays in Beijing this year, you might consider a side trip (overnight) to Chengde (not to be confused with Chengdu down south), only 200 km northeast of Beijing along a new highway. The altitude is over 1000m so Chengde is particularly comfortable between June to September.
There are comfortable coaches going there from Beijing, or you can hire a car. When I drove there last time with some clients, we stopped on the way at Jinshanling, one of the best places to climb the Great Wall, but usually too far away for the ordinary tourist to visit. When we arrived in Chengde, we were happy to find it not so crowded and more relaxed than in Beijing.
There is plenty to see, including the old 18th century summer residence, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, and covering 5.64 sq km, almost twice that of the Summer Palace in Beijing or 8 times that of the Forbidden City, making it the largest royal park in China. We took the lazy way round by electric car, but if you have time you should walk around the lakes, palaces, pagodas and hills and get a feel for what it might have been like for the Manchu Qing dynasty emperors (and Dowager Empress). Apart from escaping the summer heat, they went hunting and horse racing here. And of course when foreign troops got dangerously close to Beijing, the imperial family would pack thier bags and flee to Chengde for safety.
Another famous sight is Sledgehammer Peak. We made it to the base of the rocks by cable car, but not to the temple on the very top.
The Emperors built many temples over the years, called the "Eight Outer Temples" in varying styles.
The most famous of the temples is the "Little Potala Place", similar to the original one in Lhasa, Tibet. It was built in 1790 for Emperor Qianlong's 60th birthday. The Qing emperors were strong believers in Lama Buddhism.
Entrance to Puning Temple, modelled on a Tibetan temple. Note the nameplate inscription in 4 languages: Chinese, Mongolian, Tibetan and Manchurian.
If you liked "Ancient Scholars and Ancient Streets" (26 July 2009 blog) and Badachu Temple (13 Aug 2009 blog) then will surely enjoy a visit to Chengde.