Xuanwu Lake is Nanjing’s biggest park and, in my opinion, the most relaxing place in this big, bustling city. A walk around it can take up to 5 hours if you try to see everything. There’s tons of options for boating, rare birds to watch, tons of flowers and trees to enjoy, plus temples, pagodas, and pieces from Nanjing’s past.
This post is full of good stuff – a video I took during our 2 hour walk, a brief explanation of Xuanwu Lake’s history, and information about transportation and sightseeing in this area of Nanjing. Enjoy!
Click the image below to watch the Xuanwu Lake vlog on my YouTube channel!
History of Xuanwu Lake
There are two theories about how the lake was formed. Geologists believe the tectonic plate shift that occured when Mount Yanshan was created (which is two provinces north of here in Hebei) caused the formation of the lake. The more fun theory, as always, is the legend, which says that Emperor Sun Quan had the lake created and filled with water some time around the year 200. A black dragon that looked like a tortoise-snake hybrid was found in the lake after that happened, and they named the dragon Xuanwu, which means black tortoise.
Xuanwu Lake has been given various names (Military Rehearsal Lake, Yuanwu Lake Park, Continental Park) and gone through a lot of changes over the years. Throughout history the lake has been a “forbidden area” of the city, meaning only the people the emperor approved could be on the grounds (likely his family members, and maybe military). From my understanding, the forbidden area grew and shrank depending on the emperor at the time. During the Song Dynasty (960-1279), the lake was used for military training. In the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), they built some kind of secret archives on the land and forbid anyone from entering.
Xuanwu Lake wasn’t made a public city park until 1911, at the end of dynastic China, and it wasn’t even called Xuanwu Lake until 1935.
Getting To Xuanwu Lake
The absolute easiest way to get to the lake is by taking the subway! Take Line 1 to Xuanwumen and follow the signs to the lake (there’s English, don’t worry)! But if you’re still worried about getting off the subway and knowing where to go, print this out: 玄武湖 (it means Xuanwu Lake) and ask for help from a stranger – I promise they’re so nice around here. The word most commonly used for “where?” in Nanjing is “zai nar”, so you can say “zai nar” while pointing at those characters.
If you choose to take a cab and your Chinese is crap, I suggest printing this out and showing it to them: 玄武门 (Xuanwumen AKA Xuanwu Gate). That should get you either to the station or the subway depending on how they take it. If you want to be extra safe, save the picture I inserted of the gate below onto your phone and show it to the cab driver.
Must-See Sites At Xuanwu Lake
Xuanwumen (Xuanwu Gate)
Xuanwumen is the most gorgeous gate in the city! It was built in 1910 during the Qing Dynasty. If you walk up the stairway to your left when you approach the gate from the street, you can pay a fee to walk along the top of the wall and get a feel for the historical significance of Nanjing’s ancient city wall. Pro tip: look closely for the inscribed bricks!
Ancient City Wall
For all the details on this 600 year old historic site, check out the blog post I wrote on it right here! Walking along the foot of Nanjing’s old wall is great, but if you’re touring the city, I highly suggest you enter at Jiming Temple or Xuanwumen and pay the ¥30 fee to walk along the top! That’s a little under $5 USD, and I think it’s totally worth it.
While you’re visiting Xuanwu Lake, you’re bound to spot Purple Mountain (Zijin Shan 紫金山) in the distance. Hiking the peak is on my ever-growing to-do list of Nanjing attractions, so I’ll be sure to link that blog post here after it’s written. I have, however, been to the foot of the mountain to see the Sun Yat-Sen and Ming Xiaoling Mausoleums.
Lotus Flower (Lianhua) Square
Lotus Flower Square is probably my favorite spot at Xuanwu Lake and I don’t have any reason besides “it’s really pretty”. It’s located just about in the center of the major sites within the park, so it’s a great launching point to see everything else. I recommend walking up and down the gorgeous bridge leading between the big island and the one just north of it to take in the city skyline, the mountain, and all the activity in the foreground.
Staring at the masses of carp in this little pond is genuinely mesmerizing. If no one is feeding them, I highly recommend you buy fish food from the little stand nearby for under $1 USD to see it.
The Ecological Garden area includes the areas of Flower Park and Lovers Garden. The three names encompass gorgeous bridges, tons of flowers, willow trees dipping down and touching the water, and plenty of tree-lined pathways. I recommend walking the length of this beautiful place.
Like I said at the beginning of this post, the walk around Xuanwu Lake can take up to 5 hours if you want to see everything. If you have the time, I think you should let yourself get lost here and discover the quiet hidden places in between the main sites. If you do, be sure to come back to this post and let me know what you find!
Thanks for reading! Talk to you soon 🙂
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