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Capturing the mesmerizing hues of a sunset at Xuanwu Lake, with the stunning Nanjing Skyline in the backdrop. (@10mm on APS-C)

Xuanwu Lake: Scenic Beauty & Historic Wonders

or Xuanwu Lake: A Scenic Must-Visit Destination in Nanjing.


Nanjing’s Xuanwu Lake (玄武湖) is a must-visit destination for anyone travelling to this historic city. This scenic spot offers a wealth of picturesque sights, including the lush greenery that surrounds the lake and the majestic Purple Mountain in the distance. Visitors can stroll along the North Citywall (北城墙) and take in the stunning views of the city skyline reflected on the calm waters of the lake. 

Xuanwu Lake Park, a major attraction in China, is free for visitors. Established in 1928 during the Republic of China period, Xuanwu Lake Park has gained recognition over the years. In February 2005, it earned the designation of an AAAA-level national tourist attraction, highlighting its appeal. Furthermore, China’s Ministry of Housing and Urban and Rural Development recognized the park as a national key park in September 2008. Finally, in September 2016, China’s Ministry of Water Resources acknowledged Xuanwu Lake Park as a scenic spot for water conservation.

Formation and Legends: The Beginnings of Xuanwu Lake

Xuanwu Lake, located in Nanjing, has a history that dates back to the formation of Mount Yanshan, according to geologists. 

There are two theories in the history books about the origin of the name of Xuanwu Lake: one is the “Xuanwu theory”, which states that the lake was named after a god. The god refers to Xuanwu, one of the four gods of ancient Chinese mythology.

The second theory about the origin of the name of Xuanwu Lake deals with the fascinating “black dragon theory”. This hypothesis is related to the mythical Xuanwu. This theory states that the sightings of a black dragon in the lake were probably alligators, which resemble the Xuanwu with their black colour and armoured appearance. Over time, these sightings led to the lake being named Xuanwu Lake, linking it to the divine presence of Xuanwu in ancient Chinese mythology. The tale explores how ancient beliefs fused reality with myth, ascribing divine significance to natural phenomena and shaping the lore surrounding Xuanwu Lake.

From Imperial Hunting Ground to Naval Battle Drills: Xuanwu Lake Through the Dynasties

During the Northern and Southern Dynasties, Xuanwu Lake was a popular hunting ground for the imperial family, providing them with a place to relax and engage in outdoor activities. 

As the years passed, the lake became more than just a recreational area. During the Song Dynasty, the lake was used for naval battle drills and was also an important source of drinking water for the city of Nanjing.

The Forbidden Land and Imperial Garden: Xuanwu Lake in the Ming Dynasty

In the Ming Dynasty, the construction of the “Yellow Book Repository” or “Yellow Register Archive” on its shores transformed Xuanwu Lake into a forbidden land. The Ming government utilized the lake as a military defence system, restricting entry to only high-ranking officials.

In addition to its military significance, Xuanwu Lake also served as an imperial garden, providing a quiet retreat for the emperor and his family. The garden was adorned with beautiful pavilions, bridges, and plants, creating a serene and picturesque landscape.

The construction of the Yellow Register Archive marked the beginning of Xuanwu Lake’s transformation into a more formal park. The archive was later demolished during the Qing Dynasty, and the lake and its surroundings were opened to the public. Today, visitors to Xuanwu Lake Park can still enjoy the serene beauty of the lake and its surrounding gardens, while also appreciating its rich historical significance.

Transforming into a Park: Xuanwu Lake in Modern Times

After the end of the Qing Dynasty, Xuanwu Lake and its surroundings were transformed into a park in 1911, and it was renamed Xuanwu Lake Park in 1935. Today, it covers 444 hectares and has a circumference of 15 kilometres, making it a popular destination for tourists and locals alike.

Evolution and Engineering: Shaping Xuanwu Lake’s Character

Xuanwu Lake was formed during the Yanshan orogeny and is connected to the ancient Yangtze River channel. Historical connections date back to the Six Dynasties when it was directly connected to the Yangtze River. Over time, changes in the course of the river and human activities led to the lake developing into an independent lake whose water supply now depends on the Jinchuan River. The shallow depth of the lake, averaging 1.14 m and a maximum of 2.31 m, is the result of fine-grained clay deposits. The rainwater is channelled into the lake via five main ditches that emanate from Zhongshan Mountain. Man-made structures such as dams, bridges and roads control the water level and flow and ensure a storage capacity of around 5.5 million cubic meters for urban functions such as flood control, leisure activities and ecological conservation.

Water system connection of Xuanwu Lake

Xuanwu Lake, the centrepiece of Nanjing’s urban water system, is fed from three main sources: the north, the east and the southeast, each contributing different characteristics to its hydrology. The lake is closely connected to the Jinchuan River system and serves as an important link to the Yangtze River through channels such as Heping Gate and Dashugen Gate. In addition, the connections to the Pearl River and Qinhuai River system emphasize the central role of Xuanwu Lake in maintaining water balance and connectivity within Nanjing’s water network.

Xuanwu Lake Today: Attractions and Features

Visitors can enter the park through Xuanwu Gate, which is part of the Nanjing City Wall, and explore its many attractions, including Ji Ming Temple and Zifeng Tower. The lake itself is a stunning sight, with an area of 4.4 square kilometres and a history that spans centuries.

Location of the Xuanwu Lake

  • To the north of Xuanwu Lake, you will find the Nanjing Train Station and Zoo.
  • To the east begins the paradise for content creators and culture lovers area of Purple Golden Mountain.
  • To the south, the city wall, Jiming Temple and Xuanwu district.
  • To the west, the lake is also bordered by the city wall and borders the Gulou district.

InterContinental Building

The InterContinental Building (南京洲际大酒店) adds a modern touch to the traditional landscape. This currently highest building is located southeast of Xuanwu Lake. One of the unique aspects of Xuanwu Lake is its reflection of the cityscape, including the iconic InterContinental Building (南京洲际大酒店) aka Zifeng Tower (紫峰大厦). This creates a stunning view that is not to be missed, especially during sunrise and sunset.

Jinling Bonsai Garden

Another must-visit spot is the Jinling Bonsai Garden (金陵盆景艺术园), where visitors can marvel at the intricate art of bonsai cultivation.


One of the unique features of Xuanwu Lake in Nanjing is the opportunity for visitors to take a relaxing stroll along its islands. The lake is home to five small islands that are connected by beautiful arching bridges, creating a tranquil atmosphere that is perfect for an afternoon walk.

During the hot summer months, the islands offer a cool respite from the sweltering temperatures of the city. As visitors cross over the bridges and move from island to island, they will feel the temperature drop a few degrees, providing a refreshing escape from the heat.

Along the way, visitors can stop to take in the stunning views of the lake and the surrounding landscape. They can also explore the various attractions on the islands, including the Lovers’ Island (情人岛), which is adorned with romantic sculptures and beautiful gardens.

For those seeking some exercise, the islands provide plenty of space for a leisurely run, surrounded by the serene beauty of the lake. The islands also have plenty of shaded spots where visitors can rest and enjoy a picnic while taking in the peaceful surroundings.

Overall, taking a walk on the islands of Xuanwu Lake is an excellent opportunity to experience the natural beauty of the area while enjoying a few degrees lower temperatures during the hot summer months. Whether it’s for exercise, relaxation, or simply to take in the scenery, a walk on the islands is a must-do activity for any visitor to Nanjing.

Relax at nightfall: Evening and Night Kite Flying at Xuanwu Lake

Experience the enchanting spectacle of kites flying against the background of Xuanwu Lake on warm evenings, when the sky is transformed into a canvas of colorful kites dancing gracefully in the twilight. At nightfall, the magic continues as the illuminated kites light up the darkness, offering a mesmerizing spectacle that adds a touch of miracle to the peaceful atmosphere of Xuanwu Lake.

Arriving in Nanjing

If you’re arriving in Nanjing by train, be sure to step out of the Nanjing Railway Station (南京站) at the south entrance/exit to find yourself on the north side of the lake. From there, you can explore the many temples and pagodas that dot the area, including the towering Jiming Temple (鸡鸣寺塔) and the iconic Zifeng Tower (紫峰大厦).


In conclusion, a visit to Xuanwu Lake in Nanjing is a must-do activity for anyone travelling to this historic city. With its picturesque sights, including the lush greenery, city skyline reflections, and the majestic Purple Mountain, visitors can experience the natural beauty of the area. Additionally, taking a walk on the islands of the lake provides an excellent opportunity to escape the sweltering temperatures of the city during summer, while exploring the various attractions on the islands, such as the Lamasery and Jinling Bonsai Garden. Overall, Xuanwu Lake is a scenic destination that offers something for everyone, whether it’s for exercise, relaxation, or simply to take in the stunning scenery.

You can also find other Nanjing attractions, such as a visit to Jiming Temple, the Pilu Temple, or a stroll through Bailuzhou Park and Fool’s Garden within my travel idea section.

Go back to the post: Capturing Nanjing’s Best Photographic Spots for Instagram and TikTok: A Guide for Creators. (coming soon)

If you visited Nanjing already or are planning it, you can always reach out to me or share your thoughts with me on Instagram.

Frederic Konkel

My name is Frederic B. Konkel and to capture landscapes and cityscapes is a big passion of mine. I'm currently back in Berlin, Germany. I love to explore new places and I'm using my cameras to document these moments. On F.B.K. Photography I showcase a few impressions of my captured moments from around the world.