Lush hills, tranquil lakes and a passionate park culture set Nanjing apart from a run-of-the-mill Chinese city.

These five urban oases (listed in no particular order) are the best natural escapes in downtown.

Xuanwu Lake Park (玄武湖公园)

Just a few steps away from commercial thoroughfares, this former imperial lake garden ushers city dwellers from the urban hustle and bustle into a peaceful haven of weeping willows, arch bridges, paddle boats and visually stunning flowers.

Whatever the season, the 4.4 square-kilometre park showcases a distinctive colour: pink cherry blossoms in spring, emerald lotus leaves in summer, golden ginkgos and red maples in autumn, and snow-covered pines in winter.

Much of Nanjing’s downtown is built around this massive, smooth body of water. A casual stroll around the lake and through its five islands – all connected by bridges — can take up to five hours.

Various gates. The main one is Xuanwu Gate, near Metro Line 1 Xuanwumen Station; free; open daily 6.00 a.m.-8.00 p.m.; round-the-lake sightseeing bus RMB 30 (US$4.80) per person per trip.

Wuchaomen Park (午朝门公园)

Every morning, retired locals practice tai chi, sing opera and walk backwards in circles in what was once the forbidden grounds of the Ming Palace.

Inside the park stands Wumen, one of Nanjing’s few remaining palace gates, dating back to 1367. Visitors can climb the grey-bricked structure to experience a good view over Yudao to the south, the straight and tree-lined former imperial road.

Wuchaomen is also ground zero for Nanjing’s saxophone association. Fans of the western instrument, mostly elderly retirees, gather here every day to chat and practice.

28 Yudao Road, Baixia District 白下区御道街27号; free; 6.30 a.m.-9.30 p.m.

Qingliangshan Park (清凉山公园)

Though only 100 meters high, this forested hill provides the backdrop for a pleasant hike in the city centre. Stone steps snake through steep and rustling slopes, which hold trees of all shades, forming an unexpected landscape of a rapidly urbanized town.

Literally meaning “cooling hill” in Chinese, this area was said to be the imperial summer resort in the Nan Tang Dynasty and houses a 500-year-old, now defunct ancient academy, Chongzheng Shuyuan.

Qingliangshan, however, is most famous for the Qingliang Si Buddhist monastery, an influential 1,500-year-old temple at the foot of the hill.

83 Guangzhou Road, Gulou District 鼓楼区广州路83号; free; 6 a.m.-6 p.m.

Mochou Lake Park (莫愁湖公园)

A soothing lake view, classic Chinese courtyards and a romantic legend join forces in this watery complex.

One of the courtyards is re-purposed to display some 200 pieces of classic antique Chinese furniture. Most exhibits are made with rosewood and carry painstaking ornamental carvings.

The park and lake were named after a legendary female figure, Mochou (meaning ‘do not worry’ in Chinese). The Liang Dynasty widow was said to have committed suicide, in this lake, to resist an undesirable marriage offer. A 2-metre-tall white marble statue was erected in the park to commemorate this steadfast lady.

The city’s annual dragon-boat race takes place here on Duanwu Festival.

35 Hanzhongmen Da Jie, Jianye District 建邺区汉中门大街35号; admission: RMB 27 (US$4.3); open daily 6.00 a.m.-10.00 p.m. (winter), 6.00 a.m.-11.00 p.m. (summer);official website

China Gate Castle Park (中华门城堡公园)

This tree-adorned strip of land is flanked by two landmark attractions: the grand City Wall castle, China Gate, to the north, and local culture cradle Qinhuai River to the south.

It’s an extremely refreshing place to start a day.

Locals dance with swords or swing their legs right under the Ming Dynasty fortification, accompanied by a uniquely rejuvenating smell of water-side soil. A short distance away, streams of buses and cars drive cross Changgan Bridge on Qinhuai, beeping in the beginning of yet another busy day.

There is a small strip of green on the other side of the river bank. It’s quieter here and the stone steps in the bush lead to a new but ghostly art zone, 1865 Creative Park.

The park’s entrance is the China Gate complex; free; 6.00 a.m.-8.00 p.m.