For a comparatively small city, Suzhou has a lot to see. The gardens, a canal cruise and some silk shopping are taken as givens and, if you’d like to get deeper into the world of silk, the museum is also worth checking out. As far as the gardens go, there are so many that you’re better off choosing a few from the list below and taking your time to appreciate these, rather than trying to rush around all of them.
The peak season runs from April through October and if you visit during off-season, ticket prices are around 25% less. Free English-speaking guides are available at most of the sights, although you may have to wait for a number of people to gather. Although free, it’s customary to tip the guide at the end of the tour (¥5 per person).
Much of Suzhou is best enjoyed on foot, by bike or cycle rickshaw, but regular buses, tourist buses and taxis are on hand when you run out of steam. Tourist buses are more comfortable than regular services and there are five routes through the city, which cost ¥10 for a day-pass on one route. Although you’ll have to endure the guide’s blurb in Chinese, these buses make for an easy way to visit a number of the city’s sights and discounted sight entrance tickets are available on board.
Suzhou’s gardens were first developed in the Song dynasty by retired officials and scholars as places of contemplation. On a map they might seem a little small compared with some of the grand parks of the north, but balance, harmony, proportion and variety, not size, are the elements the gardens aspire to.
Using moon gates, pavilions, ponds, carved screen windows, vegetation and bizarrely contorted rocks from nearby Lake Tai, the gardens aim to balance these elements and to create a sense of scale by concealment and division. Although the fundamental features of the gardens remain the same, different gardens focus on particular aspects. While some are dominated by water, others, like Lion Grove, offer a labyrinth of rockeries.
Tip: In stark contrast to their intended purpose as places of reflection and tranquility, the gardens can get overrun with visitors. To view them at their most tranquil, arrive as they open and you should have the place to yourself for a precious while.
♥♥ Canglang Pavilion, 3 Canglangting Jie
(daily 7:30 am-5 pm; ¥20; buses #1, #28, #101, #T2, #T4&#T5).
This quiet retreat at the southern end of Renmin Lu offers a real escape from the tourist-filled gardens of the north. Built by the Song poet, Su Sunqin, it is the oldest remaining garden in Suzhou and was repaired in both the Ming and Qing dynasties.
The garden contains a number of man-made stone hillocks covered with bamboo and ancient trees. The centerpiece is the Canglang Pavilion, inscribed with the famous Chinese couplet. “the refreshing breeze and the bright moon are priceless. The near water and distant hills strike a sentimental note.” And they do, although you can’t visit at night, so you could exchange “bright moon” for hot sun!
♥♥♥ Master of the Nets Garden, 11 Kuo Jia Lane
(daily 7:30 am-5 pm; ¥30; buses #202 & #T2).
Situated on a small lane off Shiquan Jie just west of the Suzhou Hotel, this small but perfectly formed garden is a must-see. Dating back to the 12th century, it was constructed by a retired official who decided he wanted to try his hand at fishing. It was later named “Master of the Nets” during the Qing Dynasty by Emperor Qianlong who had it restored after many centuries of neglect.
The garden’s focal point is a picturesque lily pond, flanked by roofed walkways, pavilions, courtyards, rockeries, flowers and trees. Everywhere you walk there are glimpses of another part of the garden, conveying the impression that it is much larger than it really is.
♥♥♥ Gardens by Night (daily ; ¥80, from mid-March to mid-November). For a different garden experience, it’s definitely worth visiting the Master of the Nets Garden (see p. 346) by night. The garden is transformed by lanterns and the sounds of traditional music fill the air.
Each section of the garden shows a different performance and you are free to wander through the areas at leisure. Kun opera is performed and you’ll see a number of traditional and local instruments being played, accompanied by the soft tones of the Suzhou dialect.
There are nightly performances between mid-March and mid-November. It’s worth visiting in the week as shows can be very busy weekends. The show is particularly memorable if you’re here for a full moon, which appears three times – in the sky, in the pond and in the reflecting mirror behind the central pavilion.
♥ Couples Garden, 5-9 Xiaoxinqiao Jie
(daily ; ¥20; bus #701).
Ou Yuan, as the garden is locally known, is on the eastern edge of town and is surrounded on three sides by canals and the moat. It offers a collection of beautiful miniature gardens and limestone rockeries set around a central house. There’s a pleasant teahouse and you can also take short canal trips from here (¥10), which depart from the back of the garden.
♥ Lion Grove Garden, 23 Yuanlin Lu
(daily 7:30 am-5 pm; ¥30; buses #2,
#T1, #T2 & #T5). In the northeast part of town not far from the Humble Administrators Garden, Lion Grove is a man-made maze of caves, rockeries and pathways that dates back to the 13th century. It was built by a Buddhist monk to honor the memory of his late master.
The rocks are said to have come from the nearby Lake Tai and supposedly resemble lions sleeping, fighting and playing, hence the garden’s name, although you may need to stretch your imagination to envisage this!
♥♥♥ The Humble Administrator’s Garden, 178 Dong Bei Lu
(daily 7:30 am-5 pm; ¥70; buses #2, #3, #T1, #T2 & #T5).
One of the most famous in China and, for some, the best, the Humble Administrator’s Garden gained UNESCO World Heritage status in 1997. Given that this is the biggest garden in Suzhou, its title seems a little ironic. It stems from a Tang poem which suggested that garden conservation was the work of a humble man.
The garden was built by a retired imperial official under the inspiration of this poem, in the belief that withdrawal and retreat were admirable attributes. However, although it’s the largest and most famous, I prefer the more intimate Master of the Nets Garden.
Lingering Garden, 338 Liuyuan Lu
(daily ; ¥40; buses #11, #T1 & #T2).
The Lingering Garden sits in the far northwest of town and was designed by a retired Ming dynasty minister. Expanded and renovated in the Qing dynasty, it offers a number of picture-perfect gardens set around pavilions and lily ponds. North of the garden’s Nanmu Hall you’ll find the 21-foot-tall Guanyun Peak – a contorted and potholed rock tower brought here from Lake Tai.
Despite its location, the Lingering Garden has become one of the most popular sights in town and can get very busy in the summer.
♥ Tiger Hill, Huqiu Lu
(daily ; ¥60; buses #8, #49, #T1 & #T2).
Su Dongpo reputedly said “it is a lifelong pity if you have visited Suzhou without an appearance in Tiger Hill” and, while I managed to avoid it the first few times I came to Suzhou and wasn’t aware of any lifelong pity, it is a nice place to head for on a bike trip.
Located in the northwestern outskirts of the city, Tiger Hill is the resting place of the supposed founder of Suzhou, Emperor He Lu. Legend has it that a white tiger appeared at the top of the hill just days after he was entombed. Inside the park you’ll find numerous temples, pavilions and ponds and the 10th-century, 98-foot-tall Yunyan (or leaning) Pagoda, China’s version of Pisa, which currently stands at an angle of 15 degrees!
There are some museums in Suzhou: The Silk Museum, Suzhou Opera Museum, Suzhou Museum,
Suzhou Arts and Crafts Museum.
Pagodas & Temples
♥ Panmen, 1 Dongda Jie
(daily ; ¥25; buses #5, #7, #30 & #T2).
In the southwest of town Panmen (Coiled Gate) includes a trio of ancient attractions: land and water city gates, Ruigang Pagoda andWumen Bridge. There were originally eight gates in the wall around the city but Panmen is the only surviving one.
The city gates were first constructed over 2,000 years ago to serve as protection from invaders, but their current form dates from the 14th century. Just inside the gates, the simple seven-story octagonal Ruigang Pagoda stands 175 feet tall and was first built over a thousand years ago. You can ascend the pagoda for great views of the area.
The most scenic way to approach Panmen is across the high arch of Wumen Bridge, which also makes a good spot to watch the canal traffic. The whole area is popular with traditional morning exercise enthusiasts and if you come early enough you’ll see graceful sword dancing and tai chi to the backdrop of a rising sun.
♥♥♥ West Garden Temple, Xiajinqiao Lu
(daily ; ¥15; bus #6, #10, #11, #17 & #40).
Originally established in the Yuan dynasty the West Garden Temple is a Buddhist complex housing a number of buildings, the most interesting of which is the Hall of 500 Arhats. This hall, first built in the Ming dynasty holds a 1,000-armed Guanyin statue and rows of gold-painted arhats (luohan), each with a different and intricately detailed expression, from the humorous to the tortured – it’s not hard to spot the “mad monk”!
Behind the temple there’s a garden with ponds where fish and turtles have been “freed” by Buddhist believers.
The Twin Pagodas were closed for restoration at the time of writing.
Temple of Mystery, Guanqian Jie
(daily ; ¥20; buses #1, #2, #20 & #101).
At the heart of the bustling Guanqian Jie pedestrianised shopping zone, this Taoist temple complex dates back to the third century and has survived the onslaughts of the ages fairly well, only being rebuilt and restored a few times and avoiding much damage in the Cultural Revolution.
The Sanqing Dian (Pure Trinity Hall) is the temple’s most impressive hall and is the largest ancient wooden structure south of the Yangzi. Inside it you’ll find statues of the Taoist Trinity and a stone tablet inscribed with the image of Taoism’s founder, Lao Zi .
North Temple Pagoda, 1918 Renmin Lu
(daily 8 am-6 pm; ¥15; buses #1, #T1, #T2 & #T4).
This impressive pagoda is one of the first things you see as you cross the moat coming from the train station into Suzhou, and has become a symbol of the city. Originally dating from the sixth century, the pagoda is constructed of wood and bricks and stands an impressive 250 feet tall. The grounds below contain temples and gardens, although you can get a good look at the pagoda for free from Renmin Lu.
If you do go in, climb up to the eighth floor where you will get excellent views of Suzhou, weather permitting.
See also Travel guide to Suzhou
, Suzhou pictures, map of Suzhou
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