The gardens of Suzhou illustrate the wonder of Eastern horticultural design: see for yourself why the city inspired emperors, poets and scholars throughout the ages and continues to attract visitors today
Recognised throughout China for its elegant gardens, stunning water towns and rich cultural life, Suzhou is a city that still captures the romance of ancient China. As the economic centre of China during the Song dynasty (960-1279), the city still offers glimpses of its glorious past, and its wealth of ancient canals has afforded it a reputation as the ‘Venice of the East’. Though it has undeniable similarities with its Italian counterpart, Suzhou has enough charm of its own to defy comparison.
With comparatively cool temperatures and scenic river vistas, the city was the old capital of the kingdom of Wu more than 2,500 years ago. Its proximity to the Grand Canal encouraged the growth of its plants and flora by nourishing its naturally fertile soils. Suzhou’s gentry developed a fashion for building sanctuaries in which to pursue their passions, claiming their own parts of the land and filling them with collections of artworks and sculptures. And so Suzhou became renowned for its collection of gardens, with more than 50 well-preserved examples still standing pride of place in the city to this day.
It’s no surprise, then, a visit to the Liuyuan (Lingering Garden) should be high on any itinerary. With over 400 years of history, everything within is arranged with mathematical precision. There are exactly 200 windows in the garden, each with a different view, and twisted rocks in intriguing shapes dredged from nearby Taihu Lake form much of the decoration. Look out for three large gingko trees, estimated to be over 300 years old.
The eight other Unesco World Heritage gardens in and around the city include Zhuozhengyuan (Humble Administrator’s Garden) and Wangshiyuan (Garden of the Master of Nets) – all among the finest of their type.
On weekends, crowds of people flock to Shantang Street, a pedestrian-friendly thoroughfare lined with whitewashed houses with wooden shutters. It runs alongside a canal of the same name, which was built in 825 AD and formed the lifeblood of this prosperous place. Lined with red lanterns that hang from the second storey, the shops here sell everything from souvenir fans to delicate hand-painted umbrellas. You can also enjoy live entertainment from buskers, while Shantang Shu Yuan Theatre hosts daily performances of Pingtan and Kunqu opera, two local forms of musical storytelling.
Jump on a boat and travel to Huqiushan (Tiger Hill) where you can observe several sites of historical importance, the oldest of which is the tomb of Helu, the ruler of the Wu Kingdom some 2,500 years ago. The tomb is rumoured to contain 3,000 of the kingdom’s best swords, but to this day no one knows for sure. The myth goes that since the tomb is built half on rock and half on sand, if it were to be opened it would collapse, so the resting place has remained undisturbed. Also on Tiger Hill is a pagoda, built in the 10th century – all that remains from an old temple.
A 40-minute drive southeast from Suzhou is the water town of Tongli, which was founded more than a thousand years ago. Narrow, winding streets offset picturesque canals and most of the town’s residents are employed in jobs catering to the crowds of tourists who visit on weekends. Here, you can stop by the Unesco-listed Tuisiyuan (Retreat and Reflection Garden) in the former home of the Ren family.
It offers a view of everyday life in ancient China and features elegant furniture, an extensive courtyard and four pavilions surrounding a lake. Each pavilion had a designated purpose – for painting, reading, music and calligraphy – and it briefly served as the first girls’ school of the area at the turn of the 20th century.
After a busy day sightseeing, enjoy a cup of the local green Biluochun tea with a variety of snacks in the Nanyuan Teahouse. An old hot water station takes up most of the first floor of the building, where locals once collected hot water for their daily needs. Also upstairs is a wooden stage that still occasionally hosts Pintan shows – an ideal way to absorb some culture.
Local specialities: Suzhou embroidery, jade carvings and intricately whittled peach stones are great souvenirs to take homeSuzhou embroidery – China
Street snacks: Fill up on fried pork buns and Fengzhen big noodles
Travel: Fast trains travel between Nanjing and Suzhou in 11/4-11/2 hours, and Suzhou can also be reached from Shanghai in around 35 minutes (or just over an hour by road)