CLASSICAL GARDENS OF SUZHOU: WHICH ONES SHOULD YOU VISIT?

Suzhou, West of Shanghai, has always been famous for its gardens. With over 200 at one time, and almost a hundred still around today, including 9 recognised as Unesco heritage sites, it can be a little tough to decide which ones you should visit and which ones you can easily give a miss to. And so you won’t have to go unprepared, I decided to visit as many as possible during a short trip to Suzhou. Sadly I didn’t manage to hit all 9 of the UNESCO gardens in the three days I had, but went to 6 of them which, I think, is a pretty good number.
As you can imagine I had a few favourites (namely Yipu and Canglang, quieter, allowing maybe more time for some contemplation) but I also know that my tastes might differ from yours so here is a fairly objective list of the Classical gardens of Suzhou and why you should visit them or not. Hopefully the pictures might also help you make your mind up.

Humble’s Administrator Garden 拙政园 Zhuo Zheng Yuan

The most famous of the gardens of Suzhou has got to be the Humble’s Administrator garden. Not only is it the most expensive one, it’s the one that sees the most tourists (mainly domestic tourists) and for good reasons: the gardens themselves are vast and varied and seem to be divided by seasons so there’s something to see at any time of the year.
While it is big and might be the longest garden visit you’ll be having, the main problem of this garden has got to be the crowds.
For a place that could be relaxing and is oh so pretty, the thousands of tourists crowding the small stone paths make the place quickly feel claustrophobic. Low to high season, the visitors keep on pilling up and if that’s not what you want then don’t feel guilty if you’re giving it a miss.

How long should you plan there: Around 2 hours.
Cost of a visit : 50 to 70RMB depending on the season.
Opening time: 7.30am to 5.30pm
Why you should visit: This is the biggest and most popular garden.
Why you should avoid it: Always crowded, hard to catch a break.

Master of Nets Garden 网师园 Wang Shi Yuan

For some reason this garden seems to have gained the favour of foreign tourists, and tour groups will surely pass by the Master of Nets on their exploration of the classical gardens of Suzhou. Located South East of the Ancient City, this one doesn’t get as busy since it’s located further afield from other tourist attractions.
Unlike the big Humble Administrator’s Garden, the Master of Nets is small, probably the smallest of the bunch, but the architecture and the colours used make it all feel larger than it is. But that also means that arriving at the same time as the large tour groups can make it crowded fast. Try to go as early as possible!
During the high season the Master of Nets Garden has openings at night with Kunqu Opera, it’s worth asking about it when visiting!

How long should you plan there: Around 1 to 2 hours.
Cost of a visit: 30 to 70RMB depending on the season.
Opening time:7.30am to 5.30pm (Night admissions are from 19.00 to 22.00)
Why you should visit: Foreigner’s favourite, gorgeous architecture.
Why you should avoid it: Very popular means crowded too.

Lion Forest Garden 狮子林园 Shi Zi Lin Yuan

This one, I had to give it a miss. Located very close to the Humble Administrator’s garden and the Suzhou museum, it’s usually added on the tour and therefore gets a pretty good amount of visitors.
What makes it so special are the rock formations and the passageways that it boasts.
Smaller and with simpler gardens, it’s maybe not worth spending your money there if you’ve got the time to hit more distant sites, but if you only have a day in Suzhou then why not add this garden to the list for a comparison with its neighbour.

How long should you plan there: Around 1 to 2 hours
Cost of a visit: 30 to 40RMB depending on the season.
Opening time: 7.30am to 5.30pm
Why you should visit: Close to the Humble Administrator’s garden, great rock formations
Why you should avoid it: Once again, can be crowded and not as impressive as its neighbour.

Retreat and Reflection Garden, Tongli 退思园 Tui Si Yuan

A little harder to get to compared to the other classical gardens of Suzhou, the Retreat and Reflection Garden is located in the water town of Tongli.
The steep entrance price might make it a little overwhelming but keep in mind that this price includes access to a few activities in town and when in the area of Suzhou, it would be a shame not to visit one of the famous water towns.
Now what makes the garden so special? The water pond and the many pavilions make for one of the prettiest gardens you’ll get to visit. You can even go upstairs in one of the buildings and observe the view from above.
Sadly, that’s another popular garden and during the high season it gets pretty busy. This is another place I’d recommend visiting as early in the day as you possibly can .

How long should you plan there: Plan half a day since you will need to visit Tongli.
Cost of a visit: 100RMB (but the ticket buys you entry to the town of Tongli and a few attractions)
Opening time: 7.30am to 5.30pm
Why you should visit: The pond and the pavilion are magical and so is the town of Tongli
Why you should avoid it: You’ll have to get out of town to visit and the town entrance is pricey.

Lingering garden. 留园 Liu Yuan

This one I regret not having the time to visit. The Lingering garden has scenes that you’ll find on most literature regarding Suzhou. That wooden and white pavilion on the water, that’s where it comes from and located near Shang Tang street, it’s got everything that makes a crowd pleaser.

Of course, it’s another busy one and popular with tour companies but the bonsai garden is to die for (if you’re not visiting Tiger Hill that is). I sadly don’t have much to say about this one but if you do end up in the West of Suzhou it would be a shame to not give the Lingering garden a go even though the ticket is also on the pricier side.

How long should you plan there: Around one hour.
Cost of a visit: 45 to 55RMB depending on the season.
Opening time: 7.30am to 5.30pm
Why you should visit: Near Shang Tang street, garden full of bonsai.
Why you should avoid it: Because of its proximity to Shang Tang street, tour companies visit it often.

Couple’s Retreat Garden 耦园 Ou Yuan.

Close to the ever so trendy and popular Ping Jiang avenue is the Couple’s Retreat Garden. The name itself make this one very appealing but it’s the main garden with its water pond and the red pavilion that make it all so worth it.
Sadly for me I got there with barely 30 minutes to spare before the closing of the garden and at the same time as a tour group (which, it’s good to be noted, are fairly rare in this garden.) which meant most of my views were obstructed by quite a few people and also meant I had quite a time constraint. Be a little smarter than me and get there before or after lunch time. Ping Jiang road is maybe 15 minutes away and it’s the perfect street to find a few snacks and drinks.
Couple’s Retreat garden in itself is smaller than many of the alternatives, and can quickly look crowded because of its many features crammed into such a small space, but after the others, it’s a true breath of fresh air.

How long should you plan there: Less than an hour.
Cost of a visit: Around 15 to 20RMB depending on the season.
Opening time: 7.30am to 5.30pm
Why you should visit: Close to Ping Jiang avenue, smaller with a nice pond.
Why you should avoid it: It can get pretty busy around the end of the day.

Garden of Cultivation 艺圃 Yi Pu.

My favourite. Or my second favourite of all the gardens of Suzhou, it’s hard to pick.
Tucked away in the small streets surrounding it, you’ll have to pass a few grandmas doing their laundry before you find the entrance to this one, and that means that the majority of customers of this garden are locals. Elderly folk come here to sip their tea in the massive pavilion that oversees the garden, while art students flock during the day to work on their drawings. Wedding photographers and couples come by to get their photos taken too, but that’s about all you’ll see there.

The rocks, pavilion and gardens, the quiet atmosphere, all of it is worth the risk of getting yourself lost once coming there (I’d highly recommend getting a Chinese GPS app on your phone).
I honestly struggle to find anything negative about this garden, truly. With a fairly cheap entry price too, a tea house and life that seems to go on, that’s probably one of the most authentic gardens you’ll find in town.

How long should you plan there: Around 1 to 2 hours.
Cost of a visit: 15 to 20 RMB depending on the season
Opening time: 7.30am to 5.30pm
Why you should visit: Tucked away, the garden is quiet and very pleasant. The Pavilion is the largest of them all.
Why you should avoid it: It can be a little hard to find without indications.

The Mountain Villa with Embracing Beauty 还秀山庄 Huan Xiu Shan Zhuang .

A tricky one this garden. Located in the Embroidery Museum, you’ll have to go to said Museum to be able to enjoy the garden as well.
From what I understand, this is maybe not as busy but I’ve never been a fan of having to pass through a gauntlet of shops to get to visit something (even though I’ve seen this quite a few times, Shibaozhai being also a good example of this system).
The embroidery in Suzhou is pretty fantastic, but that’s hardly unique to the area, andbduring your time in China it’s something you’ll get to see a few times (namely in LijiangBeijingShanghai, heck even Chengdu!) but if your time in the country is limited then go! You’ll get to see some impressive silk weaving technique and then get a chance to relax in the gardens.

How long should you plan there: Between one to two hours.
Cost of a visit: 15 to 20 RMB depending on the season.
Opening time: 7.30am to 5.30pm
Why you should visit: Located in the Embroidery Museum, usually pretty quiet.
Why you should avoid it: Visiting the Garden might mean visiting the Embroidery Museum too.

Garden of Surging Waves 沧浪亭 Cang Lang Ting.

Cang Lang is the oldest of the gardens of Suzhou and it’s easy to see that: plants are taking over on the roofs of the pavilion, the water pond is low and not as attractive as the others, but it’s age and heritage are also what makes it so worthwhile.
Located on the side of a small canal and right in front of another garden ( called Desirable garden, truly worth your time even if it’s new and in no way a Unesco site), a massive rock formation greets you upon arrival, and how surprising is it that you can just adventure in there to get through to the rest of the garden (for the less adventurous, worry not, there are paths too). This garden is also one that, to me, had some of the best doorways.

Get in early, I arrived at 7.00am (it was open, which tells you to be careful with the time tables, those are merely indications and don’t always reflet the reality) and was the only one there, with the exception of two workers who were working on the bamboo garden.
As you might have guessed, Cang Lang was, also, one of my favourite garden once combined with a visit to the Desirable garden next door.

How long should you plan there: Around an hour.
Cost of a visit: Between 15 to 20RMB depending on the season.
Opening time: 7.30am to 5.30pm
Why you should visit: Oldest garden in Suzhou, doesn’t get as many visitors. Fun rock tunnels.
Why you should avoid it: Less of a water pond, maybe not as attractive as the others.

Of the nine classical gardens of Suzhou, it might be a little hard to pick one. I’d recommend three if you spend two to three days in town (which you should!) including one of the famous ones and a quieter option.
If I’d have to give you options, here would be the three I would suggest:

  • Visit the Humble Administrator’s garden because it’s, after all, THE one. Then stop at the Lingering garden and finally to the Garden of Cultivation. This option takes you to the West of the city and has a little more of a relation to the gardens as a whole.
  • Visit the Master of Nets garden, it’s popular too with a different crowd, then get to the Couple’s Retreat garden and finally to Cang Lang. You’ll get three very different dynamics there with three different focuses in the architecture.
  • Finally, visit the Retreat and Reflection Garden in Tongli then head back to Suzhou and visit the Humble Administrator’s garden and the Couple’s garden as those are pretty close to each-other (you could replace Couple’s garden by Lion Forest Garden which is even closer to the Humble Administrator )

Hopefully by now you’ll have made your decision and this information will have been fairly useful to you. Don’t forget that Suzhou is also a city full of culture and there’s a lot more to do than just those famous gardens. Worry not though, I’ll tell you more about those in another article. cheap formal dresses