Gardens, above all, are what Suzhou is all about. Some were founded during the Song dynasty, a thousand years ago, and in their Ming and Qing heyday it is said that the city had two hundred of them. Some half-dozen major gardens have now been restored, as well as a number of smaller ones, mostly in enclosed areas behind high compound walls.

Chinese gardens do not set out to improve upon a slice of nature or to look natural: they are a serious art form, the designer working with rock, water, buildings, trees and vegetation in subtly different combinations. As with painting and poetry, the aim is to produce for contemplation the balance, harmony, proportion and variety which the Chinese seek in life. The wealthy scholars and merchants who built Suzhou’s gardens intended them to be enjoyed either in solitude or in the company of friends over a glass of wine and a poetry recital or literary discussion. Their designers used little pavilions and terraces to suggest a larger scale, undulating covered walkways and galleries to give a downward view, and intricate interlocking groups of rock and bamboo to hint at, and half conceal, what lies beyond. Glimpses through delicate lattices, tile-patterned openings or moon gates, and reflections in water created cunning perspectives which either suggested a whole landscape or borrowed outside features (such as external walls of neighbouring buildings), in order to create an illusion of distance.

Among the essential features of the Suzhou gardens are the white pine trees, the odd-shaped rocks from Tai Hu and the stone tablets over the entrances. The whole was completed by animals – there are still fish and turtles in some ponds today. Differences in style among the various gardens arise basically from the mix and balance of the ingredients; some are dominated by water, others are mazes of contorted rock, yet others are mainly inward-looking, featuring pavilions full of strange furniture. Almost everything you see has some symbolic significance – the pine tree and the crane for long life, mandarin ducks for married bliss, for example.

Visiting the gardens

Among the Chinese, Suzhou is one of the most highly favoured tourist destinations in the country, and the city is packed with visitors from far and wide – meaning that you are rarely able to appreciate the gardens in the peace for which they were designed. The most famous ones attract a stream of visitors year-round, but many of the equally beautiful yet lesser-known gardens, notably Canglang Ting and Ou Yuan, are comparatively serene and crowd-free; the best strategy is to visit one or two of the popular gardens before 10am and spend the rest of the day in the smaller gardens. Prices for many of these sights are slightly lower in the off-season.

Travel offers; book through Rough Guides

China features

The latest articles, galleries, quizzes and videos.

The roof of the world: a first-timer's guide to Tibet

The roof of the world: a first-timer's guide to Tibet

The ‘roof of the world’ has exerted a magnetic pull over travellers and adventurers for centuries. This vast, high altitude desert has spawned myths and leg…

10 Nov 2016 • Stuart Butler insert_drive_file Article
Video: 10 Taiwanese street foods you need to try

Video: 10 Taiwanese street foods you need to try

Street food in Taiwan has a charm that restaurants just can't match. There's a distinct pleasure to be found in wandering through the labyrinthine stalls glo…

24 Oct 2016 • Colt St. George videocam Video
Beyond the Jade Dragon mountain: stunning pictures of Yunnan, China

Beyond the Jade Dragon mountain: stunning pictures of Yunnan, China

After a few weeks exploring the region, Rough Guides travel writer and photographer David Abram shares some of his favourite images of Yunnan Province, China. …

18 Oct 2016 • David Abram insert_drive_file Article
View more featureschevron_right

Join over 60,000 subscribers and get travel tips, competitions and more every month

Join over 60,000 subscribers and get travel tips, competitions and more every month