Choosing which gardens to go
The cost of admission of gardens and the accumulated cost has gone up astronomically. So you may just want to go the two or three most famous ones if you are a first timer or spend more time at the less tourist busy smaller gardens if have been to Suzhou before.
So a little planning using the map will help. Here is a map I found.
Tiger Hill, known also as Surging Sea Hill, is a large hillock covering some14100 square metres (over three acres) and is 36 metres (118 feet) in height. Climbing the hill, you will find a number of historical sites some of which can be traced back over 2500 years to the founding of Suzhou. Although the hill is relatively small it has rich history with a leaning pagoda. This pagoda stands on the hill's summit and is the Pagoda of the Yunyan Temple. As the oldest pagoda in the vicinity of Suzhou it has come to be a symbol of the city and has the distinction of being China's Leaning Tower. Built during the Northern Song Dynasty (959-961) it is a seven-storey octahedron after the style of the timber pagodas built during the early Tang period. It is 48 metres high (158 feet) and for the past four hundred years has leant 3°59’ to the northwest.
Fabled city of gardens
"An earthly paradise..."
Founded in 600 BC by King He Lu as the capital of the Wu Kingdom, Suzhou has been famous throughout China as an earthly paradise for more than a thousand years – an old saying goes, “Above there is heaven, below there are Suzhou and Hangzhou”. It was an early centre of silk production, a prized commodity exported to the rest of the country and beyond. It is also the birthplace of the oldest form of Chinese opera known as “kunju” and of a celebrated musical style called “pingtan”. The city prospered on trade along the Grand Canal, reaching its zenith during the Tang and Song dynasties. During the Ming dynasty, Suzhou flourished as a place of refinement and culture, attracting wealthy merchants, scholars and officials, who patronised the arts and built themselves elegant houses and gardens. These classical gardens – designed according to uniquely Chinese principles incorporating the rules of fengshui and Daoist philosophy – are Suzhou’s most compelling legacy today. Many have miraculously survived the turmoils of 20th century China. Present-day Suzhou is a bustling city of 6 million people, with a central ancient moated town surrounded by the modern boom town, a development of the last 15 years as a result of rapid industrialisation in the Yangtze river delta region.
Suzhou is located in southern Jiangsu province in eastern China, in flat country criss-crossed by canals and rivers. It is only a 40-minute train ride from Shanghai (or 90+ minutes from Nanjing). Like nearby Hangzhou, it is a popular destination throughout the year, especially for the Chinese, because of its numerous literary and cultural associations. It is also a cosmopolitan place, with sizeable expatriate business communities particularly from Korea, Taiwan and Singapore. As a result, it has a highly developed tourist infrastructure, with many hotels catering to all budgets, a busy eating-out scene and easy-to-use public transportation (taxis, buses and rickshaws). For these reasons, it is relatively easy to visit Suzhou independently, though many visitors (particularly the East Asians) still come on package deals.
For most people, the main reason to visit is to see the classical gardens of Suzhou, now designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. There are numerous to choose from, though I have listed below the most famous ones. Suzhou offers more than just gardens, however, and there are also culturally significant temples, pagodas and museums. Finally, there is also an opportunity to take a cruise on the Grand Canal…
Top 10 sights:
1. Humble Administrator’s Garden (Zhuozheng Yuan) – the largest classical garden of Suzhou and one of the finest
2. Lion Grove Garden (Shizi Lin) – another unmissable garden, with a difference, characterised by rockeries resembling lions
3. Master of the Nets Garden (Wangshi Yuan) – small but perfectly formed, considered by garden connoisseurs to be the best of them all
4. North Temple Pagoda (Beisi Ta) – the tallest ancient pagoda south of the Yangtze
5. Cold Mountain Temple (Hanshan Si) – a delightful Buddhist temple immortalised by a famous Tang poet
6. Coiled Gate (Pan Men) – a restored fortified gate that controlled access to Suzhou by water and land 700 years ago
7. Tongli – a pretty and quaint canal town on the outskirts of the city
8. The Grand Canal – take a cruise on the world’s longest artificial waterway
9. Suzhou Confucius Temple (Kong Miao) – which houses China’s oldest surviving city map
10. Deep Blue Wave Pavilion Garden (Canglang Ting) – the oldest surviving classical garden in Suzhou.