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Central Suzhou, where most of the tourist attractions are, is surrounded by remnants of a moat and canals linked to the Grand Canal in the west, and is a protected historical district, 3x5km (2x3 miles) across, in which little tampering and no skyscrapers are allowed. More than 170 bridges arch over the 32km (20 miles) of slim waterways within the town. The poetic private gardens number about 70, with a dozen of the finest open to public view. No other Chinese city contains such a concentration of canals and gardens. Taxis are the most convenient way to get around, with trips about town averaging between ¥10 and¥20. In 2011, Suzhou will also open two subway lines: a north-south line running from the new high-speed railway station in the north through the old town, and an east-west line connecting the old town with the Suzhou Industrial Park in the west.

Classic Gardens

Suzhou's magnificent, formerly private gardens are small, exquisite jewels of landscaping art, often choked with visitors, making a slow, meditative tour difficult. Built primarily in the Ming and Qing dynasties by retired scholars, generals, merchants, and government officials, these gardens, designed on different principles than those of the West, aimed to create the illusion of the universe in a limited setting by borrowing from nature and integrating such elements as water, plants, rocks, and buildings. Poetry and calligraphy were added as the final touches. Listed below are some classic gardens worth visiting.

Forest of Lions Garden (Shizi Lin Yuan) -- Built in 1342 by a Buddhist monk to honor his teacher and reportedly last owned (privately) by relatives of renowned American architect I. M. Pei, this large garden consists of four small lakes, a multitude of buildings, and big chunks of tortured rockeries that are supposed to resemble lions. Many of these oddly shaped rocks come from nearby Tai Hu (Lake Tai), where they've been submerged for a very long time to achieve the desired shapes and effects. During the Song Dynasty (A.D. 960-1126), rock appreciation reached such extremes that the expense in hauling stones from Tai Hu to the capital is said to have bankrupted the empire. Containing the largest rocks and most elaborate rockeries of any garden in Suzhou, Shizi Lin can be a bit ponderous, but then again, you won't see anything like this anywhere else. The garden is located at Yuanlin Lu 23 (tel. 0512/6727-2428). It's open daily from 7:30am to 5:30pm; admission is ¥30.

Humble Administrator's Garden (Zhuo Zheng) -- Usually translated as "Humble Administrator's Garden," but also translatable tongue-in-cheek as "Garden of the Stupid Officials," this largest of Suzhou's gardens, which dates from 1513, makes complex use of the element of water. Linked by zigzag bridges, the maze of connected pools and islands seems endless. The creation of multiple vistas and the dividing of spaces into distinct segments are the garden artist's means of expanding the compressed spaces of the estate. As visitors stroll through the garden, new spaces and vistas open up at every turn. The garden is located at Dong Bei Jie 178 (tel. 0512/6751-0286). It's open daily from 7:30am to 5pm; admission is ¥70 from May to September, ¥50 from October to April.

Lingering Garden (Liu Yuan) -- This garden in the northwest part of town is the setting for the finest Tai Hu rock in China, a 6m-high (20-ft.), 5-ton contorted castle of stone called Crown of Clouds Peak (Juyun Feng). Composed of four sections connected by a 700m-long (2,297-ft.) corridor, Liu Yuan is also notable for its viewing pavilions, particularly its Mandarin Duck Hall, which is divided into two sides: an ornate southern chamber for men, and a plain northern chamber for women. Lingering Garden is located at Liuyuan Lu 80 (tel. 0512/6533-7940). It's open daily from 7:30am to 5:30pm; admission is ¥40.

Master of the Nets Garden (Wang Shi Yuan)-- Considered to be the most perfect, and also smallest, of Suzhou's gardens, the Master of the Nets Garden is a masterpiece of landscape compression. Hidden at the end of a blind alley, its tiny grounds have been cleverly expanded by the placement of walls, screens, and pavilion halls, producing a maze that seems endless. The eastern sector of the garden consists of the residence of the former owner and his family. At the center of the garden is a small pond encircled by verandas, pavilions, and covered corridors, and traversed by two arched stone bridges. Strategically placed windows afford different views of bamboo, rockeries, water, and inner courtyards, all helping to create an illusion of the universe in a garden. In the northwest of the garden, don't miss the lavish Dianchun Yi (Hall for Keeping the Spring), the former owner's study furnished with lanterns and hanging scrolls. This was the model for Ming Xuan, the Astor Chinese Garden Court and Ming Furniture Room in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Master of the Nets Garden is located at Kuotao Xiang 11, off Shiquan Jie (tel. 0512/6529-3190). It's open daily from 7:30am to 5:30pm; admission is ¥30. In the summer, daily performances of traditional music and dance are staged in the garden (7:30pm; ¥100).

Tiger Hill (Hu Qiu Shan) -- This multipurpose theme park can be garishly tacky in parts, but it's also home to some local historic sights, chief among them the remarkable leaning Yunyan Ta (Cloud Rock Pagoda) at the top of the hill. Now safely shored up by modern engineering (although it still leans), this seven-story octagonal pagoda dating from A.D. 961 is thought to be sitting on top of the legendary grave of He Lu, king of Wu during the Spring and Autumn period (770-464 B.C.), and also Suzhou's founder. He Lu was reportedly buried with his arsenal of 3,000 swords, his tomb guarded by a white tiger, which was said to have appeared 3 days after the king's death (hence the name of the hill).

Partway up Tiger Hill is a natural ledge of rocks, the Ten Thousand People Rock (Wanren Shi), where according to legend a rebel delivered an oratory so fiery that the rocks lined up to listen. Another version claims they represent He Lu's followers who were buried along with him, as was the custom at that time. A deep stone cleavage, the Pool of Swords (Jian Chi), runs along one side of it, reputedly the remnants of a pit dug by order of the First Emperor (Qin Shi Huang) 2,000 years ago in a search for the 3,000 swords. Tiger Hill is located 3km (2 miles) northwest of the city at Huqiu Shan 8 (tel. 0512/6532-3488). It's open daily from 7:30am to 6pm; admission is ¥60.

Water Gates & Canals

Your best chance of catching what remains of Suzhou's once-famous canal life is in the southern part of town in the scenic area just south of the Pan Pacific Suzhou Hotel known as Gusu Yuan (Gusu Garden). Here, you'll find in the southwestern corner Pan Men (Pan Gate), built in A.D. 1351, and the only major piece of the Suzhou city wall to survive. Pan Men once operated as a water gate and fortress when the Grand Canal was the most important route linking Suzhou to the rest of China. To the south is a large arched bridge, Wumen Qiao, a fine place to view the ever-changing canal traffic. Near the main garden entrance in the east is Ruiguang Ta, a seven-story, 37m-high (121-ft.) pagoda built in A.D. 1119, which affords some excellent views of the old city from its top floors. The rest of the grounds are not very interesting. Gusu Yuan is located at Dong Da Jie 1. It's open daily from 8am to 5pm; admission is ¥25.

In the northwest part of town near Liu Yuan, Shantang Jie (Shantang St.), chock-full of Suzhou's old houses, narrow alleyways, arched bridges, and canals, is being slowly developed for tourists and pedestrians, with entrance to seven mansions and community halls of note being included in the ¥45 entrance fee (open daily 8am-9pm; tel. 0512/6723-6980). You can also take the de rigueur canal boat ride here (¥25 per person).

Museums

Suzhou is synonymous not only with gardens and canals, but also with silk. Its silk fabrics have been among the most prized in China for centuries, and the art of silk embroidery is still practiced at the highest levels. The Suzhou Silk Museum (Suzhou Sichou Bowuguan), Renmin Lu 2001 (tel. 0512/6753-6538), just south of the railway station, takes visitors through the history of silk in China, with an interesting section on sericulture complete with silkworms, cocoons, and mulberry leaves. Weavers demonstrate on traditional looms. The museum is open daily from 9am to 5pm; admission is ¥15.

Opened in October 2006, the I. M. Pei-designed Suzhou Museum (Suzhou Bowuguan) just west of the Humble Administrator's Garden at Dongbei Jie 204 (tel. 0512/6757-5666; www.szmuseum.com), and reportedly the last design of his career, combines characteristics of a typical Suzhou garden with modern geometric designs, and is worth a visit both for the building and its well-laid-out collection of locally discovered cultural relics, including an exquisite Pearl Pillar of the Buddhist Shrine from the Northern Song Dynasty. The museum is open Tuesday to Sunday, 9am to 5pm (last admission 4pm); free admission.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.