Barefoot in the Portland Lan Su Chinese Garden

Barefoot in the Portland Lan Su Chinese Garden

We park the car in downtown Portland and step out to the buzz of traffic. Car horns, bicyclists whizzing by, conversations of the people around us. It’s a chaotic symphony of noises. The Portland Lan Su Chinese Garden sits nestled amongst the tall buildings and cacophony of Portland, Oregon’s China Town.

And yet, once we enter the graceful white canvas walls of the gardens, the outside world quickly fades from existence. We are greeted by two intricate stone lions, and a line of poetry on the entry gate.

All nature’s splendors captured in this gourd-heaven.

Overhead inscription on entry gate

The Portland Lan Su Chinese Garden is one of the most detailed and beautiful works of art I have seen. In addition to landscaping, it incorporates sculpture, painting, wood carving, architecture, and even poetry. And with all of that, I’m sure I’ve still missed some mode of art they’ve managed to include. It offers a truly holistic experience.

Most cherished in this mundane world is a place without traffic; truly in the midst of a city there can be mountain and forest.

Portion of illustrated panel, Flowers Bathing in Spring Rain

Sister Cities

Portland’s sister city Suzhou lies on the eastern coast of China in the Jiangsu province, and they declared themselves sister cities in 1988. I can immediately see why, as both are cities known for their bridges and waterways.

In an exchange of sisterhood, Portland and Suzhou built each other gardens. First, the Suzhou Rose Garden opened in 1994, and then the Portland Lan Su Chinese Garden opened in 2000.

The Lan Su Chinese garden occupies a full city block. It was built by 65 Suzhou artisans and modeled after a traditional Chinese home from the Ming dynasty. Lan Su translates to “Awakening Orchids,” so it is known as the “Garden of Awakening Orchids.”

Lan Su Chinese Garden Guided Tours

During previous visits, guided tours of the Lan Su Chinese Garden were offered by volunteers. And I am always amazed at how knowledgeable the volunteers are; I learn something new every time, without fail. Here are some of the things I’ve learned from previous visits for example.

An Optical Illusion

Every where you look in the gardens, there is something nestled just beyond it, giving the illusion that the gardens are larger than they actually are. During a time when land meant wealth, and the more land you had, the richer you were, it’s easy to see why this technique was adopted.

Each Window is Like a Snowflake – Completely Unique

To be truly authentic, the white wall surrounding the Lan Su Chinese Garden ideally would not have had windows. However, Portland city code required them. But that didn’t dampen the Suzhou artisans’ creativity one bit. When you visit, pay attention to the windows, and you will notice that each window is completely unique.

A Painter’s Canvas

A traditional Chinese garden is a work of art, a masterpiece. And no detail is over looked. A tree, bush, or rock stands as an artist’s painting, while the white walls surrounding the garden act as the canvas upon which the artist paints. As you explore the gardens, keep this in mind as you and you’ll see them with new eyes.

Straight from China

Many of the ornamental rocks throughout the gardens were flown in all the way from Tai Lake in China. These Tai Hu rocks take their name and shape from the lake they originate from. Underwater erosion created their intriguing appearance.

Beneath Your Feet

When you visit the gardens, pay attention to the earth beneath you. Let yourself be grounded in the present experience. Can you imagine walking through the Lan Su Chinese Garden barefoot? The beautiful stone mosaics would act as a peaceful massage for your feet.

Now notice how the mosaics under foot differ from one space to the next. Each pattern has its own name, for example, Plum Blossoms on Cracked Ice, a line of poetry in its own rite.

The flowing stream reflects its shadow; The seasonal birds bring it beautiful songs. When flowers blossom along its railings, The willow bows low.

Portion of illustrated panel, Flowers Bathing in Spring Rain

When is the best time of year to visit the Lan Su Chinese Garden?

The Chinese gardens are beautiful any time of the year, regardless of the weather. However, my favorite time to visit may be on a cool day with a light drizzle. The rain creating ripples on the small lake within the garden is soothing. And nothing is more satisfying than stopping by the tea house before leaving, to warm up over tea and cookies. So don’t let the weather deter you!

What to Expect When Visiting Lan Su Chinese Garden during COVID

Yes, the Lan Su Chinese Garden is open during COVID! And yes, it is 100% worth the visit, even with current restrictions. That being said, it helps to be prepared and to know what to expect once you get there. So here’s a few tips before you go.

1.Book your tickets online in advance to be sure there is an available time slot.

2. Admission will be timed entry, with an hour window to explore, in order to observe capacity limits.

3. Be sure to show up on time. If you are more than 15 minutes late, you will have to wait for the next available time slot, if one is available that day.

4. Follow the arrows for one direction traffic. A couple of loops are built in to the flow of traffic so you won’t miss anything!

5. Don’t forget to bring a face mask.

6. Audio guides will be offered from the website or with a QR code instead of an in-person tour guide. So be sure to bring a smartphone!

7. Play one of the scavenger hunts in addition to the audio tour! (Smart phone required.)

8. The tea house was open for take out only when we visited. Be sure to check with Multnomah county dining restrictions before your visit.

Planning Your Visit to Lan Su Chinese Garden

Before you plan your visit, be sure to check their website for special events. Over the years, I have seen art exhibits, bonsai displays, yoga sessions, and Lunar New Year celebrations, all offered within the peaceful walls of Lan Su Chinese Garden.

With all the the special events through out the year, it’s well worth considering a membership if you live nearby. Or maybe even if you just visit Portland frequently!

Available amenities: ADA accessible, bathrooms, gift shop, tea shop.

Lan Su Chinese Garden

Lunar New Year

My most recent visit to the Lan Su Chinese Garden was during the Lunar New Year celebration. The entire garden was decorated with festive, bright red lanterns. It was beautiful.

The Lunar New Year starts with the first new moon between the end of January and the end of February and continues for 15 days until the next full moon. It is called the Lunar New Year as opposed to the Chinese New Year, as it is an important celebration in many Asian cultures.

Each Asian culture celebrating the Lunar New Year has its own traditions. But I really love the Chinese traditions surrounding this holiday.

To begin the celebration, the Chinese do a thorough deep-clean of their homes to chase away any bad luck that may have culminated over the past year. That’s a tradition I may have to adopt—I love the idea of starting the New Year with a clean slate! New clothes, long noodles for longevity and fish for abundance. And it all ends with a lion and dragon dance!

Lan Su Chinese Garden
The Lan Su Chinese Garden, decorated for the Lunar New Year

The Lion Dance

The Lion Dance is a tradition that started over 2,000 years ago and is based off a Chinese legend. As the legend goes, a small village in southern China found itself tormented by a great beast that ate all their crops each year. Then one year, the villagers decided to take action. They created their own beast. They created a lion.

The next time the dangerous beast visited the village, it met loud drums, firecrackers, and a great and colorful lion. The villagers’ lion scared off the beast for good. Today, the lion dance represents the warding off of evil and spreading of good fortune.

Don’t listen to what they say. Go see.

I could go on and on about the topic of the Lan Su Chinese Garden, but I want to leave some thing for you to discover on your own! And trust me, there’s so much more to see experience there. Have you been there before already? What was your favorite part?

For more vacation ideas in Oregon, check out my post 10 Reasons You Have to Visit Seaside, Oregon.

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7 thoughts on “Barefoot in the Portland Lan Su Chinese Garden”

  • I love the history you gave to the sister cities… this is such a beautiful garden, I would definitely visit if I was nearby,

  • I think it was extra quiet there due to capacity limitations with COVID. No need to wait for people to pass, really! Oh, there’s one in Vancouver?! I’d love to check that out when I go there!

  • Beeeautiful! I love these kinds of gardens, but the Lan Su Chinese garden looks like a particularly gorgeous example! Was it super quiet there, or did you wait for people to move aside for your photos? There is a similar (gorgeous) Chinese garden here in Vancouver, but I have never seen it quite as empty and quiet as this!

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