With a history of 6 centuries under its belt, the Zhanyuan Garden is the oldest and revered as the most well-preserved, authentic Ming dynasty garden exemplifying south Chinese architecture. It was destroyed and rebuilt multiple times over its life, but it was restored to its original glory in 1960 and is since a much-visited sight by the local population. There is a museum on the grounds holding relics from the Taiping revolt.
This garden is located next to Confucius Temple and can be reached via subway line 1, getting off at Sanshanjie or disembarking at Fuzimiao when coming via subway line 3. Bus stops Zhonghualu and Zhanyuanlu are the closest to this location. Morning timings are 08:00 to 17:00 and evening timings are 17:30 to 20:00 and ticket prices vary accordingly. RMB30 for daytime visitors and RMB40 for nightly visits. Guides are available. Visiting in December has the added perk of a food festival in the vicinity that offers local flavors and delectable snacks. In relation to the garden, it can be visited all year round as each season has its own looks. The streams and shade provided by ancient trees keeps the environment cool.
The grounds of Zhanyuan Garden are split into two sections; the museum and the other is purely dedicated to the exquisite gardens. During the Taiping revolt, a group of farmers overthrew the government, declared it the Heavenly Kingdom and their leader proclaimed himself as the Heavenly King and installed himself in the building surrounding these gardens until it was retaken by the Qing dynasty. Many artifacts and relics have been preserved from that time and displayed in here. The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom Museum tells the story of the rebellion and how it was handled but without much description in English. Along with the robe of the rebel leader, some 20 cannons, flag and sword of the army and an imperial seal, there are about 1,600 items which help vividly illustrate that story.
The garden side of the complex takes you back to imperial Chinese times with its attention to detail and artistic landscaping. At the entrance, the Xianren Feng Limestone is displayed proudly and considered special for its attributes of shape, size, clarity, natural stripes and holes. The Jingmiao Pavilion is constructed surrounded by the lake and rock formations in such a way that it looks like it is floating on top of water. It is the main building in the garden and next to it is another special Taihu stone with engravings suspected to be from Su Shi, a great poet. An artificial hill about 30 feet high, called the South Rockery, catches the eye with the cascading water and strategic positioning of boulders and crags. The North and West Rockery have their own displays of unique southern style landscaping and it is difficult to choose favorites.
These rockeries, the lake and the small bridges on top of them, the old trees and flowering plants, all make for wonderful hours spent in this garden.