When life gets a little too busy, a visit to Lan Su Chinese Garden in downtown Portland offers a soothing respite — a chance to hit the reset button and recharge. With winding paths around a lake surrounded by plants, art and history, the peaceful grounds are especially magical in the rain. In fact, the garden was created by former Portland Mayor Vera Katz and Portland’s sister city in Suzhou, China with the rain in mind — 70 percent of it is completely covered. Lan Su is stunning any time of year, but here’s how it’s especially enhanced in the rain.
1. Walk the paths
Mosaic rock paths wind around the grounds near a waterfall, through open pavilions, next to blossoming trees and flowers, and over a bridge that crosses the refurbished koi pond, named Lake Zither. Benches and other cozy resting spots along the way give you a chance to reflect on life while taking a break or snapping a photo. Not only can visitors stay dry during their visit, but the crowds are smaller on rainy days, making it quieter and easier to move around and take garden photos unencumbered by other visitors. Take a solo tour and stroll the gardens at your leisure, or take a free 45-minute tour with a trained guide for a more in-depth exploration.
2. Breathe deep, and watch the ducks and koi
Inhale the fresh, earthy smell of new rain as it mingles with the fragrance of the blooms. Listen to the raindrops and bird chirps. The waterfall feature on the north side of the garden reminds us of swift-moving mountain water rushing down the rocks and, with the influx of additional rain, instantly drowns out the city sounds trying to to sneak their way in. The unique limestone rocks found throughout the garden grounds — directly from Lake Tai in Suzhou — change to a richer color when wet. Raindrops falling in the lake give way to happily quacking ducks and happy koi.
3. Notice the rain curtains
One of the more striking features of the garden is how the rain gently cascades from the tiled rooftops like beaded curtains. The triangular stone tiles seen on the roof edges, known as drip tiles, help to create this effect. They also water the plants below and feed the lake, as well. Each of the drip tiles is adorned with bats, since “fu,” the Chinese word for bat, sounds like the word for “happiness.” The five bats seen together on the tiles represent the cultural belief in the “five blessings,” which are long life, wealth, health, a love of virtue and a peaceful passing.
4. Look for the carvings
Art and poetry are other essential elements in a true Chinese garden, and Lan Su holds true to this tradition. Explore the calligraphic couplets found throughout the garden, etched in spots inside and outside the buildings. With your senses on alert in the rain, you’ll find beauty in the couplets carved into the rocks and illustrated in the wooden gingko panels and lattice doors and windows.
5. Pair tea and snacks
Hot beverages are always better in the rain. Stop inside the warm, inviting and bustling teahouse in the garden’s Tower of Cosmic Reflections to take a break. Sip on a soothing cup of green or black tea and nosh on candied mango slices or sweet and crunchy almond cookies. Light bites include small plates of dumplings, steamed buns and noodles.
Before you go
The garden is very child-friendly — kids will especially love watching the koi and springtime ducklings swimming in the pond. They’ll also get a kick out of practicing their calligraphy using wet brushes in the Lounge House, and discovering their fortune via the Chinese fortune-telling sticks. The Garden Shop offers ample souvenirs such as teapots and coloring books. The garden is accessible using a stroller or wheelchair. The restrooms are ADA accessible, and the tea house has a lift.