Nan Lian Garden, Hong Kong © Bevin Chin Nan Lian Garden, Hong Kong © Bevin Chin

Hong Kong's Chinese gardens

A world away can be experienced in the heart of a bustling city



It is quite a sight to behold if you are not used to masses of people, but like the Hong Kongnese would say, “The crowd at the Wong Tai Sin Temple during Chinese New Year is something else.” It’s a place where hundreds of thousands of visitors go to make a wish. Numerous incense coils, as far as your (burning) eyes can see, hang over head like beehives inside the main temple - if you make it in, that is. During the festivities, a glimpse in from the outside amidst hordes of enthusiastic visitors will have to suffice. When the holidays are over at last, spring is the best time to visit what I would call the green mile – a unique 1.5-kilometre visit through three of Hong Kong's best-known Chinese-style landmarks, from temples to gardens. We start at the Wong Tai Sin Temple, then move further down the road to Chi Lin Nunnery and Nan Lian Garden.

Wong Tai Sin Temple

gonzalo-pineda-zuniga-wong-tai-sin-templeWong Tai Sin Temple © Gonzalo Pineda Zuniga

The name is a little tricky to remember, but do commit it to memory as this 1921 landmarks is as important as the Peak. A few minutes' walk from the MTR station takes you to the home of Hong Kong’s Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism communities. The largest temple you see right in front is the Main Altar, where the original portrait of Wong Tai Sin himself is placed. Mythological decorations, stone and bronze sculptures make this one of the most atmospheric, if not the oldest, places of worship in the city.

There are many other halls and shrines to see, and throughout the temple grounds, fengshui-perfect structures were inspired by the Chinese elements of metal, wood, water, fire and earth. At the Yuk Yik Fountain, the Earth Wall, the Good Wish Garden and many more, every brook, tree and rock has been placed to perfection, showcasing traditional Chinese-style landscaping.

Related: Hong Kong's cultural districts: a guide

Chi Lin Nunnery & Nan Lian Garden

“Nunnery?” you may ask as we head down Fung Tak Road, passing a number of dense residential estates between lush vegetation. The extensive Buddhist complex is not just home to nuns, but has been open to the public since its renovation in 1990. Following a long-lost Tang Dynasty model, skilled craftsmen from all over China were commissioned to re-create the stunning courtyards and halls, in a perfect symmetrical style that was so typical of the period. For a more relaxing experience, come on a weekday and you will have the location almost to yourself.

debbie-wong-2Chi Lin Nunnery © Debbie Wong

In the Inner Courtyard and the Main Hall, where the Buddha statue is situated, the roof is made of 28,000 clay tiles weighing over 175 tons, supported by 28 cedar columns – one of the many remarkable architectural features that can be seen in the complex. While you might be tempted to take pictures of the interiors, this is strictly forbidden as photography is allowed only in the outdoor areas. Furthermore, the third courtyard and other halls are off limits. You can continue your visit to the Lotus Pond Garden through a network of picturesque bridges, with a stunning pagoda at its centre, then on to a permanent exhibition of Chinese timber architecture, rocks and potted plants. Very Zen.

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nan-lian-garden-vjpaulNan Lian Garden © vjpaul

Backing Chi Lin Nunnery is the 3.5-hectare Nan Lian Garden, a continuation of Tang Dynasty-style landscaping. Imagine standing amidst miniature mountains and valleys, where every turn reveals a new vista. In an intricate play of light and shadow, the open and the hidden, the garden lets you discover ponds, terraces and islets in a breathtaking sea of flora... And just imagine all this is right at the heart of a bustling city, offering dramatically different experiences, mile after mile.

1 Wong Tai Sin Temple
2 Chi Lin Nunnery
3 Nan Lian Garden