Almost certainly on Instagram, or elsewhere on the Internet. And yes, I also like to be inspired to travel on the net – and inspire others with this blog itself. Nevertheless, and perhaps because of that, I think it’s great when I can just let myself be surprised by a place, without prior knowledge and images in my head and expectations. Suzhou in the south of China is such a place.
Suzhou – “small” water city at the gates of Shanghai
When Marco Polo came to Suzhou in the 13th century, he was impressed by the city’s excellent merchants and skilled craftsmen and told of its flourishing silk industry (Suzhou is considered a terminus of the Silk Road). The 2,500-year-old city, which is pronounced “Suzhou” by the way, is located on the Emperor’s Canal between Hangzhou and Beijing, the longest man-made waterway in the world, and was an important trading center even back then. And the city still thrives on trade and manufacturing.
As we drive from Shanghai to Suzhou, not only do endless gray rows of apartment towers stretch out to the horizon, but also ultramodern-looking industrial areas, including those of many well-known brands, pass me by.
The “small water city” of Suzhou actually has seven million inhabitants, as we learn directly from our guide Deli, who lives and grew up in Suzhou. The whole metropolitan area even has 15 million inhabitants, Deli assures us. Suzhou told me before: nothing.
The nice thing is that Suzhou still has a lot of historical things preserved – not a matter of course in modern China. But in the historic heart of the 2,500-year-old city, you can still find a whole system of old canals, small alleys with old, nested houses in traditional Chinese style, and pretty curved stone bridges.
The streets are lined with camphor trees, locals whiz by on silent electric scooters, and even the bus stops look like little Chinese garden pavilions. Besides the canals, however, Suzhou is mainly famous for its traditional Chinese gardens, nine of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Suzhou is a great place to travel back in time to ancient China!
In this post, I will show you my personal impressions, give you tips for your city trip to Suzhou and show you which sights you should not miss.
Suzhou – Tips and Sights:
The garden of the humble official
You can immerse yourself in ancient China especially well in the old Chinese gardens of Suzhou. Here you’ll stroll among waterways, ponds, man-made hills, and limestone caves, cross zigzag bridges (said to keep evil spirits away), and marvel at elegant pavilions decorated with carvings.
Here you’ll experience traditional Chinese garden elements up close and in an authentic way. The gardens’ elements mimic natural landscapes and also serve philosophical and emotional purposes. If you think away the Chinese tourist groups (and there are quite a few of them, as Suzhou is known for its horticulture throughout China), the gardens still exude tranquility and harmony.
Suzhou’s oldest gardens were created at the time of the city’s founding in the 6th century B.C. However, the heyday came during the Ming and Qing dynasties (14th-17th centuries), when over 200 gardens were created within the city walls. A few are still very well preserved today and a total of nine are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The most famous is probably the “Garden of the Humble Official”, which is one of the most famous landscape gardens in China and was created in the 16th century for a retired official.
I especially like the zigzag bridges over ponds with really huge lotus leaves, the romantic winding walkways, and the ornate, elegant buildings with their carvings and curved, ornate roofs that I can hardly get enough of. I love movies like “Zero” or “Crouching Tiger…” and feel a little bit like in a Chinese martial arts movie set (at least when for a short moment no Chinese tourists pass by and I have a corner of the garden almost for myself).
- My tip: The gardens are very popular with tourists. So it’s best to come early in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid the crowds and the midday heat.
- Info and address: Garden of the Humble Official (Zhuozheng Yuan 拙政园), 178 Dongbei St, Gusu Qu, Suzhou Shi, Jiangsu Sheng, China, 215001 (苏州市姑苏区东北街178号), Admission: 70-90 RMB.
In the Venice of China: the ancient canals of Suzhou
Suzhou is also called the “Venice of China.” The city is famous not only for its traditional Chinese gardens but also for its many ancient canals, lined with old houses and pretty curved stone bridges. The best way to explore all this is with a boat tour.
For about 1.5 hours, we cruise through the canals on a small excursion barge. We sail slowly under elegantly carved stone bridges and past small old houses that nestle along the canals and in front of which the laundry dries outside on the canal. Then we dock at a fairly touristy part and explore the bridges and alleys along the canal on foot, lined with restaurants and craft and souvenir stores.
I roam around and once again particularly enjoy watching the hustle and bustle and the people. Wedding couples in traditional Chinese dress are probably particularly happy to be photographed here and pose in front of the historic backdrop. I discover a wall on which Chinese pin wishes on small pieces of paper, and I find by chance my most beautiful souvenir of the trip: a booth where a young man makes personalized silhouettes based on photos on my iPhone in an amazingly short time and with amazing skill. How beautiful!
- Info: Boat tours depart from Xinmin Qiao Quay (新民桥码头) in the Old Town and cost 55 RMB per person for 1.5 hours.
A visit to the market
I actually find it exciting to visit markets everywhere I travel (and supermarkets too). In China even more so! Therefore, I recommend a visit to the market in Suzhou as well. We went to a market in a two-story building near Shantang Street, but such local markets are basically in every part of the city.
There is a lot to see at the market. There are piles of different vegetables arranged by color. Mountains of fresh noodles look incredibly tasty, live shrimps, crabs, and other seafood wriggle around alive in basins, wafts of fragrance drift over from the spice stalls. Some things I don’t even recognize at first glances, like the many different kinds of tofu, or some sea creatures, and many a prepared meat dish.
While I don’t know where to look first, the market people chat and joke with their customers and gossip about us foreign visitors, but all in all, they seem very friendly and relaxed and don’t mind that I take pictures. Interesting anyway!
Strolling along Pingjiang Road
Pingjiang Road is a pretty historic lane that runs along an old canal. Small, stylish, and lovingly decorated boutiques sell clothing, accessories, handicrafts, and souvenirs such as tea, fans, rice wine, or fun toys. There are also numerous inviting tea rooms, cafes/restaurants, and bars (and: cat cafes!).
The atmosphere is especially atmospheric towards evening, when everything is gradually lit up with fairy lights and lanterns and you can still stop into one of the bars. (If you don’t know where and what exactly a bar could be: just ask young locals).
The Mudu Ancient Town and the Martial Arts Garden
The “Mudu Ancient Town” is a small water town on the outskirts of Suzhou. Like Suzhou, Mudu is already 2,500 years old and has canals, bridges, historic buildings, and several Chinese gardens.
The “Yan’s Garden” (also called Yanjia or Xian Yuan) is worth seeing. It is very winding and consists of several beautiful old buildings connected by courtyards and walkways. Inside there are zigzag bridges, pavilions, the obligatory curved stone bridge over a pond, piled up rocks with a cave passage inside, and more.
Exploring it is definitely fun, and I felt like I was walking through a Chinese martial arts movie set several times amidst the historic buildings and courtyards. And rightly so! Because numerous Chinese martial arts films were actually shot in this complex, as evidenced by an exhibition of movie posters in one of the corridors.
- Info: Mudu Water City is connected to one of Suzhou’s tourist bus lines. You can also reach it by cab or with a guided tour (e.g. via China Tours). Admission: Adults 62 RMB
Food in Suzhou
Food is always an exciting topic in China, and you should definitely try some! In most of the restaurants that you are taken to on an organized tour and that are listed in the guidebooks, you will get Western food as a tourist, but it is tailored to the Western palate.
That means fish without bones and meat without bones, soy and chili sauce to meat, rice, and no for us ‘more exotic’ specialties such as chicken feet, sea urchins, etc. Instead, for example, we were served somewhere every day the famous squirrelfish, a delicious baked fish doused with sweet and sour sauce and served elaborately (which supposedly looks like a squirrel).
Other dishes I tried that were tastier than expected included dandelion, duck cooked in a lotus leaf, almost black rice, duck stomach, pork face, or pork tendon with bamboo. But my favorite still remained the noodle soups and stuffed dumplings! Here are a few restaurant tips:
Authentic local noodle restaurant. Here you get delicious noodle soup with homemade meat broth and side dishes like pak choi, meat, or mushrooms on the side.
- Address: Jiayufang 6 (同得兴, 嘉馀坊 6号).
Yangyang Dumpling Restaurant
Cozy decorated restaurant with really delicious food. There are many other dishes besides dumplings, though the dumplings with meat or vegetarian filling were already really good.
- Address: 420 Shiquan Jie
Chinese restaurant specializing in fish right on the shore of Jinji Lake with a view of the lake and an outdoor terrace.
Suzhou is proud of its museum: it was built by the famous Chinese architect I.M. Pei, who also designed the Louvre pyramid, among other things. Inside, ancient paintings, calligraphies, artifacts, and historical artifacts from different ages and dynasties are on display. Not a must-see in my opinion, but perfect for a rainy day! Admission is free and there is also a stylish cafe with good coffee and even cheesecake.
Visit to the silk factory – is it worth it?
The “First Silk Factory of Suzhou” has been around since the 1920s, but what you can visit today is a museum with museum factory rooms for tourists, where rather bored-looking workers demonstrate the work steps, which I find a bit of a shame. It is quite interesting to see how silk is actually made (the silkworms are even really cute!), but then you also see how they are cooked with their cocoons. Finally, you are taken through various silk stores, if you want to buy souvenirs made of real, high-quality silk at reasonable prices, you can stop by here.
- Address: Nanmen Rd. 94 (南门路 94), Admission: Must be requested individually.
Hotel tip: Scholar’s Boutique Hotel
The boutique hotel “Scholar’s Hotel PingJiangFu” is conveniently located right in the old town of Suzhou, which means you can easily walk to Pingjiang Road and numerous stores, bars, and cafes. The buildings feature traditional Chinese architectural elements like pagoda-like roofs and wood carvings, and there’s even a small Chinese garden. The lobby is stylish and lovingly decorated with a calligraphy station, tea, and antique furniture.
I especially liked the breakfast buffet with a wide selection of Chinese and Western dishes. Be sure to try the delicious Chinese dumplings (dumplings) and teas, and try a delicious fresh noodle soup in the morning for a change!
Getting there and local transportation
Getting there: The easiest way to reach Suzhou is via Shanghai, which is about 90 km away. Conveniently, Suzhou is located on the Shanghai – Beijing railroad line and is connected to Shanghai by a high-speed train, which means you only need about half an hour by train! A one-way ticket costs only about six dollars. (On the highway, it takes about 1.5 hours, depending on traffic and where you need to go in both cities). There are also shuttle buses from Shanghai airports to Suzhou, which takes about 1.5 to 2 hours.
Onward travel: Since Suzhou is on the Shanghai – Beijing train line, not only is it easy to get to, but you could theoretically continue on from there to Beijing (or even Moscow). (Just saying…) Otherwise, you could of course combine it with a city trip to Shanghai (as we did), or continue to Hangzhou or Wuxi.
Public transport: Within Suzhou, you can easily get from A to B by cab. There is also a subway, but it is being expanded, so there are not many lines yet. There are also tourist buses that run on several lines between the sights and the train station. I also saw several stations with squeaky green rental bikes.
Suzhou – my conclusion
Suzhou is a nice contrast to Shanghai and is well suited in combination with Shanghai as a destination for China beginners. To see the most important things, two to three days are basically enough. Although Suzhou is very well known within China and quite touristy (I just say Chinese tour groups!), I found it to be very authentic.
The little time travel to old China through the gardens, alleys, and canals was good for me during my first trip to China. Finally, a place of which you do not already have a thousand prefabricated images in your head before the trip!
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