Marco Polo once described Suzhou (Sūzhōu, 苏州) as one of the most beautiful cities in China and today visitors to this city—once fondly referred to as "Venice of the East"—can still see evidence of this beauty along the ancient canals in the old section of town.
Like many cities in China, the face of today's Suzhou has changed drastically in the past 20 years. Suzhou's old town is now flanked by two modern development areas: Suzhou New District (SND) and Suzhou Industrial Park (SIP). Suzhou Industrial Park is a popular area with foreign expats and students. Some 10,000 foreigners live in Suzhou.
Suzhou offers an ecclectic mix of old and new and there's a bit of something for everyone. From cozy cafes, lakes, ancient canals, classical Chinese gardens and even a silk factory.
Suzhou has long benefited from its location between two of China's greatest waterways. One, the Yangtze River, divides north and south China; the other, the Grand Canal, connects them. Covered 42 percent by water, Suzhou is nestled in the midst of a network of smaller canals and natural waterways that historically linked the city to various dynastic capitals in Beijing, Hangzhou and Nanjing, making it a vital center of trade, industry and culture while bringing it riches, fame and patronage of the arts.
From the Song Dynasty onward, its wealthy inhabitants set about turning Suzhou into a green city, building sprawling garden homes alongside willow-lined canals and employing skilled artisans to blend the manmade and natural in classic Chinese style.
Today, though the old city still has its moat and many of its finest gardens, greater Suzhou is far from being stuck in the past—it's a booming metropolis of 5 million, profiting from its proximity to the Yangtze River Delta and the economic powerhouse of Shanghai. Despite the building boom, many gardens, temples and classic Chinese canal scenes remain, and Suzhou is still the source of some of China's finest silk.
Cycle around the city visiting gardens, shop for silk and local handicrafts, visit the Suzhou Museum addition designed by native son I.M. Pei, head out to one of the Ming or Qing-era canal towns on the city's outskirts or the pleasant island-speckled Tai Hu, China's third largest lake—the list of things to do and see in Suzhou is long.
Suzhou offers a full range of accommodations, international names like the Holiday Inn Jasmine Suzhou to quality Chinese hotels like Bamboo Grove Hotel and the Nanlin Hotel. There are also smaller guesthouses (try the Nanyuan Inn) and backpacker hostels such as Suzhou Joya International Youth Hostel and Ming Han Tang International Youth Hostel. A number of good hotels cluster in the south of the city in the vicinity of Shiquan Jie (Shíquán Jiē, 十全街), within walking distance of a number of top tourist attractions.
Taxis are convenient in Suzhou. Base rate is 10 RMB for the first three kilometers and RMB 1.8 per additional kilometer.
Another cheap and interesting way to get around Suzhou is by pedicab. The base rate is 2 RMB, and for a longer trip, the price is higher. Remember to bargain. It is better to fix the price before you start rolling.
Traveling around Suzhou by bike is another good choice. You can rent a bike beside the Railway Station or on Shiquan Jie (Shíquán Jiē, 十全街). The price is reasonable, and it is a popular way to travel around town. Remember to lock the bike when you don't use it. You may be asked for ID and generally you'll have to leave a deposit of up to 200 RMB.
To and from Suzhou
Most people fly to Suzhou via Shanghai at Hongqiao International Airport or Pudong International Airport first and then take a train or bus on to Suzhou. It is quite convenient since Suzhou is located on the Jinghu Railway linking Shanghai and Nanjing—a line that as of 2007 includes new express trains that can make the trip in a little over half an hour. There are many other classes of train running between Shanghai and Nanjing—check at the station for class and price. Normally, it should take between 45 minutes to 1 1/2 hours to get to Suzhou from Shanghai. Note that last-minute tickets can be hard to come by, especially during holidays, so order in advance if possible.
Regional buses from Shanghai can also get you to Suzhou. There are two large regional bus stations at Zhongxing Lu (Zhōngxìng Lù, 中兴路) and Shilong Lu (Shílóng Lù, 石龙路), each providing more than 20 buses every day heading for Suzhou. It should cost a bit over 30 RMB and take about 1 1/2 hours, though highway traffic can sometimes slow things down. Tour buses in Shanghai departing from Shanghai Stadium make same-day return trips each day.
Located along the Grand Canal, Suzhou enjoys great water transportation from various cities along the Canal including Shanghai, Zhenjiang (in Jiangsu Province) and Hangzhou. Though it may not be the most comfortable way to go, it's affordable often charming.
A city surrounded by fresh water, Suzhou cuisine has developed a unique style based on local aquatic life. Try the stewed, shredded eel; or silver fish (Yínyú, 银鱼), stewed and lightly fried with a semisweet sauce; or steamed Tai Hu whitefish with ginger and peppers. Mid-autumn is crab season, with fresh crabs appearing all over town from Yangcheng Lake (Yángchéng Hú, 阳澄湖). The local palate favors light seasoning and slightly sweet sauces that allow the taste of fish, meat and lightly cooked vegetables to come through cleanly. Suzhou snacks and street food are highly regarded—try the honeyed tofu cakes, pine nuts in syrup, melon seeds fried with rose juice, sesame cakes with mashed dates or other traditional treats. The best places to try authentic Suzhou cuisine can be found along Shiqian Jie (Shíquán Jiē, 十全街) and the middle of Renmin Lu (Rénmín Lù, 人民路).
International cuisine has made its way to the city restaurants, thanks to the influx of foreign tourists in recent years. The big hotels do some good western food and a number of smaller independent restaurants around town are branching into continental cuisine.
Suzhou is synonymous with silk, and the water town is especially well known for its embroidery and brocade. So, after a visit to the Suzhou Silk Museum or Suzhou Silk Factory where you can learn enough to improve your bargaining position and avoid getting duped by phony material, head out into the town and start shopping. Vivid Song Dynasty-style brocades are a Suzhou specialty. The style, known variously as "Su embroidery," "Suzhou embroidery," and "boudoir embroidery"—the latter because it was traditionally practiced by young women awaiting marriage—involves vivid colors, intricate patterns, images of flowers, birds, characters and fine needlework. Developed over some 2,600 years, the contemporary art includes a unique double-sided embroidery style, and can be found adorning everything from petite handkerchiefs to room-spanning screens.
The city is also celebrated for its green Biluochun Tea (Bìluó Chá, 碧罗茶), which makes for an elegant and entertaining beverage—the slender, pointed green tea leaves are best served in a clear glass; as they absorb water they slowly drift down until they gracefully stand on end on the bottom of your glass, waving like grass in a light breeze as you sip your tea. The leaves are picked in early spring on the slopes of Biluo Shan (Bìluó Shān, 碧罗山) near Tai Lake (Tiě Hú, 铁湖), just to the west of Suzhou.
Other goods to seek out in Suzhou include the city's famed Ming Dynasty-style New Year posters and Suzhou fans.
Guanqian Jie (Guānqián Lù, 观前路) and Shilu Jie (Shíquán Jiē, 十全街) are pleasant pedestrian-only streets featuring a number of shops selling popular Suzhou wares. Guangqian Jie's old silk shops—some go back over 100 years—are especially good if you're looking for clothing or fabric. Avoid small stands selling silk near major attractions, as they tend to be overpriced and occasionally push fake cloth. Shiquan Jie is good for souvenirs, and Huqiu Lu (Hǔqiū Lù, 虎丘路) is known for its bridal veils and cameras. The best deals on pearls can be found in Weitang Town at the Chinese Pearl Center not far from the railway station.
Suzhou is a great place for classical Chinese arts—especially the art of the garden (see Attractions for garden listings). In addition, Suzhou is home to excellent museums that can deepen appreciation of China's cultural heritage and make for nice breaks from touring gardens and temples. Classic Chinese performing arts are also well represented, with nightly performances of Chinese opera, folk dance, storytelling and theater taking place in the beautiful Garden of the Master of Nets and other spots around town.
Bars & Clubs
After several years' renovation, Guanqian Lu (Guānqián Lù, 观前路) and Shiquan Jie (Shíquán Jiē, 十全街) have emerged as the places to go for entertainment, food and drink, and shopping. Guanqian Lu is a pleasant pedestrian area. Try Pulp Fiction for darts, billiards and chatty expats, check out Whiskey Jack's for live music or hop to any of the other bars along Shiquan Jie. The Shanghai success story Zapata's—a popular dance club/Tex-Mex restaurant better known for its tequila-fueled revelry and bar-top dancing than it is for its authentic Mexican food—now has a place in Suzhou overlooking Jinji Lake in the business district outside the old city center.
In the spring and autumn months, you can catch performances of Chinese opera, folk dance and theater in the Garden of the Master of Nets every evening at 7:30. For a taste of Suzhou opera, try the Museum of Opera and Theatre. Keep an eye out for male-female duos singing and playing traditional instruments—they can be found at various spots around town, including at the Ping Tan Museum.
Museums & Galleries
The Suzhou Museum showcases ancient paintings, calligraphy, carvings and crafts, and its new wing, designed by native son I.M. Pei, pays homage to traditional Suzhou architecture while making a contemporary statement about China's present. More of Suzhou's rich cultural heritage can be found at the Museum of Opera & Theatre, the Silk Museum and explore Suzhou's history in silk at theSuzhou Silk Factory and Silk Embroidery Institute.
Festivals & Events
Try to catch a temple fair if you're in Suzhou at the right time—The Chang Men Temple Fair celebrates Ya Shenxian in mid-April (the fourteenth day of the Chinese lunar calendar's fourth month)—that's the day one of Taoism's Eight Immortals, Lu Dongbin, comes to town disguised as a mortal. In September and October, the Huqiu Temple Fair showcases folk arts, puppetry, traditional music, acrobatics and wrestling in celebration of the harvest season. The Suzhou Silk Tourist Festival runs from September 20th to 25th. Spring sees a slew of flower festivals in Suzhou city and in the surrounding water towns.