Seventy miles west of frenetic Shanghai, Suzhou is a popular day trip from China's largest city. But there is more to see and do than all but the most ambitious travelers can accomplish in a day. At least that was my experience last spring, when I scheduled one day in Suzhou between longer stays in Hangzhou and Shanghai.
Suzhou is known for its classical gardens and cafe-lined canals, leading some to nickname this 2,500-year-old city in the Yangtze River Delta the "Venice of the East." While flora and water feature prominently in its allure, Suzhou is no small city. With 10.5 million people, at times it can seem as crowded as its gigantic neighbor, Shanghai. To avoid traffic jams and see most of the city's major attractions, travel by foot, pedicab or boat and stick to the ancient city, which, unlike most others in China, has been largely preserved.
Suzhou's most popular green space is the Humble Administrator's Garden, which dates to the 16th century and is one of the largest of the 60-plus gardens that grace the city. Water tumbles over and around rock features that blend harmoniously with the garden's well-tended flowers, bushes and trees. Azaleas and bright spring flowers provided a backdrop of color for locals and visitors who packed the 12-acre Unesco World Heritage site during my visit. Step off the stone path and inside one of the garden's many pavilions for a cup of sweet jasmine tea, to view a bonsai exhibit or to admire displays of exquisitely detailed embroidery and silk clothing.
Suzhou is known for its cafe-lined canals and classical gardens. Photo Credit: Barbara Redding
Once part of prominent families' private residences, most of Suzhou's gardens are small and stealthily tucked away behind high walls in the midst of crowded, noisy neighborhoods. Finding them is part of the adventure and can require a guide. To reach Yipu, or the Garden of Cultivation, we zigzagged through brick alleys, beneath overhead wires strung with the day's laundry, catching glimpses of everyday life through open doors. Once inside the garden, we strolled the stone paths around a small pond where a rowboat was tied casually to a tree.
A short walk from the Humble Administrator's Garden, the Suzhou Museum is a masterful mix of old and new China from architect I.M. Pei, who was born nearby but has spent most of his life in the U.S. One of the old city's few new structures, the museum's outdoor water garden is set against a backdrop of miniature mountain peaks made of thinly sliced stones silhouetted against a whitewashed wall. Chinese pottery, jade and silk robes dating to the Ming and Qing dynasties are artfully arranged inside. Silk lovers also will want to visit the nearby Silk Museum, where they can watch silk worms nibble on mulberry leaves.
Once clogged with boats conveying goods within the region, the city's canals are a magnet for visitors today. Shops and street vendors entice travelers with traditional Chinese clothing and art as well as T-shirts and knickknacks. At night, the neon lights come on, and revelers pack the canal boats for joy rides through the narrow waterways.
An adventurous way to explore the old city is on a bicycle. Rental bikes are plentiful, as are pedicabs.
Though street food options are plentiful, the region's signature dishes are worth sampling in finer restaurants. Lunch at Suzhou's Fish & Rice Epoch Restaurant included a trip favorite: sweet-and-sour mandarin fish that was crunchy on the outside, savory inside and slathered with a rich, sticky sauce.
Suzhou has a lively teahouse culture where traditional kunqu opera is often performed in the evenings. But after a Chinese dinner of innumerable courses and a canal boat ride, I was ready to relax at the Blossom Hill Inn, a small boutique property tucked into an alley in the old city. The former home of a wealthy merchant was nearly destroyed during the Cultural Revolution but now offers eight guestrooms with soaring ceilings, intricately carved lattice woodwork, tranquil sitting rooms and luxurious baths. Suzhou has several other upscale boutique hotels as well as brand-name properties such as the InterContinental Suzhou and the Suzhou Marriott.
Visitors interested in modern Suzhou may want to stay closer to the new city. Skyscrapers and modern hotels ring manmade Jinji Lake, including the city's signature tower, Gate to the East. Visible from the old city, this 90-story building is shaped like an arch or gate that's flat on top; it's been heralded as great architecture and derided for looking like a pair of pants or long johns. Set for completion late this year, the gate is part of an 11-building complex that will also include a retail center with the world's largest self-supporting roof designed to resemble the wings of a giant bird. A nearby amusement park boasts Asia's tallest Ferris wheel.
After a Western-style breakfast of eggs and bacon the next morning, it was time for the 30-minute bullet train ride back to Shanghai. On my next visit, I'll save more time for Suzhou. Visit www.traveltosuzhou.com.