48 hours in... Suzhou

| May 12, 2014

With a limited 48 hours, Andrew Manley and Michael Silk tell you the best sites to see and experience in Suzhou. Both are academics based at the University of Bath, currently working alongside Suzhou’s municipal government to conduct research into the preservation, protection and promotion of heritage in China.


China’s hidden gem! A rich culture and heritage, classical gardens and friendly locals epitomise Suzhou’s character. Based around ancient winding waterways and narrow streets, this city truly lives up to its “Venice of the East” label. Given China’s rapid economic growth and urban expansion there are few opportunities to experience authentic China, yet Suzhou offers that possibility. At the heart of the city is the old town district, the layout of which has remained unchanged over 2,500 years. No matter what time of year you visit, Suzhou’s distinct cultural heritage can be enjoyed. However autumn is when the Unesco-protected classical gardens are at their most colourful and you can conveniently miss the rush of Chinese tourists who flock to the city in the warmer months.

A key historical city in the Yangtze delta, Suzhou is located in the south of Jiangsu province, bordering Shanghai in the east, Taihu Lake to the west, Zhejiang province to the south and the Yangtze river to the north. A network of rivers and canals criss-cross the old town district, an area that is hemmed in by the city’s outer moat, the Waicheng river. To the east of the outer moat lie the Jinji Lake and the newly developed Suzhou Industrial Park, a contemporary residential and commercial district housing modern architecture, hotels, high-end shopping, and arts, event and recreational facilities.

If you are seeking hotels with a familiar feel then head to Suzhou’s Jinji Lake situated in the newly developed – although misleadingly named – Industrial Park, which is home to bars, restaurants, shopping, arts and entertainment venues. Recognisable names such as InterContinental, Crowne Plaza and Marriott can all be found here. For a more authentic experience of the city, make your way to the old town and check in at the Pingjiang Fu Scholars Hotel, a boutique hotel situated within the grounds of one of Suzhou’s historic half gardens, offering a traditional setting for a unique stay. Additionally the bespoke Blossom Hill Hotel combines modern comfort with traditional architecture as rooms are located within the converted home of a former administrator of the city. This setting provides a beautiful integration of classic Suzhounese design with a contemporary twist.

Suzhou is best known for its Unesco world heritage gardens, friendly locals and rich cultural heritage. The city is host to more than 2,500 years of Chinese culture featuring impressive temples, gardens and pagodas that make it a perfect place to experience China’s rich history.

Take a stroll back in time and make your way down Pingjiang road to tour and explore the heart of the old town, a classic canal street that has plenty of tea houses and a range of street stalls offering a number of local delicacies. Take a short stroll through the narrow lanes, soaking up the delicious aromas of street food, and you will find the impressive Suzhou Museum containing a host of artefacts belonging to the city mixed with a range of modern exhibitions. Designed by the famous Chinese architect IM Pei, the museum is equally as impressive on the outside, providing an apt demonstration of Suzhou’s ability to integrate the old with the new.

For a slice of local cuisine that is not too pricey, set off down Shiquan Street and seek out Yang Yang’s. English menus can be provided although there is a whole host of great traditional food on offer including the speciality – dumplings. Shantang Street also provides a range of local restaurants and cheap eateries to choose from. Local teahouses line the street and you can enjoy Suzhou’s speciality tea, Bi Luo Chun, while overlooking the traditional Shantang Canal. Alternatively, head back to the old town by boat, pootling along the meandering canals.

Hanshan Temple, a short taxi ride just outside the city centre, is one of the 10 great temples in China. The scents of the street food and the clamour of the city are replaced by fragrant incense and a respectful hush inside the yellow walls, broken only by the sounds of the famous chiming bell. Immerse yourself in the ancient history of the Liang and Tang dynasties as you explore the buildings, climb the pagoda and read the ancient inscriptions. Take in the scenery atop Maple Bridge, a site made famous by the Tang dynasty poem: A Night Mooring by the Maple Bridge. Upon arriving back in the old town visit The Master-of-Nets Garden. One of the smallest in Suzhou and slightly off the beaten track, it is an elegant example of the traditional Suzhounese garden and hosts nightly performances of the local Pingtan opera.

The cocktail scene is up and coming in Suzhou and there are now plenty of bars to frequent. Populated by Suzhou’s urban chic, Pause Bar is a must for cocktail enthusiasts. The bar offers a tiny venue and a unique range of unusual spirits to create the perfect cocktail (simple cocktails range between ¥40 to ¥50). There is no menu. Drinks are ordered on request only. The location on Wuque Qiao road, near Shiquan Street, makes it a little tricky to find but well worth the effort.

Visit the oldest restaurant in Suzhou, Songhe Lou (72 Guanqian Street). Originally founded in the Qing dynasty to sample authentic cuisine in a truly traditional setting, it is now renowned throughout Jiangsu province. Its most famous dishes include mandarinfish, eel soup and braised bean curd with crabmeat. Deyue restaurant (43 Guanqian Street) is also an essential stop for any foodie; the most popular dishes include squirrel mandarin fish, tong chicken, duck soup and ham in honey sauce.

Shiquan Street offers a number of small watering holes to enjoy a drink or two. A particular favourite among the expat community is the Drunken Clam. Venture out to Suzhou’s Industrial Park and head to Harry’s Bar (Ligongdi, Jinjihu Avenue), a popular bar that hosts live music and attracts a mix of both locals and tourists.

North-west of the old town lies Tiger Hill, a scenic area that leads you up to the Yunyansi Pagoda, known among the locals as China’s answer to the Leaning Tower of Pisa due to its gradually sinking foundations. Take your time to wander around the picturesque gardens and lake that line the base of the hill, attempt to find the entrance to the hidden tomb of Helu, or simply rest up to enjoy the tranquillity of the surrounding scenery.

The newly developed Suzhou Industrial Park is a haven for shopping. The Sogo Shopping Mall is a one-stop department store with more than 100 brands. Harmony Times Square offers a vast array of international brands and speciality shops as well as Douglas Brand Village, a designer discount outlet centre due to open in 2014. Head to Harmony Time Square in the evening and you can experience the nightlights of Jinji Lake and witness the huge 500-metre screen above the walkway that runs through the complex.

The famed Humble Administrator’s Garden is considered to be one of the best representatives of China’s classic landscape architecture. Listed as a Unesco world heritage site, the garden is the largest in Suzhou and is home to a number of scenic spots including Lan xue Tang (Hall of Orchid and Snow), Daoying Lou (Tower of Reflection) and Yuanxiang Tang (Hall of Distant Fragrances). Classic zigzag bridges frame the various highlights of the garden and each site has a story to tell reflecting the purpose and philosophy behind its structure. If there is just one garden you plan to visit while in the city then this should be it.

The ancient water town of Zhouzhuang is a 1.5-hour drive from Suzhou city centre and is host to Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasty architecture. With ornate bridges and carved gateways you can wonder the canals, take a boat trip or visit the residence of Shen Wansan, the first millionaire south of the Yangtze river. If it’s city life you crave then Shanghai is only 30 minutes away via the new high-speed rail link, making it incredibly cheap and convenient to get to.


Need to know... Suzhou

Location: East of China, Jiangsu Province.
Languages: Mandarin, local Souzhounese dialect.
Population: 6.5 million
Time Zone: GMT + 8 hours.
Currency: Chinese Renminbi (RMB) or Yuan. £1 equates to ¥9.94
Visas: Standard 30-day tourist visas (Z visa) are offered via application to Chinese embassies based within the UK.

Originally built in 514BC, written historical records indicate that Suzhou is more than 4,000 years old. Due to the abundance of rivers, lakes and canals that enabled the ease of trade links to be established, Suzhou was able to thrive and become a prosperous city. Well-known as the land of fish and rice, as well as the silk capital of China, Suzhou flourished and became a popular city to reside, a legacy that continues to this day. For thousands of years Suzhou has been a source of talent, home to many remarkable politicians, philosophers, strategists, scientists and artists, represented by Sun Wu, Fan Zhongyan, Shen Kuo, Tang Yin, Gu Yanwu, Kuai Xiang respectively.

Today Suzhou is home to 731 cultural relics under municipal and upper level protection, of which 34 are under state protection and 138 are under provincial protection. Over 60 classical gardens are well preserved and nine of them are listed as Unesco world cultural heritage sites. The protected landscape of small bridges, flowing water, winding canals, narrow streets, white walls, black tiles, cultural relics and classical gardens make it a unique city, placing it among the top 24 cultural and historical cities to visit in China and the first to be awarded such status.

Cox & Kings offers tailor-made holidays to Suzhou - please call our Far East experts on 020 7873 5000.

Alternatively, view Cox & Kings' holidays to China here.

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