Ultimate guide to Suzhou, China's 'paradise on earth'

Ultimate guide to Suzhou, China's 'paradise on earth'

The ins and outs of the nation's most travel-friendly waterside city

Suzhou guide -- mainSuzhou is often dubbed the "Venice of the East" for the city's crisscrossing canals.
A quick nap away from Shanghai’s soaring skyline aboard the high-speed train (the fastest takes about 25 minutes), Suzhou (苏州) is a historical city that's greatly admired for its winding canals and classical gardens.

If Shanghai represents the future of China, Suzhou is where one can experience the nation’s past and present between sipping green tea and munching on rice cakes.

The waterside city's history dates back 2,500 years to the Spring and Autumn Period and was dubbed (perhaps with only a slight exaggeration) “paradise on earth” -- together with Hangzhou -- in Chinese history for its pleasant scenery, fertile soil and prosperous commerce.

More on CNNGo: The 5-minute Hangzhou guide

This mini-guide provides all essential information for visitors to navigate the 8,488-square-meter city.

Hotels

Suzhou guide -- hotelModern rooms abound in the heart of China's ancient trading town.

As a major tourist hub in east China, Suzhou has a variety of hotels suitable for different needs.

Below are three comfortable hotels suited to the business traveler, the casual visitor and the dedicated shopper.

1. Business: Marriott Hotel Suzhou (万豪酒店)

Situated near Suzhou’s burgeoning New and Hi-tech Development Zone, the hotel comes with 13 meeting rooms and an executive lounge.

Complete with a marble lobby and a lounge with a stupendous chandelier, the interior is sure to impress your clients.

The concierges speak fluent English and the staff are always on hand to help hail a taxi.

A well-manicured Suzhou-style garden abuts the hotel, a great venue for outdoor barbecues during summertime.

At 50-stories high, Marriott is the tallest building in Suzhou’s old city and provides panoramic views over the ancient commercial hub. (To maintain the historic feel, the authorities limit the number of high-rises in the 14-square-kilometer old city.)

The 252-room hotel is a 10-minute drive from iconic Tiger Hill and is across the street from city governmental offices.

Marriot Hotel Suzhou, 1296 Ganjiang Xi Lu, near Xinhong Lu 干将西路1296号, 近馨泓路, +86 512 8225 8888, room rates: from RMB 690 plus 15 percent service charge, www.marriott.com

Relaxation: Pan Pacific Hotel Suzhou (苏州吴宫泛太平洋酒店)

The five-star hotel is a mini-resort that offers guests a modern twist on ancient luxury.

It looks like a Ming-style Chinese palace from the outside, but the interior is decadent with marble halls and floor-to-ceiling windows

Hotel guests receive free access to the Panmen scenic area, one of Suzhou’s most famous ancient landmarks including a pagoda, a canal bridge and China’s only existing on-water ancient city gate, Panmen (盘门).

Rooms on the hotel's upper levels provide a complete view over the Panmen area.

The hotel is located near Taihu Lake and Hanshan Temple.

Pan Pacific Hotel Suzhou, 259 Xinshi Road, near Dongda Jie新市路259号, 近东大街, +86 512 6510 3388, room rates: from 850 plus 15 percent service charge, www.panpacific.com

Shopping: Holiday Inn Jasmine Suzhou (茉莉花假日酒店酒店)

The 28-story inn is in the thick of things.

It's a great place to stay for visitors who want to shop, as the hotel is right next to a long strip of international shopping malls and electronic stores.

But for travelers who want a more cultural experience, it is also a stone’s throw from Shantang Jie, a more historical shopping hub that runs alongside a canal.

Holiday Inn Jasmine Suzhou, 345 Changxu Lu, near Gan Jiangxi Lu 阊胥路345号,近干将西路, +86 800 423 0908 , room rates: from RMB 511 plus 15 percent service charge, www.holidayinn.com

Dining

Suzhou guide -- food"How about rice cake for appetizer, sweet-sour pork for main and sesame dumplings for dessert?" Suzhounese are notorious for having a sweet tooth.

Suzhou provides abundance of food selection -- from traditional establishments, to quick eats and confectionery shops.

The local cuisine, aka Subang Cai (苏帮菜), is known to be sweet to the taste and delicate in presentation.

Song He Lou (松鹤楼)

Song He Lou is a noted Suzhou establishment with traditional cuisine and elaborate decor. With more than 200 years of history, it’s reputed to be one of the oldest restaurants in China.

Though the restaurant has three branches, the most famous one is near Guanqian Jie, a major shopping and tourist hub.

Songshu Guiyu (松鼠桂鱼), a squirrel-shaped mandarin, is elaborately presented and covered with sweet-and-sour sauce. The fish, which will come out resembling a porcupine, is deep-fried and filleted.

Other noted dishes include the braised bean curd with crabmeat and shelled fresh shrimps. Prices average RMB 100 per person.

Song He Lou, 72 Taijian Nong, near Guanqian Jie 太监弄‎72号, 近观前街, +86 512 6524 4921, 11a.m.-1:30 p.m., 5 p.m.-8:30 p.m.

De Yue Lou (得月楼)

Another long-time Suzhou establishment, this multi-leveled restaurant is known for Suzhou’s boat cuisine, with dishes made only with ingredients from nearby Taihu Lake.

Specialties include De Yue spring chicken, de-shelled shrimps fried with green tea leaves, steamed pork slices with glutinous rice flour, squirrel-shaped mandarin fish and jujube paste drawn cake.

The steamed hedgehog-shaped small bun (RMB 90 for six) is a great appetizer.

Like Song He Lou, the prices are on the higher end, with a standard bill pegging at RMB 100 per person.

De Yue Lou, 27 Taijian Nong, near Guanqian Jie 太监弄‎72号, 近观前街, +86 512 6523 8940, 11a.m.-2 p.m., 5 p.m.-9 p.m.

Yangyang Dumplings (洋洋饺子馆)

For a more affordable dining experience, Yangyang Dumplings on Shiquan Jie fits the bill.

Dumplings average RMB 1 each. The specialty, at RMB 10, is the pan-fried dumplings. Heavily flecked with cilantro and filled with pork juice, these mini-wraps are crunchy on the outside but doughy inside.

Some other choices are the chive and egg, crabmeat, and garden vegetables with pork.

Surrounded by pubs, Yangyang is a great location to go to for a midnight snack after a long night out.

Yangyang Dumplings, 420 Shiquan Jie, near Nan Shipi Nong 十全街420号, 南石皮弄, +86 512 6519 2728, 8 a.m.-2 a.m.

Lu Gao Jian (陆稿荐)

Located at the end of Guanqian Jie, Lu Gao Jian is a take-out restaurant that offers the finest cut of meat in Suzhou. The shop was founded in the Qing dynasty in 1663 and is especially famous for braised pork with soy sauce.

Other specialties include the honey sauce duck and braised pork head with soy sauce.

The massive cuts of meat come in all sizes and shapes and are loaded up on a counter against a window. The line can get extremely crowded so be prepared for a good deal of pushing and shoving.

Prices range from RMB 20 to RMB 50 per person.

Lu Gao Jian,8 Guanqian Jie, near Bifeng Fang 观前街8号, 近碧凤坊, 8:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m.

Huang Tian Yuan (黄天源)

Step into this market and to the left you’ll see stacks of rice cakes resembling large bars of soap being sold à la carte and packaged into gift boxes.

The choices are vast -- sesame, peanut, red bean -- this rice cake store has it all when it comes to flavors.

One bar of cake costs about RMB 5.

With more than 320 varieties, the historical snack shop is known for baking pastries according to the seasons. They sell rice dumplings in January, rice cakes in February and qingtuans in March. The shop also sells noodles and wontons.

Huang Tian Yuan, 86 Guanqian Street, near Dongjiao Men 观前街86号, 东脚门, +86 512 6728 6933, 8:30 p.m.-9:30 p.m., www.huangtianyuan.com.cn

Sightseeing

Suzhou guide -- gardenClassical gardens are the tourist trademark of Suzhou.

Suzhou is known for its Jiangnan-style gardens dating back to as far as the sixth century. (Jiangnan generally refers to the area south of the Yangtze River and north of Wuyi Mountain).

The canals are the forte of Suzhou and the reason for its being known as “The Venice of the East.”

Tiger Hill (虎丘)

Although only 36 meters high, this hill is said to resemble a crouching tiger and is marked by intricately woven pathways and pagodas. The landmark is a must for history buffs and anyone up for a stroll.

"Tiger Hill is the most popular attraction that we recommend [to travelers to Suzhou]," says Eileen Wang, who works for Travel China Guide and is responsible for trip-planning to major Chinese tourist destinations.

"It's Suzhou's top draw," adds Wang.

The hill is also the burial site of King Helv (吴王阖闾), who ruled the State of Wu from 514-496 B.C.

The most iconic feature of Tiger Hill is the Yunyan Temple Pagoda (云岩寺塔). Built in 961, the tower leans at roughly three degrees because of a faulty foundation and is often referred to as the “Leaning Tower of China.”

Admission fee is RMB 40 from October 31-April 5 and RMB 60 from April 6-October 30.

Tiger Hill (虎丘), 585 Huqiu Hill, near Shantang Street 虎丘山门內8号, 近山塘街, +86 512 6532 3488 , 7:30 a.m.- 5:30 p.m, www.tigerhill.com

Humble Administrator’s Garden (拙政园)

The largest garden in Suzhou -- nearly 52,000 square meters -- the Humble Administrator’s Garden was built in the Ming Dynasty for a former government worker and poet, Wang Xianchen (王献臣).

With water as the main theme, the lake in the center of the garden occupies about 20 percent of the space and is filled with giant lotus plants in summer.

Along with bridges, pavilions and islands, the architecture of the buildings retains Ming Dynasty characteristics. The garden gets its name after Wang’s desire to retire from politics and live a humble life.

"When walking in that garden, I couldn't help imagine the life that the humble administrator lived two or three centuries ago," says Chloe Liu, 20, a student of East China Normal University.

Coming to Suzhou for a day trip from Shanghai, Liu adds that "the garden strikes me with its delicate layout and mysterious atmosphere."

Admission is RMB 50 from October 31-April 5 and RMB 70 from April 6-October 30.

Humble Administrator’s Garden, 178 Dongbei Jie, near Qimen Lu 东北街178号, 近齐门路, +86 512 6751 0286, 7:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m, www.szzzy.cn

Lingering Garden (留园)

Located outside of the Changmen gate, which was the west gate of ancient Suzhou, Lingering Garden is tagged one of the four best classical gardens in China, together with Humble Administrator’s Garden, the Summer Palace in Beijing and the Summer Resort in Chengde.

The garden was damaged several times, especially during the Sino-Japanese War, but has since been repaired.

“Lingering Garden” means lingering between Heaven and Earth. The Chinese name “Liu” also sounds similar to the surname of the former owner, Liu Shu.

The garden hosts occasional free outdoor opera performances that take place in the garden courtyard during admission hours.

Admission is RMB 30 from October 31-April 5 and RMB 40 from April 6-October 30.

Lingering Garden, 338 Liuyuan Lu, near Tongjing Bei Lu留园路338号, 近桐泾北路, 7:30 a.m.- 5 p.m., www.gardenly.com

Jinji Lake (金鸡湖)

Jinji Lake, or literally golden rooster lake, is the centerpiece of sino-Singapore jointly ventured Suzhou Industrial Park.

Roughly two square kilometers bigger than Hangzhou’s iconic West Lake, the lake makes for a good summertime wandering.

The 1,400-meter dam Li Gong Di (李公堤) contains a waterside leisure area with trendy nightclubs, Western restaurants and spas.

Take a ride on the lakeside Ferris wheel for a bird’s-eye view of Jinji and Suzhou’s modern blocks. With a diameter of 120 meters, this is the biggest waterside wheel in China.

The lake also hosts a multi-media evening musical fountain show every weekend, with the tallest water columns reaching 108 meters. Free of charge, the show takes place at Jinji Lake’s West City Plaza from 8 p.m. on the evenings of weekend and public holidays.

Jinji Lake Ferris wheel, No. 99, You’an Jie, east of Jinji Lake, Suzhou Industrial Park 苏州工业园区金鸡湖东右岸街99号, 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m., RMB 80

Jinji Lake, Jinjihu Lu, near Xingzhou Jie 金鸡湖路, 近星洲街, +86 4007 558 558, www.szmtl.net

Activities

Suzhou guide -- canalA canal boat is one of the best means to tour Suzhou. Many sightseeing boats in water towns in east China are helmed by middle-aged ladies. Suzhou offers a great variety of public activities that provide visitors with a front-row seat to the culture and history of the ancient "paradise."

Grab a cup of steaming green tea in a classical Suzhou garden, tour the city via boat and finish off the night with a traditional Chinese opera.

Teahouses

Wind down after a day of sightseeing with a sip of green tea in one of the numerous teahouses all over Suzhou. More often than not, Suzhou teahouses have great views of canals or surrounding scenery.

Check out Pin Von Teahouse (品芳茶社) on Pingjiang Lu, a quaint pedestrian street with classical architecture.

Boasting a history of some 130 years, Pin Von overlooks a canal plied by hand-steered boats.

At night you can hear street musicians playing and the faint chatter of passers-by from the lantern-illuminated streets.

Customers can opt to get their own private booth on the second floor. The teahouse serves a selection of Suzhou-style dim sum and a wide variety of tea.

Pin Von Teahouse, 94 Pingjiang Lu, near Daru Xiang 平江路94号, 近大儒巷, +86 512 6728 8816, Monday-Friday: 10 a.m.-9 p.m., Saturday-Sunday: 9:30 a.m.-10 p.m.

Canal boats

Though a good majority of the rivers in Suzhou have been paved over because of urban construction, some canals still run through preserved historical streets that operate boat rides -- both motorized and propelled by oars.

For a more tranquil experience, head over to Pingjiang Lu where they offer a 45-minute man-powered ride through narrow canals for RMB 130 per boat.

Alternatively, the Grand Canal or Shantang Jie carries wider waterways for Chinese gondolas to sail through.

Opera shows

A cultural mecca, Suzhou is the home of the Pintan opera (苏州评弹), a unique opera style sung in Suzhou dialect. It’s typically performed with a single narrator and features stories about historical romances and epic heroes.

The city is also rich in Kunqu opera (昆曲), one of the oldest forms of Chinese opera, which is rumored to have originated in the 14th century in Suzhou’s Kunshan area.

Some classical gardens, such as the Lingering Garden, feature free opera performances during the afternoon in the main courtyard.

Head over to Fu Xi Qin Guan (伏羲琴馆) for a traditional opera show plus tea. The performers are in full makeup and elaborate ancient Chinese robes.

For anyone who wants a more historical experience, go to the Suzhou Opera Museum (苏州昆曲博物馆) for exhibitions on the evolution of Chinese operas.

Fu Xi Qin Guan, 97 Pingjiang Lu, near Nanxiangzi Xiang 平江路97号, 近南显子巷, +86 512 6581 2905, 10 a.m.-11 p.m.

Suzhou Opera Museum, 14 Zhangjia Xiang, near Daru Xiang 张家巷14号, 近大儒巷, +86 512 6727 3334, free entry

Pedicab

For roughly RMB 10, you can ride a pedicab to any destination in Suzhou’s old city. Bargain hard and don’t settle for anything more than RMB 20. These drivers can be aggressive so make sure you settle the price before you get on.

Getting around via pedicab is a great option for travelers looking for an adrenaline rush and for commutes between narrow alleyways.

Though it’s not the safest method of transportation, a ride also makes for great photo opportunities.

Pedicabs can be found on most major corners and tourist attractions. Each pedicab can seat two people.

Shopping

Suzhou guide -- shoppingA bridal dress is one of the best souvenirs to pick up in Suzhou.  

Each major Suzhou shopping street has its own history and character.

For a more ancient experience with canals and photo opportunities, hit up Pingjiang Lu and Shantang Jie. Shoppers who want more international brands and shopping sites should visit Guanqian Jie and Shiquan Jie.

Pingjiang Lu (平江路)

Perpendicular to Gan Jiang Dong Lu, Pingjiang Lu is a small pedestrian-only cobblestone street that runs alongside a canal.

Stretching about 1,000 meters, the ancient alley is lined with antique shops, teahouses and cafés, perfect for travelers looking for tacky, quirky or artsy souvenirs.

At night you can hear locals strumming guitars and singing from adjacent opera houses.

"Walking along this street in the rain was the quintessential Suzhou experience," notes Nicole Liu, 21, who is living in China on a New York University exchange program. "Not only were the people kind and soft-spoken, unlike other Chinese cities, there was a sense of peacefulness that was unique to this province." 

Teahouses abound, and there are occasional opera shows in the evening. You can also ride a boat down the canal for 30 minutes for roughly RMB 130 per boat.

Guanqian Jie (观前街)

Guanqian Jie is a large commercialized strip in Suzhou, housing a mixture of both traditional and modern shops.

Though most of the stores on Guanqian Jie are chain stores and mini-malls, there are a great deal of traditional Suzhou restaurants and snack shops hidden in between.

Look out for shops with a stone book in front of them. These are historical stops that have a reputation for their age and products.

The 1,000-meter-long street is great for a visit at night when all the buildings and lanterns are lit up.

Shiquan Jie (十全街)

Shiquan Jie is named after the 10 wells that used to be on the street and is the place to experience Suzhou's nightlife.

Located near Suzhou University, the historic thoroughfare is major gathering place for expats, students and tourists in Suzhou.

Stretching roughly 2,000 meters, the street hosts a large number of trendy clothing boutiques, bars, pubs and Western restaurants.

Tiger Hill wedding market (虎丘婚纱一条街)

Everyday, thousands of young Chinese ladies go gaga at Suzhou’s renowned wedding dress market.

Spread over roughly 120,000 square meters, the “market” is a mass of standalone shops scattered across four sides of a large and busy traffic junction at the foot of Tiger Hill.

As one of China’s largest wedding dress markets, the compound holds more than 1,000 stores with bridal dresses in styles ranging from traditional to Victorian and even punk rock.

Eagle-eyed brides-to-be can lay hands on a Vera Wang knock-off at the price of a few beers in a bar. (Price starts at roughly RMB 200 for one dress.)

The wedding dress market is roughly a 10-minute taxi ride (RMB 10-15) from Suzhou Railway Station.

Read about Suzhou accommodationrestaurantssightseeing, and activities. Return to the navigation.

 

Clarissa Wei is a freelance journalist based in New York and Los Angeles.

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