This post was last updated on December 22nd, 2020 at 08:10 am
The Venice of China, that’s how Suzhou is often described. Whoever comes here immediately understands why; the canals, boats and even gondolas are reminiscent of the world-famous city in Italy. Even Marco Polo once called the city one of the most beautiful cities in China! Suzhou is an old, charming trading town bordering the sea with whitewashed houses, canals, pagodas, and world-famous gardens.
Suzhou is a popular destination, also because it is close to Shanghai. You can be there within an hour by train. It is, therefore, an ideal day trip for those who just want to escape the chaos and bustle in Shanghai. Although Suzhou has modern skyscrapers in addition to the characteristic canals and old cottage, it is still that old, charming trading town. Through the canals, old houses and beautiful gardens it looks like you are going back in time.
The name Suzhou means “enough water.” The most important channel is the Grand Canal. When you see this canal, it is almost impossible to imagine that it used to be dug out by hand! The Grand Canal runs from Beijing to Hangzhou, so you could sail from Beijing over the canal to Suzhou. In addition to the Great Wall of China, the Grand Canal is the pride of China.
In addition to the hundreds of canals, Suzhou also has many old houses. These are mainly along the waterfront. Some of these whitewashed houses are 600 years old! In combination with the large trees along the water’s edge and the characteristic bridges you really sail through a small paradise.
Best Things to See in Suzhou
It’s impossible to describe in detail all the sights of a city like Suzhou. However, with the overview below you will know what to expect as soon as you cross one of the canals to the old town.
1. Suzhou Gardens
Although Suzhou is called the Venice of the East, throughout China and even far beyond, Suzhou is known for the splendor of its gardens. Just as in China today, it was in the days of the emperors that the high government officials possessed the big money.
To make their lives and that of their families more pleasant, they decorated expensive gardens, each one even larger and more stunning than the other. Laid out during the successive imperial dynasties of the Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing, this makes some gardens even a thousand years old. In total, sixty of these gardens have been well preserved and no fewer than nine have been added to the UNESCO World Heritage List.
In the gardens, you will usually find rocks, water and trees and many say it is the perfect reflection of the Chinese balance and harmony. The gardens are well kept and are always colorful with green trees, water lilies, beautiful plants, and beautiful ponds. In the gardens, you will also find Buddhist temples and the small bridges that make Suzhou so recognizable.
The most famous garden in Suzhou is the Lion Grove garden. This is because there are beautiful rock sculptures. Besides the Lion Grove you have the largest garden in Suzhou; the Humble Administrator Garden, an area of more than five hectares. The smallest garden is the Wang Shi Yuan garden. These gardens are so well-known that they have been under UNESCO supervision for twelve years.
2. The Canals & Bridges of Suzhou
In addition to the graceful gardens, Suzhou, along with many other cities in this part of China, is known for its many beautiful canals and bridges. It is, therefore, one of the cities that is often described as the Venice of the East. Together with the wide city canals and gateways to the old town, you can imagine yourself hundreds of years back in time.
Some of the canals are more than a thousand years old, while some parts of the city wall even predate the Christian era. Tourists today can explore the city center on foot or by gondola. Keep in mind that you can not use the gondolas as a taxi but only for tourist trips.
Part of the center is car-free and you can stroll along the waterfront at Pingjiang Lu. We feel like this is the nicest part of the city. Not only can you order home-made iced tea in trendy coffee and tea bars, but there are also great art shops and galleries.
If you are not admiring the beautiful scenes on the water, then you are talking to a local artist somewhere. At Pingjiang Lu you will also find a lot of street food stalls where you can eat dim sum in the form of animal figures. Definitely give it a try when you get there.
3. Send a Card With Delay in the Momi Cafe
A nice coffee bar is the creative Momi Cafe, where you can order great cappuccinos and surprising tea drinks. It is a card shop, bookstore, cafe, and ceramic shop, all in one. It’s a place where you can take a break and give yourself some mental rest. Here you can buy, write and address a card, and then opt for a delayed shipment.
One entire wall has been sacrificed for an ingenious postal system where you can choose a shipping date for up to 9 years in the future. Always wanted to send a card to yourself (or someone else) in the future? This is your chance.
4. Get Lost in the Many Alleyways
In Suzhou, you only have to walk down a side street and you are in a completely different world. Here, the laundry hangs to dry outside and you get to know the authentic Chinese life. As a tourist, you often come to a few places where you can get a glimpse of the average Chinese lifestyle, but here you get a chance to peek inside.
Take the time to dive into a side street regularly, it is a great way to get to know another side of Suzhou.
5. Experience the Chinese Opera
Suzhou has been known for centuries for its cultural heritage, especially the opera. In some gardens, an opera performance is regularly scheduled. It’s a really great attraction and an amazing experience. The artists are wrapped in old Chinese robes and thick layers of make-up. It’s a fun and cheap (free!) way to get acquainted with local traditions.
TIP – If you want to know more about the history of the opera in Suzhou, you can also visit the Kunqu Opera Museum.
6. Visit Authentic Pagodas & Temples
There is no shortage of temples in Suzhou. In the heart of the old city, you can find the Xuanmiao temple, literally translated: temple of mystery. The original temple was built in 276 AD, but the current structure is nowhere near that old. You can take a look in the richly decorated prayer halls and in the courtyard where they burn very long incense. It’s a very special sight.
Of all the pagodas, the Beisi Pagoda with an adjacent temple is perhaps one of the most interesting to visit. From this 76-meter-high tower, you have a beautiful view and you can also see the enormous skyscrapers of modern Suzhou, which rises around the historic city center like a wall of concrete and glass.
Another famous pagoda in Suzhou is the Yunyan Pagoda. Located in a park on Tiger Hill just northwest of the city center, this thousand-year-old solid stone pagoda is best known because it has become increasingly crooked over the years.
How to Get to Suzhou
By far the quickest and easiest way to get to Suzhou is to travel from Shanghai and take one of the new high-speed trains. These G-trains take you to the Suzhou Main Station at a top speed of 350 km/h in less than half an hour, from where you can walk downtown. This also makes it possible to return to Shanghai the same day. You will not have time to see everything in one day, but enough to get a good impression.
Nearly a hundred trains depart daily from Shanghai’s main train station to Suzhou, so you’ll never have to wait long. It is not necessary to buy tickets in advance, this can be done on arrival at the station. Since the machines in the station hall cannot handle a foreign passport, you will have to buy your ticket at the counter. The counter can be found across the street.
A single ticket costs 40 Chinese Yuan (about US$5.65). The first train to Suzhou leaves at 6:05 a.m., the last train back to Shanghai leaves at 10:22 p.m.
Suzhou Travel Itinerary
In our travel itinerary, you will spend two nights in Suzhou so that you can experience the town during the quiet hours. You sleep in a characteristic hotel that is housed in a mansion from the Ming dynasty. In the morning it is the best time to stroll through the beautiful gardens of Suzhou; some of which are centuries old. Feel free to adjust the itinerary to meet your preferences.
Day 1: Arrival in Suzhou
Suzhou is about a 30-minute train ride from Shanghai. This is the most comfortable way to get there. You can also easily travel to Suzhou by night train or high-speed train from Beijing or Xi’an.
When you arrive in Suzhou you will be picked up from the station and taken to your hotel in the old city. We recommend staying the night in the authentic Garden Hotel. This hotel has a lot of history. The hotel has been designated the residence of state guests by the government of Suzhou in recent decades and has been home to hundreds of national leaders.
Much has been preserved of the old architecture and furnishings. You sleep in a comfortable room that still breathes the atmosphere of ancient China. When you arrive you can view the area surrounding the hotel.
Browse the cozy stalls in the area or check out one of Suzhou’s famous gardens. Nearby you will find, for example, the Master of the Nets garden. In the garden and surrounding areas, there are also a number of tea houses where you can relax.
- Mingtown Suzhou Youth Hostel: If you want to spend a bit less this is a great option to spend the night. Set in a historic building, it features classic Chinese architecture and simple accommodation with wooden furniture.
- Pure-Land Villa: Very authentic family hotel. The hotel is old but it’s the perfect place to find modern conveniences with yesterday’s charm. It has beautiful gardens and you should try out their Chinese breakfast (very tasty!).
- PACE HOTEL Suzhou Renmin Branch: This hotel has a great location. If you’re a fan of evening strolls then this is the place for you. It is within walking distance of the nearby river which gives a lovely view during the evening hours. As with many hotels in Suzhou, the breakfast is great!
Day 2: Free Time
Today you have plenty of time to discover Suzhou’s extraordinary gardens. The most famous gardens are the Master of the Nets and the Humble Administrator gardens. Visit these gardens early in the day so you can experience them as an oasis of beauty and tranquility. If you come later it can get very busy.
Suzhou was once one of the most important silk-producing cities in the world. From here, the famous Chinese silk was transported to the West along the ancient Silk Road. In the silk museum, you can see how silk is made and learn about its 6000-year-old applications.
In the evening you can be entertained during the Opera Extravaganza that is performed in the Master of the Nets garden. In the garden, you will see a performance that includes the eight most important performing arts of China, including Chinese Opera, folk dance and storytelling.
Naturally, the entire performance is in Chinese. Ask the hotel reception at what time the show starts. A ticket costs about 80 Chinese Yuan (about US$11.30) and the performance lasts about 2.5 hours.
Day 3: The Venice of China
Today you can visit the old water town of Tongli. Your driver will take you to the old center of the nearby town. Tongli is built on the water and – just like in Venice – a large part of the traffic takes place on the water.
It is a lovely town to wander around. After every corner you will find a beautiful canal, a cute bridge or old houses with locals chatting on the sidewalk. In one of the many restaurants, you can try fresh locally caught fish.
Day 4: Next Destination
This is where this itinerary ends. From Suzhou, you can travel further to the next destination or start the journey home. After Suzhou, it is very nice to spend a few more days in Shanghai.
Chinese Name: 苏州 / Sūzhōu.
Number of Inhabitants: 4 million.
Opening Hours: varies by attraction, the city center itself is freely accessible.
Entrance Fees: Varies by attraction, usually between 20 and 50 Chinese Yuan (US$2.80 to US$7).
Recommended Time Frame: One to several days.