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Along with Hangzhou, Suzhou is the most famous day-trip destination outside of Shanghai. Lying only half an hour by train out of downtown Shanghai, it’s easy to visit in a day. If you want to stay the night there are plenty of excellent hotels and guesthouses.
Suzhou’s most famous area is the old quarter that covers Pingjiang, Canglang, and Jinchang districts. The modern city has little to differentiate it from any second-tier Chinese metropolis apart from the Suzhou Industrial Park area and Ligongdi, districts on the shore of Jinji Lake that feature Western restaurants and bars.
Located in Jiangsu Province, Suzhou rose to prosperity thanks to its location on the Grand Canal. There was settlement there 2,000 years ago and the first records date back to the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 B.C.), making it one of the oldest inhabited areas in the lower Yangtze Delta.
In 514 B.C., King Helu of the Wu State made the city its capital. It received its modern name in A.D. 589 during the Sui Dynasty. Thanks to the silk industry that flourished during the Song era (A.D. 960-1279), Suzhou’s wealth and position increased; it was home to many important scholars, writers, artists, and ministers. The city’s many beautiful gardens bear witness to its standing.
Pan Gate (Pan Men, Dongda St., daily 7:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m., ¥25 for Pan Gate scenic area, free for children under 1.2 meters tall, ¥6 to climb Ruiguang Pagoda) dates back 2,500 years to the Wu Kingdom of the Warring States era (770-476 B.C.). It is both a land gate and a water gate and is five meters (16.4 ft.) high at its tallest point, where it is topped with a double-eaved gatehouse. It was built as the only entry into the city as part of a protective wall built in 514 B.C. A visit to the Pan Gate scenic area gets you entry to a garden where you can feed koi carp, take a boat ride, cross a footbridge, and visit the ancient Ruiguang Pagoda (for an additional fee) that dates from 247 B.C.
Humble Administrator’s Garden
The Humble Administrator’s Garden (178 Dongbei St., 152/6751-0286, daily 7 a.m.-5:30 p.m., ¥70 Mar. 1-May 31, Sept. 1-Nov. 3, ¥50 June 1-Aug. 31, Dec. 1-Apr. 30) is Suzhou’s largest and is widely believed to be the most beautiful in China. It takes its name from the retired imperial governor. It was originally the garden of a Tang dynasty scholar, but was turned over to the Dahong Temple in the Yuan era. In 1513 it was acquired by a former governor who transformed it into a beautiful landscaped garden with the help of an artist friend. Willing to pass the twilight of his life enjoying simple pleasures instead of the privileges of imperial life, he is the “humble administrator” of the garden’s name. The landscaping work was completed in 1526, forming one of the loveliest Ming-era gardens in the country. It covers 52,000 square meters (560,000 sq. ft.) and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The garden is split into three main areas, the central of which is mainly water. Around it are pavilions, lotus ponds, rock formations, hills, and the Hall of Distant Fragrance with its long windows.
Tiger Hill (8 Mennei St., Huqiu Hill, 512/6723-2305, daily 7:30 a.m.-6 p.m., ¥60 Apr. 1-Oct. 30, ¥40 Oct. 31-Apr. 15) is named for the mystical white tiger who is said to have sat upon the grave of King Helu of Wu when he died in 496 B.C. It also contains the stone that Helu used to test his swords, complete with a worn groove, and a pool that apparently contains the bodies of the 1,000 men who built his tomb. Less sinister but no less interesting is the Wanjing Villa that contains a bonsai nursery and a leaning pagoda. Yunyan Temple’s octagonal pagoda is the oldest in Suzhou and leans several degrees to the northwest. Tiger Hill was also the site where ancient tea expert Lu Yu penned his “Classic of Tea”—the first published book about the art of the brew. The water in the area is particularly good for making tea, according to his treatise.
Master of the Nets Garden
Suzhou’s smallest garden, Master of the Nets (Daichengqiao Rd., 11 Kuojiatouxiang, 512/6529-3190, daily 7:30 a.m.-5 p.m., ¥30 Apr. 16-Oct. 30, ¥20 Oct. 31-Apr. 15, evenings ¥80), measures just 5,400 square meters (58,100 sq. ft.), but appears much larger thanks to clever landscaping techniques. It originally belonged to a minister of the Song Dynasty, who commissioned it in 1140. He longed to turn his back on his ministerial duties and lead the life of a simple fisherman, hence the garden’s name. It passed through several hands until 1785 when it was acquired by a Qing-era government official who added much to its design. As with most traditional gardens, it is divided into three sections. The main area contains a large pond with walkways and a pavilion. The small inner garden has been replicated at the Pompidou Centre in Paris and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
Lion Grove Garden
Attractive Lion Grove Garden (23 Yuanlin Rd., 512/6727-8316, daily 7:30 a.m.-5 p.m., ¥30 Mar. 1-May 31, Sept. 1-Nov. 3, ¥20 June 1-Aug. 31, Dec. 1-Apr. 30) started life as part of a Buddhist temple in 1342. A monk named Tianru ordered his disciples to landscape it in memory of his master, Zhongfeng. After Tianru himself died, the disciples disbanded and the garden fell to ruins. It was bought by a relative of the contemporary architect I. M. Pei who handed it over to the state in 1950 and it has been restored to its former beauty. Twisting paths meander between gnarled rock formations taken from Lake Tai; rockeries are reflected in tranquil pools. Lion Grove Garden was particularly popular with the Qing emperor Qianlong and is one of Suzhou’s finest.
The Grand Canal
Suzhou owes its prosperity to the Grand Canal (Shuishang Tourist Wharf, Xinshiqiaotu, boat rides daily 9 a.m.-8:30 p.m., ¥35), which starts in Beijing and terminates in nearby Hangzhou. The longest canal in the world was completed during the Sui Dynasty (581-618 B.C.) and stretches for 1,776 kilometers (1,103 mi). The canal was actually begun close to Suzhou, when King Fuchai of Wu decreed that a trade route be created when he conquered the Qi State. As it passes through Suzhou, the Grand Canal is called Jiangnan. Riding a boat along its length is a good way to see Suzhou; boats leave every half hour from the Shuishang Tourist Wharf.
It’s possible to travel all the way from Suzhou to Hangzhou on the Grand Canal overnight. A cruiser leaves the wharf at 306 Renmin Road at 5:30 p.m. and arrives at Wulinmen dock in Hangzhou at 6:30 a.m. the next morning. The return boat leaves Hangzhou at 5:30 p.m. and gets to Suzhou at 7 a.m. the following day. Twin or quad berths cost ¥78-208 depending on the type of boat.
Deyuelou (8, 18 & 22 Ligongdi, Suzhou Industrial Park, 512/6265-6999, daily 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 5-9 p.m.) has two locations, but it’s the newer branch on Ligongdi that’s worth a visit to try some Suzhou specialties. The Deyuelou name dates back 400 years to the reign of the Ming emperor Jiajing and it’s something of a byword for great local food. Like the Shanghainese cuisine it inspired, Suzhou food is sweet and light. Thanks to the proliferation of lakes and rivers in Jiangsu province, freshwater fish looms large on menus, often cooked with a sweet marinade. Deyuelou offers regional favorites like steamed mandarin fish and sliced ham with honey. The decor is simple but plush, with calligraphy on the walls. The staff speaks limited English, but there’s an English menu.
Firmly at the center of the expatriate scene, Blue Marlin (168 Xinghai St., Suzhou Industrial Park, 512/6288-9676, www.bluemarlin.cn, daily 10 a.m.-2 a.m.) provides a change of scenery from Suzhou’s ancient sights. The Suzhou Industrial Park has a very different atmosphere from downtown, with wide causeways and views out over Jingji Lake and the technology district nearby. With a 10-year pedigree, Blue Marlin is something of a Suzhou institution among the city’s foreign contingent. With a bar serving Erdinger, Tiger, San Miguel, and Carlsberg on draft, and a restaurant offering Asian and Western meals, it’s a self-styled “home away from home.” A daily half-price happy hour runs 4-7 p.m. to attract the post-work crowd; food is served until 10 p.m.
Campy Dain Ti Hill (A12, Phase 2, Ligongdi, Suzhou Industrial Park, 512/6299-8980, daily 11 a.m.-10 p.m.) is something of an enigma thanks to its interesting mix of classic and modern decor. There’s plenty of subtle neon, including some elaborate contemporary chandeliers, and the food is a fusion of Japanese, Taiwanese, and Southeast Asian. The dish that almost everyone orders is the potato and pumpkin salad, though the sizzling beef is a good bet, too. The menu has some unusual items like a prawn and vegetable wrap that arrives upright in several segments. There’s a non-smoking section as well as areas of low, romantic seating. Dain Ti Hill is easy to spot from the outside thanks to its glowing neon front.
Part of the thriving Ligongdi nightlife scene on Jinji Lake, Garbo’s (A16, Ligongdi, 512/6295-3698, daily noon-late) is managed by a Swedish man named Lars. The atmosphere is relaxed. Garbo’s serves up pub food like sausages and mash and Swedish meatballs to patrons sipping Stella, Krombacher, and Boddingtons beer on tap. There’s also bottled beer and cocktails on the menu. The daily 3-9 p.m. happy hour sees 30 percent off drink prices, making a ¥35 pint even more reasonable. There’s nothing fancy or sophisticated about Garbo’s, but it’s a decent, honest bar with a laidback vibe. Framed photos on the walls and wooden furniture keep things homey.
There are two similarly named pubs on this stretch of Shiquan Street—the Pub Bar (463 Shiquan St.) and Jane’s Pub Bar (621 Shiquan Street, 133/3800-0976, daily 4 p.m.-2 a.m.). The former was one of Suzhou’s first Western bars and is quieter and more laidback. The latter is bigger and more sport-focused, with big screens showing matches. Happy hour runs daily 3-8 p.m. with draft beer for ¥20 and Tsingtao for ¥10. There’s an upbeat vibe and live music Monday-Saturday. If you find it too rowdy, head down the road to the Pub Bar, which is usually quieter. Either venue is a good place to start a night exploring Shiquan Street’s bar scene.
A member of Hostelling International, the Mingtown Suzhou Hostel (28 Pingjiang Rd., 512/6581-6869, ¥50-160) is located in the old part of the city near the Grand Canal. It’s about a 10-minute walk from the main gardens and has a friendly atmosphere that has endeared it to legions of backpackers and tourists. By way of facilities, there’s the Riverside bar and restaurant, Internet, a reading room, and a travel center, along with a laundry and bikes for rent. The common spaces and rooms are decorated simply with traditional touches; there’s a comfortable, well-worn feeling about the place. Rooms and dorms are clean and well kept. Choose a six-bed mixed dorm or a single private room.
The beautiful 4-star Garden View (66 Luoguaqiao, Lindun Rd., 400/810-6868, ¥400-1,600) on the canals of the old quarter has 188 guest rooms ranging from standard to deluxe. If you’re looking for a traditional atmosphere, this is the place for you. Its white walls, gray tiled roofs, and red lanterns are evocative of old China, while the services are definitely modern. Breakfast is included in the room rate and there are both Chinese and Western restaurants on-site. Choose from a reasonably priced single room, a superior room, or a suite.
The Sofitel Suzhou (818 East Hanjing Rd., 512/6801-9888, www.sofitel.com/suzhou, ¥700) is the only 5-star hotel in downtown Suzhou and is located next to the buzzing Guanquan shopping area. The Sofitel name tends to speak for itself and this branch is no exception. With the canal flowing in front and a sweeping staircase in the lobby, the Sofitel is one of the most opulent hotels in Suzhou. However, it is low-rise and subtle enough not to be an eyesore, with nods to traditional architecture in its peaked roofs. Inside are 314 guest rooms, 10 meeting rooms, a health club, and a swimming pool. If you’re looking for a night of luxury away from Shanghai, this is a good choice.
Getting to Suzhou
By Train: The train from Shanghai to Suzhou is fast and efficient. Since many people commute between the cities, there are multiple trains leaving every hour from Shanghai Railway Station starting at 5:45 a.m. Buy your ticket from the hall at the station or from one of the booths around town. Your hotel or hostel will almost certainly be able to help you book a ticket. The journey takes around half an hour and costs about ¥40 each way.
By Bus: Buses run from the stop at 210 Hengfeng Road (21/5663-0230) in Shanghai. The first bus leaves at 7:20 a.m., with departures roughly every half hour until 6:30 p.m. A one-way ticket is ¥25-29; returns can only be bought in Suzhou. If you book by telephone, a ¥2 charge is added. For an extra ¥12, your ticket can be delivered to your address in Shanghai. Coming back the other way, buses leave Suzhou Bus Station (29 Xihui Rd., 512/753-6566) every half hour 7 a.m.-6:30 p.m. They cost the same as tickets for the outward journey.
© Susie Gordon from Moon Beijing & Shanghai, 2nd Edition