It’s been almost two decades since I last visited the ancient Chinese city of Suzhou — can’t believe its been that long. Being a young traveler back then, I followed a tour and didn’t get much time to truly immerse myself in the city. All I can remember is that it was beautiful and calm, with stunning classical gardens and old streets. I’m glad I made a trip back to the city again, and got to know Suzhou a little bit more.
The city of Suzhou is located in East China’s Jiangsu Province, about 100km from the metropolitan city of Shanghai. It is the province’s second largest city, after its capital, Nanjing. The ancient city of Suzhou is believed to date back over 2,500 years; and was once a thriving city during many Chinese dynasties — with many of its still-existing canals, curving stone bridges, pagodas and gardens dating back to that period. Also known as the garden city of China, many of the Classical Gardens of Suzhou are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
During my trip to Shanghai with 3 friends, we decided to make a quick trip out of the bustling city for a more laid-back time in Suzhou. We allocated 3 days — 2 days in Suzhou, and a one day to trip to the nearby watertown. We had a lovely time in the ancient city, but there were some instances where it wasn’t so pleasant (and some downright disappointing). So I decided to make a list of things NOT to do when visiting the city (and many things you should do instead), to make a trip to Suzhou truly wonderful!
1. Do NOT Buy Tickets Too Late
GET TICKETS ONLINE, OR HIRE A TAXI
I read online that it would be easy to get a seat on the high-speed train from Shanghai to Suzhou as it runs pretty frequently. However, when we got to the Shanghai Train Station, we not only had to head to a different building to buy tickets (only for foreigners) — but seats were all taken up for the trains well into the evening. We were still allowed to buy tickets to get on the next train though (same price at CNY40~US$6), but had to stand the entire 45-minutes journey. We didn’t mind that (we sat on the floor), but it would have saved us the inconvenience should we have booked online.
On our journey back from Suzhou to Shanghai, we hired a taxi for about CNY400~US$63. It’s just slightly double the train fare when shared between 4 people — a good deal I say, as we didn’t have to lug our stuff around, and got dropped off at our doorstep in Shanghai.
2. Do NOT Stay in Swanky Hotels
EXPERIENCE A HOMESTAY OR GUESTHOUSE IN THE OLD TOWN
When doing my research on hotels to stay in Suzhou, I actually found a whole list of pretty good (albeit a bit pricey) ones. However, I ended up booking a guesthouse in the old town instead, to blend in with the locals. We stayed at the Suzhou DingXiang XiaoZhu Guesthouse along Lilac Lane, and it was just wonderful to walk out and be amidst the daily Suzhou life, and only a few meters from the ancient Ping Jiang Canals.
The guesthouse has all the basic facilities (air-con, water heater, wifi, comfy bed) — and it also has a common area that was decorated like a typical Chinese living room, and a courtyard complete with a pavilion and a Chinese chess board. I absolutely loved the stay, and so glad that we chose the guesthouse over a hotel.
3. Do NOT Follow a Tour
YOU CAN GET EVERYWHERE ON YOUR OWN
It’s really easy to get around in Suzhou, most attractions like the gardens and ancient streets are a walkable distance from each other; and for the further ones, the city has a pretty reliable metro system, or you can take a trishaw or a taxi. During our visit to the city, we got around by just taking a leisurely stroll (the spring weather was lovely) most of the time. Unfortunately, at some point, we made a badly thought-out decision to join a half-day tour.
The tour promised us a 1-hour canal cruise and a visit to a ‘popular’ garden in the city, which didn’t exactly turn out as we expected — the cruise was really 20-minutes, and the garden was a ‘Chinese tour-group’ garden. What made it worse was that we were taken for a joyride around Suzhou on a bus, stopping at a couple of ‘compulsory’ shopping stops along the way. Honestly, we could have gotten more things done should we have followed our own itinerary, which brings me to my next point…
4. Do NOT Get Swayed By Deals
DO WHAT YOU’VE SET OUT TO DO
The reason why we ended up going on the half-day tour to Suzhou was because we were swayed by the cheaper deal offered to us. We initially planned to visit the biggest garden in Suzhou (and one of the Top 4 in China), the Humble Administrator’s Garden. While walking to the garden, we got a little lazy and decided to hop on a trishaw. The trishaw man somehow convinced us that buying the tickets from his ‘travel agency’ would be cheaper, and brought us there. Once there, we got convinced to join their half-day tour — that did not even include the garden we first set out to visit.
The tour cost us CNY120~US$19 per person — we thought it was a good bargain at that moment (Humble Administrator’s Garden costs CNY90~US$14). It wasn’t. We ended up at the Calm Garden, which was anything but calm, and completely swamped with Chinese tour groups. And we never got to visit the garden we wanted.
5. Do NOT Go to the Gardens at the Wrong Time
TRY TO AVOID THE TOUR GROUPS AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE
Suzhou is home to the most beautiful classical Chinese gardens in China, dating back more than 1000 years. The top 5 gardens in the city are the Humble Administrator’s Garden (biggest), Lingering Garden (architecture), Master of Nets Garden (smallest), Lion Grove Garden (rock formations), and Canglang Pavilion (oldest). Because we got swayed by deals and followed a tour, we didn’t get to visit any of those and ended up at the Calm Garden. It is not one of the famous few (and not very pretty), but it was packed with hordes of Chinese tour groups — people were just shouting on microphones everywhere. I was really disappointed.
So whatever garden you choose to go to, make sure to plan your timing — before the tour groups arrive and after they leave. It will make your experience so much better. I visited the Lingering Garden when I was in Suzhou 18 years ago, and I can vaguely remember strolling and admiring its beautiful pavilions and lakes. We visited in the late evening — and eventhough we were there with a tour group and there were still lots of people, it wasn’t too bad.
6. Do NOT Stinge on the Pockets
DINE LIKE AN EMPEROR, SHOP LIKE A DIVA
When in Suzhou, forget the budget (for just a little while). There are just so many good food to eat, and interesting things to buy. It is said that the late Qing Emperor Qianlong loved the ‘Sweet and Sour’ Mandarin Fish and had it every time he visited Suzhou at Song He Lou Restaurant, which is now a local institution with its 200-year history. The fish was good, but I wasn’t too impressed with the service. So if you want to dine like the emperor, there are still many other hundred-year-old restaurants in Suzhou to try his favorite dish. And when in the city, do drop by the Xiaolongkan Chinese Hotpot Restaurant for a flaming ‘HOT’ steamboat meal. It’s so spicy it’ll leave your lips numb, but it is oh-so-good. We waited 2 hours to get a seat.
As for shopping, Guan Qian Street is one of the city’s most popular streets for modern shopping; but if you’re looking for a more authentic Chinese experience, drop by the ancient streets of Shangtang Road, Shiquan Street or Pingjiang Road (where we were based). The old buildings that line the streets and canals sell everything from Chinese antiques to local handy-works like embroidery and paintings. They are gorgeous, and make great souvenirs. We, on the other hand, bought lots of Chinese yellow wine!
7. Do NOT Be Afraid to Try the Street Food
STREET FOOD SMELLS GOOD, AND TASTES BETTER
I absolutely love the wide array of street food that can be found in Suzhou — especially around Ping Jiang Road where we stayed. Every morning and evening when I walked along the canals, I could smell the waft of deliciousness in the air, and was so tempted to try everything I saw. From Chinese delicacies like chicken feet and duck intestines, to glutinous rice balls and sweet desserts like osmanthus jelly — there were just so much food to snack on!
Oh, and make sure you drop by Fox’s Yogurt, best yogurt this side of China! We also spotted a Chinese pastry shop along Ping Jiang Road that sold youtiao (Chinese churros) and Chinese naan bread — and had a really filling breakfast. The small restaurants along the canals offer pretty good Suzhou cuisine too — look for the ones that are packed with people. Do not be afraid to try everything!
8. Do NOT Forget to Slow Down
ENJOY A STROLL AND RELAX
I really enjoyed the slow, calm life of Suzhou. I loved my morning and evening strolls on the cobblestone pavements, along the canals, and over the quaint bridges. It’s a lovely place to run away from all the stresses and worries of everyday life, and a reminder that it’s alright to slow down a little. So on a visit to the city, don’t rush with the tours and the trips to the local attractions — sit back a little and just enjoy… Suzhou. Although I didn’t visit most of the must-see attractions (except those from that half-day tour), I felt as if I actually experienced and learned to appreciate Suzhou so much more by being within its leisurely pace.
And during our time in Suzhou (and in our relaxed mood), we decided to head to one of the many spas/massage parlors that can be found around the city. The 2-hour traditional Chinese body and feet massage was only CNY168~US$27 per person — and after the session, I went back to the guesthouse and slept like a baby.
9. Do NOT Limit Yourself to the City
HEAD OUT TO THE NEARBY WATERTOWNS
A visit to the ancient watertowns of China is a must; especially if you’re in the vicinity of Shanghai, Suzhou or Hangzhou. There are at least eight famous watertowns in China, and two of them are relatively close to Suzhou (about 45 minutes to an hour away) — Zhou Zhuang and Tongli. We decided to make a day trip to the more popular of the two (and nicknamed China’s No.1 watertown), Zhou Zhuang. The watertown was absolutely beautiful; and we spent 5 lovely hours roaming about the narrow lanes, dropping by the many shops within the ancient buildings, and even floating by the canals on a boat with a singing boatman. We also had lunch at the watertown, and ordered some of the town’s signature dishes — pork trotters, apo’s vegetables, baby prawns and the white silk fish (that was filled with tiny bones)!
You can read about my visit to Zhou Zhuang; as well as another watertown, Xitang here:-
Wandering Around Zhou Zhuang, an Ancient China Watertown
The Ancient Xitang Watertown
10. Do NOT Miss Out on a Visit to Suzhou
IT’S A GORGEOUS, GORGEOUS PLACE
All in all, I had a great time in Suzhou, and am glad that we decided to allocate a few days out of Shanghai during our visit. Because our guesthouse was right next to the ancient Ping Jiang Road, we got to witness the peaceful atmosphere of the old town in the early mornings, the buzz during the evenings, and the quiet darkness come night. When it rains, the gloomy skies and the slippery pavements add to the tranquility of the old street; and when it’s sunny, the sun lights up the ancient buildings, giving it a golden glow.
No wonder the many many past generations of Chinese artists, writers and scholars drew so much inspiration from this lovely city. I am Chinese, and do know a little Chinese — but not enough to understand the depth of the words that were once written about the city. One of my travel buddies is a writer with an excellent command of Chinese, and she tried explaining the beauty of these poems and stories to me. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t translate to English as beautifully.
Being in Suzhou, I could only imagine.