Located just 20 minutes from Shanghai by fast train, Suzhou is a city that oozes culture, a site for heritage enthusiasts who want to gain insight into a truly authentic Chinese cityscape that boasts over 2,500 years of history. Locals are friendly and the pace of life is much slower than their bigger bolder neighbour, Shanghai, giving you a chance to escape ‘the madding crowd’ and relax in the tranquillity of the old town and surrounding gardens. An old Chinese proverb sums up the city rather well, “Above there is Heaven, on the earth there is Suzhou” (shang you tian tang, xia you su hang), here we take you through our 5 top reasons why you should discover the city and the sites and sounds that you are most likely to encounter on your trip.
Take a Step Back in Time Along Pingjiang Road
A labyrinth of canals carve their way through the old town city centre giving rise to Suzhou’s label “The Venice of the East”. Still used for couriering goods to and from the market the canals are framed by ancient bridges, pathways and street vendors that line the banks. Take a stroll along Pingjiang Road, one of the oldest of paths to weave its way along the ancient waterways. Here you can enjoy the local cuisine, rest up at a teahouse or simply wander through the narrow lanes and resident buildings that provide a classic backdrop to Suzhou’s cityscape.
World Heritage Gardens
Suzhou is a city home to no fewer than 9 UNESCO World Heritage sites; amongst which are some of the oldest gardens in China and can be found dotted around the city centre. Each garden has a story to tell belonging to a former minister or governor of the city who would have held the highest of status 2,000 years ago. The grandest of all the gardens is ‘The Humble Administrator’s Garden’, here you can wile away the hours weaving your way through the bonsai gardens, pagodas, grand halls and rockeries. A lesser known garden, but equally as picturesque, is “The Master-of-nets” garden, famed for having the smallest of bridges in the city and home to evening performances of Suzhounese opera.
Located in the grounds of a ‘half moon garden’ and preserved in the authentic architecture of the city, the Pingjiangfu Scholars Hotel successfully merges the comforts of modern living with the cultural heritage of the city. Situated just a stones throw away from the historic Pingjiang road you can really immerse yourself in the history of the old town. Not far from here (Nan Shizi Street) you will also find Blossom Hill Hotel, a converted residence of one of the city’s oldest ambassadors. Nestled in the heart of the old town district this setting provides a beautiful integration of classic Suzhounese design and modern comforts, allowing visitors to catch a glimpse of the hustle and bustle of everyday life in the city.
For an authentic taste of Suzhou head to Shantang Street, located just southwest of the city centre this old street is lined with an array of restaurants serving cheap noodles, dumplings and soup. Here you are spoilt for choice when it comes to grabbing a bite to eat, as lunch can be as cheap as 20RMB per person. Suzhou is famous for its traditional green tea (Bi Luo Chun) of which you can sample in one of the many beautifully preserved teahouses along Shantang Street, or simply indulge in some traditional Chinese punting and enjoy a relaxing boat trip down one of the many historic canals.
Follow the path from Shantang Street and you will find yourself at the base of Tiger Hill. With a history of over 2,500 years, Tiger Hill claims to be the oldest garden in China. The halls, pavilions, gates and gardens that surround the hill are beautifully integrated into the landscape so as to create the feeling of a hidden temple. Climb to the top of the hill and you will find the Yunyan Pagoda, a slowly sinking tower that was built more than a 1,000 years ago. Constructed as a monument to the Wu King Helu, the leaning pagoda serves as a proud symbol to Suzhou’s long-standing history and heritage.
Suzhou is a hidden gem, a city that should be discovered by all who are seeking a slice of authentic Chinese tradition. Whether you are on a trip to Shanghai or a whistle-stop tour of the major cities throughout China, Suzhou should certainly be on your to do to list, a chance to take a breath, slow down, relax and immerse yourself in a city of world heritage.
About the authors
Andrew Manley and Michael Silk are academics at the University of Bath and have written for The Guardian and Compass Magazine.
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