The City of Suzhou: Everything You Want from a Visit to China

  • 01 of 14

    Why Should You Go to Suzhou, China?

    Suzhou China Tongli Canal Gondolas
    ©Starre Vartan

    Suzhou: Where China's Past Meets Its Future

    Suzhou is a dynamic city where China's long, glorious past lives and thrives. To spend time here is like taking a magic trip back into China's powerful past. Suzhou is a sensational luxury travel destination that shows you China at its most authentic and fascinating.

    Suzhou (pronounced soo-joo) is China’s cultural and historical capital. Founded in 514 B.C., Suzhou flaunts 2,500 years of history and a myriad of ancient temples, palaces, gardens, canals, and fortifications. Suzhou's magnificent UNESCO World Heritage Sites include the stunning Grand Canal and nine classical gardens. Also alive here: Chinese art, opera, gardens, and traditions (like tea ceremony, silk production, Su embroidery, herbal healing)

    The country's fifth-largest city, Suzhou is where ancient China meets tomorrow's China. You can stay in new hotels, or opt for traditional Chinese accommodations. In Suzhou, you will Suzhou's garden-fresh cuisine, from high-end, multi-course banquets to street dumplings. And you'll bask in China's economic miracle (only nearby Shanghai beats Suzhou for economic growth)

    Suzhou is very easy to get to. It's located midway down China's Pacific coast) about 70 miles inland from Shanghai (the bullet train from Shanghai's Hongqiao International Airport takes a half hour). English is widely spoken, ATMs are prevalent, and the city is safe and comfortable (though traffic can be annoying). Check ou the Suzhou Tourism site and photo galleries, and follow Suzhou on Instagram, on Facebook, on YouTube.

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  • 02 of 14

    Tiger Hill in Suzhou, China: A Thousand Years of Solitude & Beauty

    Suzhou China Tiger Hill
    ©Suzhou Tourism

    Tiger Hill: A Celebrated Place of Legend

    Tiger Hill is one of the oldest parts of Suzhou, and gets its name from a legend. In 496, after King Wu buried his father on top of the hill, a white tiger appeared to guard the tomb/ The local explanation for fog over Tiger Hill? It descends to conceal the tiger.

    The ancient poet Su Dongpo said, “to visit Suzhou and not see Tiger Hill would lead to a lifetime of regret.”  I have to agree. Set just a couple of miles from the center of Suzhou, Tiger Hill is like a whole other world. Picture this: canals meandering through ivy-covered embankments; tranquil glades of shade trees and flowering shrubs; ancient black-roofed, white-walled cottages.

    Everything you see in Tiger Hill is magical. You enter through a dramatic ocher gate. Then, dominating your Tiger Hill vista is Yunyuan Temple. Its imposing Leaning Pagoda was built 1,000 years ago (beating the Leaning Tower of Pisa by around 150 years). The mysterious Sword Pool is said to harbor King He Lu’s swords in its watery depths.

    Wangjing Villa is a half-acre of potted miniature bonsai trees, some over 200 years old. (Bonsai originated in China and later became an everlasting Japanese passion.) The villa's beautiful dwarf trees are complemented by rocks and other features intended to create miniature landscapes of Suzhou and China. You may spy a master gardener trimming the bonsai with delicate traditional tools. Find out why UNESCO chose to give World Heritage status to Suzhou's classical gardens.

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  • 03 of 14

    Old-Town Suzhou & Its Canals

    Suzhou river gondola with spring flowers
    ©Ian Trower / robertharding / Getty Images

    Old-Town Suzhou’s Streets and Canals

    The oldest part of Suzhou is what China was like before cars and motorbikes. Old Town is ideal for wandering, either on foot or via a lazy gondola ride. Wear your good walking shoes—or do like the locals and rent a bike to marvel at whitewashed walls and black roofs of houses hundreds of years old. Steep-sided bridges arch over the canal, and narrow, picturesque, cobblestone streets meander through Old Town.

    The narrow, flagstone-paved street, Pingjiang Road, has been found on maps since 960; a canal that may be even older runs alongside the street. Lively Shantang Street is famous for its temples and memorial bridges arching over bigger, busier streets. ​Sinquan Street boasts architecture from the Ming Dynasty, mid-1300s to mid-1600s.

    Don't miss a gondola ride in Old Town Suzhou! You can a catch gondola on the Grand Canal or smaller, adjacent canals. From the water, you'll see a whole other face of Suzhou. While in Old Town Suzhou, head to the Jinchang District’s Shilu Shopping Street for goods old and (mostly) new. Do as the locals do and stop for some refreshing green tea at any of the tea shops. Dumplings of all types are a deliciousSuzhou snack. (Sweet tooth? Try the ubiquitous, handmade red-bean mooncakes.) In the evening, the traditional Kunqu Opera, which dates back to the 14th century, is still performed in a number of theaters in Old Town.

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  • 04 of 14

    The Humble Administrator’s Garden in Suzhou, China

    Suzhou China UNESCO Administrators Garden
    ©Jochen Schlenker / robertharding /Getty Images

    The Humble Administrator’s Garden: Ancient Version of Going Off the Grid

    This Suzhou attraction may have a modest name, but it's spectacular. The Humble Administrator’s Garden is the largest of nine UNESCO World Heritage Site gardens in Suzhou. Its breathtaking beauty harmonizes the four classic elements of Chinese gardens: plants, rocks, water, and buildings.

    It’s over 500 years old: was built in 1509, during the Ming dynasty, by a former government official, Wang Xianchen, who wanted to live in beauty amidst nature. It’s huge: almost 13 acres, and a third of that is water, with a large pond in the middle of the garden. Due to its size, this park doesn’t feel crowded.

    This garden will take some time to explore—plan for at least two hours, minimum, for this celebrated site. The garden features 48 buildings, 40 monuments, 20 trees, several streams, and the Small Flying Rainbow Bridge. Every inch of the garden is manicured to perfection. You can step from classical interiors decorated with Ming dynasty (and later) antiques, to mini bamboo and pine forests, to lotus pools, to open courtyards of varying sizes. You can seek out various nooks, crannies, lookouts, caves (yes!), pagodas, secret gardens-within-gardens, and meditative water features.

    Stop and Smell the Tea Leaves

    The best way to experience the Garden: a traditional Chinese green tea ceremony. They're conducted in small groups in one of the traditional rooms overlooking the garden. You can rest and admire the details of the room's floral artistry, its symmetry, its decoration (even the roof tiles have style). Advance reservations are required; see the​ Humble Administrator Garden website.

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  • 05 of 14

    Lingering Garden in Suzhou, China

    Lingering Garden Suzhou China
    ©Suzhou Tourism

    Lingering Garden: An Architecture Buff’s Dream

    Do you remember 1993? Well, this was built ib 1593. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Lingering Garden was created during the Ming Dynasty, a centuries-long explosion of creativity and beauty.

    Each of the private gardens in Suzhou has a completely different feel and mood. One of the smaller ones, Linger Garden. This is half the size of the Humble Administrator’s Garden. It's more architecture-focused and compact: a manicured jewel.

    It’s elaborately designed, with numerous pagodas, halls, and other buildings. Every few steps reveal a new scene, many of which are framed by windows, sculptures and buildings. The overall structure is divided into four connected parts, with an ancestral temple and houses.
    Look down: all the connecting walkways contain mosaic images of birds, flowers, trees, and other images.

    Some of the Lingering Garden's floor mosaics are said to bring good health or wealth if you step over them in certain patterns. So if you see other visitors appearing to dance over the tiles, follow suit!

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  • 06 of 14

    SIP (Suzhou Industrial Park) in Suzhou, China

    ©Suzhou Tourism

    SIP (Suzhou Industrial Park): a Dull Name for a Really Fun Place

    This commercial district on the lakefront was built out of nothing in the past 20 years. It's a business district that's also a place to shop and have fun.

    You could spend hours upon hours amongst SIP's hundreds of traditional crafts stores, restaurants and amusements. The Suzhou Culture and Arts Center is a good first stop. It's a place to relax and get your bearings. It offers seasonal programming and live-performance space. You can even stay in a hotel here

    If you want to shop in Suzhou, this is the place. You'll find traditional Chinese wares like silks and the local Su embroidery. You'll also find international brands, some produced in nearby Shenzen. A giant "sky screen" shows Chinese programming on weekend nights

    SIP has its amusement-park side, too. The Suzhou Ferris Wheel, Asia’s largest, captures an incredible view of growing Suzhou and vast Jinji Lake, In SIP, you can rent boats to see the city from Jinji Lake, or visit man-made Peach Blossom Island and Exquisite Island. Find out more at Suzhou Industrial Park website.

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  • 07 of 14

    The Chinese Tea Experience: Green Tea Plantation in Suzhou, China

    Picking Tea Leaves Suzhou China Starre Vartan
    Courtesy of Starre Vartan

    Green Tea Plantation on Dongshan Island in Suzhou

    If you want to really understand China, a tea immersion is essential. Suzhou's Dongshan Island is an introduction to China's tea-steeped soul. Dongshan Island's beautiful, tea-growing countryside exemplifies a different side of Chinese life, but you’re still in Suzhou. You can hike up the hills for beautiful views of the island, the city, and Jinji Lake in the distance

    On your tea experience on Dongshan Island, You'll pick tea yourself and learn how tea is harvested (which leaves, and why). You'll watch freshly picked tea get tossed by hand in a large outdoor kettle. Then toasted at 120º for 45 minutes. Then, you'll see how the toasted tea leaves are hand-rolled.

    A classic tea experience is the culmination of the Dongshan Island tea experience. You'll savor the freshly toasted and steeped tea. Along with traditional tea accompaniments like berries, miniature bananas, and tiny dumplings.

    The whole Dongshan Island program, from picking to drinking, costs around $30 U.S. Book tours through your hotel concierge. You can stay overnight amongst tea plants and birdsong at the Rain Flower Resort guest house. In spring, the Biluochun Tea Culture Festival presents folk-art performances and local treats; the date is based on the tea harvest.

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  • 08 of 14

    Suzhou Museum in Suzhou, China

    Suzhou Museum China
    ©Suzhou Tourism

    Suzhou Museum: New Space, Very Old Stuff

    The modern Suzhou Museum tempts with a dazzling array of artifacts from Suzhou’s millennia of settlement. Don't miss it. Built in 2006, the museum was designed by U.S.-based, Japan-born architect I.M. Pei. Its black-trimmed white exterior is an ultra-modern interpretation of traditional Suzhou houses.

    The museum owns more than 15,000 objects. All aspects of Suzhou culture are represented here. You'll see everything from truly ancient unearthed relics to classic Chinese arts (paintings, calligraphy, porcelain, carved gems). You can also re-create of ancient Chinese homes

    The best advice is to take Suzhou Museum a little at a time. If you set out to see everything at Suzhou Museum, you'll soon feel overwhelmed. Don’t try to see everything, but pick your favorite subjects.

    Or just wander; you’re sure to find something that captures your attention. Most of the signage is in English. Fyi: "Dear visitors, the selfie stick is not allowed to use in the museum galleries for the safety of the cultural relics and the good order of the visiting." Admission is free, so you can return another day to see what you missed. See incredible photos of Suzhou Museum.

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  • 09 of 14

    Silk Museum in Suzhou, China

    Suzhou China Silk Museum Sorting Cocoons
    ©Suzhou Tourism

    The Silk Museum Celebrates an Ancient Art

    Silk has a long history in Suzhou. How far back? Silk production began around 2800 years ago. The Silk Museum is an inside glimpse at the strange, fascinating process of silk-making.

    It's true: silk is spun by worms.vThe museum's walk-through of the silk life-cycle is strangely compelling: from worm to luxury fabric. You'll watch silkworms eat mulberry leaves And spin their cocoons...of silk. Then you'll see how the silk cocoons are processed. Human hands and machines wash the cocoons and extract the silk threads.

    There are two types of silk cocoon: one for making bedding and one for fabric. Bedding is made by hand by women who are expert "silk-stretchers." Fabric is woven by giant machines using thread just pulled from silkworm cocoons

    Love silk...anything? An extensive selection of bedding, clothing, and gifts is sold in the museum. Prices are competitive with anywhere in Suzhou, and the proceeds help support the museum.

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  • 10 of 14

    Eating Local in Suzhou, China

    Suzhou Chinese Restaurant Meal
    ©ZiCheng Xu/Wikimedia Commons

    Dining in Suzhou: A Feast of Local Food

    There’s plenty to eat in Suzhou, and just about everything you eat will be local. Eateries range from street vendors to side-street storefront restaurants to big, noisy family places to banquet restaurants in the hotels. You can be adventurous, or stick to what you already like.

    Many meats and meat cuts will be unknown to Westerners, even adventurous palates. Every part of the animal is eaten. A good rule of thumb: if it sounds weird, it will be, so just don't order it. Many Suzhou visitors who are meat-eaters at home find they're happier here focusing on fish, veggies, noodles, and tofu. And it's fun to try various dumplings and noodles at cafes and street vendors. Green cakes with sweet red bean filling (naturally sweetened with hawthorne berries) are a Suzhou specialty you'll find everywhere.Some street vendors specialize in sweets: candy, cakes, pastries.

    What is Suzhou cuisine like? It's milder, softer, and sweeter than Shanghai dishes, even though the cities are neighbors. Most dishes are mainly protein (meat or seafood/fish) or vegetables, with a minimum of rice or noodles. Plain white rice isn’t generally served unless you request it; rice dishes are usually mixed with pork and vegetables, or just veggies, especially mushrooms. (See some great Chinese vegetarian and vegan recipes.)

    Noodles will be made of wheat, not rice, cooked in a variety of ways. Duck and quail eggs are just as commonly served as chicken, and often served whole in soups (yes, a whole egg in soup).

    A banquet dinner is a highlight of a Suzhou visit. The meal will be multi-course, with a wide range of dishes. Everyone shares. You’ll probably start the meal with congee (a mild rice soup or porridge) and hot green tea. Then small, freshwater shrimp or other lake-procured shellfish, simply prepared. Soft tofu in a rich, salty chicken broth might come next. One meal highlight could be the popular "Mandarin fish," a fresh local fish, cut artistically, tempura-fried, and doused with a delicate, sweet dressing. Another crowd-pleaser: slow-roasted "cherry pork" cut into in chunks and served with a sweet red sauce. Dessert will be seasonal fruit.

    It’s very easy to eat a full, healthy meal in Suzhou if you're a vegetarian or vegan. Many dishes are already animal-free, and restaurants have no problem with the request. Super-fresh greens -- broccolini, bok choy, scallions, leeks -- are cooked gently, often just with some spices, garlic, and a bit of oil to preserve flavor. Mushrooms, varying with the season, often get their own very tasty preparations. In spring, try watercress, a tangy, leafy, emerald-hued green.

    Suzhou restaurants don't always have Western silverware is always available. If you can’t use chopsticks, hostesses will be happy to help you learn once and for all. Unless you're dining solo, food is served family-style. Tipping is not part of the culture in China. Hungry now: One good site: Food in Suzhou.

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  • 11 of 14

    Song He Lou Restaurant in Suzhou, China

    Suzhou China Restaurant Song He Lou
    ©Suzhou Tourism

    Song He Lou Restaurant: A Deserving Legend in Suzhou

    Song He Lou is one of Suzhou's most famous restaurants, renowned for its food and history. It was established as a noodle shop during the Qing dynasty, over 200 years ago. It's in the Old Town on Shantung Street, adjacent to a picturesque canal. It has the feel of a historic café, with gracious atmosphere.

    Whether you dine at Song He Lou on your first or last dinner in Suzhou, you'll find its fare memorably elegant. Dishes are particularly well-prepared, with mastery over subtle flavors. Like most Suzhou cooks, Song He Lou's chefs rely heavily on what’s in season. So dishes vary weekly, with daily specials.

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  • 12 of 14

    Suzhou City Gate and Pan Garden Park

    Panmen City Gate Suzhou China
    ©Suzhou Tourism

    Pan Garden behind Panmen Gate: Suzhou's Park and Backyard

    This beloved, well-used park is set literally in Pan Pacific Hotel’s backyard, It's a large, traditional garden with buildings, pagodas, many small ponds and waterfalls, and thickets of trees, shrubs, and flowers.

    Pan Garden is a panorama of daily Suzhou life. In this thriving public space, you'll watch local residents, mainly older, practicing Tai Chi in the mornings. And singing en masse any hour. During the Spring Bell Festival, thousands of tiny glass and metal bells ring throughout the park. Other seasons bring other attractions; there’s always something going on here.

    You can do a lot in Pan Garden. One fun thing: bang a giant gong for good luck (with a small donation). Then head for the man-made caves. which offer unique framed views of the garden.

    Pan City Gate: A Very Old Suzhou Fortification

    Bordering Pan Garden is the original City (Pan) Gate, with fortress wall and moat. They're about 2,500 years old. You can still walk on top of the gate and wall and catch great views of the city. And of the Grand Canal below. The garden and gate charge a minor entrance fee, but Pan Pacific Hotel guests get free entry to both.

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  • 13 of 14

    Pan Pacific Hotel in Suzhou, China

    Pan Pacific Hotel Suzhou China Garden Restaurant
    ©Pan Pacific Hotels

    Pan Pacific Suzhou Hotel: Traditional Charm and a Modern Attitude

    Pan Pacific Suzhou Hotel is special. I recommend staying here. It's set in the traditional part of Suzhou, where you'll want to be. Though it's a property of a larger hotel brand across Asia, With attentive, English-competent staffers, Pan Pacific feels like a one-of-a-kind boutique hotel

    The beauty of the Pan Pacific Hotel is that it celebrates being here in Suzhou. The hotel's design echoes its surroundings, from its impressive gate-like entrance to its soaring pagoda-style lobby, to the Suzhou views from guest rooms. Rooms are comfortable, with Chinese flair.

    Dining at the hotel is varied and international. Hai Tien Lo restaurant serves excellent local Suzhou cuisine, with Cantonese and Western dishes too; see the menu. Avanti Italian Kitchen has a lovely dining room overlooking the hotel’s peaceful gardens and fountains. The Garden Brasserie (shown), also garden-view, offers a pan-Asian (and Anglo) breakfast buffet daily; you can top your fried eggs with seaweed or Chinese vegetables and enjoy pastries and good coffee or green tea., The Garden Lounge offers well-mixed cocktails in the evening

    Guests enjoy indoor and outdoor pools and huge outdoor pool (unheated). A sizable (heated) indoor pool has a refreshing waterfall. Two hot tubs and a steam room in the pool area provide relaxation pre- or post-laps. The gym is big and well-equipped, with cardio machines, weights, other fitness gear. The hotel's St. Gregory Spa offers a mix of massages and facial treatments. FIbd out more from the Pan Pacific Suzhou Hotel website.

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  • 14 of 14

    Smart Way to Get to Suzhou: EVA Air’s Elite (Premium Economy) Class

    EVA Air Elite Class Premium Economy Seats
    ©EVA Air

    Treat Yourself Well: EVA Air’s Elite (Premium Economy) Class

    The affordable luxury way to travel to China on a long-haul flight: via this Taiwanese airline’s Premium Economy class, which they call Elite. EVA Air's Elite cabin class, as well as its seat comfort, is in-between economy and business class, with a corresponding price. And you'll get bonus miles on EVA Air's Star Alliance partners, including United and Air Canada.

    If you're connecting in Taipei, Taoyuan International Airport has four EVA Air lounges. Some fare classes of Elite tickets have lounge privileges at EVA Air lounges, and possibly for Star Alliance lounges as well.

    It's a good idea to find out in advance, by calling EVA Air, if your ticket is lounge-worthy, I hope so, because lounges are oases of comfort for long-haul passengers. They offer numerous areas for relaxing, working, or snacking. Yes, you can get free cocktails, and the wifi is fast and free. I particularly loved the private shower cabins in the lounge. Find out more on  EVA Air’s US website Is it a good deal? Read more about premium economy seating and service.