Visitor's Guide to the Famed Garden City of Suzhou

Garden view of the I.M.Pei-designed Suzhou Museum
Kerun Ip

Suzhou is famous throughout China for its classical gardens. In fact, a famous Mandarin quote goes 上有天堂,下有苏杭 or shang you tiantang, xia you suhang, which means "in heaven there is paradise, on earth there is Su[zhou] and Hang[zhou].

Suzhou residents were historically very wealthy because of the thriving silk industry in the region and many of these rich families had enormous compounds that included fantastic classical gardens. Many have been preserved and are now open to the public. In fact, nine of the gardens are part of the UNESCO World Heritage Cultural Site list.

What to Do

Obviously, visitors go to Suzhou to see the gardens, but there is quite a lot to do and perhaps after you've seen two or three gardens, you'll want to experience something else. There are a lot of choices and most of them are very cultural so, especially if you're coming from Shanghai where it feels Chinese culture has become victim to development, Suzhou offers a nice contrast. If you can spare two days with an overnight, then of course you'll be able to enjoy a more leisurely visit. However, most visitors just go for the day from Shanghai.​

  • The Suzhou Museum: One of the best museums in China and architecturally stunning, this museum was designed by Suzhou native, I.M.Pei. Visit this museum for its small but interesting collection of Chinese cultural artifacts.
  • Temples: One of the most picturesque temples is Tiger Hill, which is especially beautiful in the late fall when the gingko trees are bright yellow.

Location and Getting There

Suzhou is located on the Yangtze River Delta in Jiangsu Province. Shanghai lies just 1.5 hours (by car) to the east, Zhejiang Province is to the south and Taihu Lake is on Suzhou's west side.

Most visitors go to Suzhou from Shanghai for the day. There are a number of ways to do this.

  • Private car/taxi/tourist bus: Suzhou is just 1.5 hours away from Shanghai by expressway. Note: heavy traffic is often a problem so the train might be a more comfortable option.
  • Train: There is a large number of trains traveling between Shanghai and Suzhou. The trip takes only 45 minutes.
  • Boat: It is possible to go between Hangzhou and Suzhou on the Grand Canal.

Getting Around

Aside from the usual buses and taxis, there are a number of pedicabs operating in Suzhou as well as the surrounding water towns. It's a great way to see the city from the level of a pedestrian, without the sore feet. Be sure to negotiate your fare before you get in and stick to your guns as they've been known to charge more once you arrive. Best to have the exact fare ready to hand him when you get off the cab.