Sandwiched between the futuristic metropolis of Shanghai and the watery flatlands of the Yangtze Delta, Suzhou is one of China’s most underrated cities. While its brash neighbour may be doing its best to build on top of its ancient Confucian heritage, ‘smaller’ Suzhou, it still has a population that is at 6 million and rising, has done a remarkable job of maintaining its picture-perfect city centre of landscaped parks, canals and traditional silk shops. Ideal for a day trip from Shanghai (it is just forty minutes on a high-speed train) or for a longer stay, Suzhou is an opportunity to experience traditional Chinese culture at its best.
Stroll through the Humble Administrator’s Garden
One of eastern China’s most enduringly popular tourist attractions is Suzhou’s Humble Administrator’s Garden. First laid out in 1509, the gardens were developed into a collection of show-stopping water features, tranquil tea houses, gently swaying bamboo groves that look straight out of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and carp filled lotus ponds. Indeed, as Chinese gardens are not designed to look natural but to represent the Confucian principles of balance, harmony, proportion and variety, Suzhou’s Humble Administrator’s Garden gets top marks.
While little known outside China, this enchanting garden is one of the country’s most popular domestic attractions and is more often than not packed with selfie stick-wielding tourists from across the vast country. To see the gardens at their tranquil best, make sure to arrive very early (ideally before 9 am) and take a guided tour that will reveal more about the art of Chinese landscaped gardens and their enduring popularity.
Explore the atmospheric Shantang Street in the evening
While Shantang Street is charming all day round, this thousand-year-old Tang Dynasty era street becomes more atmospheric during the evening when its clusters of traditional buildings are lit up hanging lanterns that span the central canal. The street was once the home to Suzhou’s elites, due to its proximity to the nearby Tiger Hill, but nowadays it is one of the city’s liveliest neighbourhoods with numerous taverns and restaurants waiting to be explored.
For the best experience of Shantang Street make your way towards the northern end of the street, which is further away from the metro station and is far more secluded. What is more, if you are looking for Suzhou’s most romantic experience then take a cruise down the central canal in the evening.
Spot the three treasures of the Lingering Garden
Although far smaller than the more famous Humble Administrator’s Garden, Lingering Garden is equal in its exquisitely crafted Confucian beauty. The garden was laid out during the Qing Dynasty and contains three historic treasures that are must-see attractions when in Suzhou.
The first of these three treasures is the iconic Celestial Hall of Five Peaks, which was constructed from rare nanmu wood and forms the central point of the tranquil gardens. The other two treasures of the Lingering Gardens are the Fish Fossil, a piece of sculpted marble that looks like an ancient sea creature that towers over the central pavilion, and the Cloud Capped Peak, which is believed to date from the ancient Song Dynasty and is made from rocks from the nearby Taihu Lake. To make sure you do not miss these astonishing artefacts, join a guided tour of Lingering Gardens.
Get to know the artwork of Chen Yifei at the watery village of Zhouzhuang
Emanating a sense of old-world charm that can be hard to find in modern China, is the picturesque village of Zhouzhuang, which is located 30 kilometres southeast of Suzhou. With more canals than roads, the best way to explore this millennia-old village is by cruise boat. One onboard you will get a glimpse of the town’s architectural gems, including the lavish Qing era Shen House, which belonged to the Shen Clan, the Ming era Zhang House, which again belonged to the clan of the same name, and the area’s fourteen ancient bridges.
For most Chinese tourists, however, the village is famous for one man alone: the late Chen Yifei, an iconic artist whose works vividly recall traditional Chinese life. His works were known for smashing auction house records, in particular, his romantic depiction of Zhouzhuang known as Memory of Hometown that transformed the town into one of China’s most popular destinations. His home, which was a Ming-era building close to the Twin Bridges, is now a museum in his honour that gives an insight into his astonishing work.
Climb Tiger Hill and the Cloud Rock Pagoda
Suzhou’s most historic location is the forest-clad Tiger Hill, which is topped by the towering 10th century Cloud Rock Pagoda. What is more, the hill itself is entirely artificial and is, in fact, the vast burial mound of Suzhou’s 6th century BC founder, He Lu. Rumour has it that Lu was buried with a collection of thousands of swords designed to protect him in the afterlife that were guarded by white tigers.
The hill was for centuries a favoured retreat for Chinese emperors and their courts and bestowed upon the site a sense of great historical importance that is hard to shake off when exploring its iconic attractions. Today, it has scarcely changed since its days as a favoured destination for China’s elite and is one of the best ways to spend a relaxing afternoon in Suzhou.
Get lost in the Garden of the Master of the Nets
One of Suzhou’s smallest gardens is unexpectedly it is most labyrinthine. Laid out in a deliberate series of miniature courtyards with windows offering views into other areas of the immaculately landscaped gardens, it is easy to get lost in the Garden of the Master of the Nets. Constructed during the 12th century, the garden is today Suzhou’s hidden gem, as it escapes the crowds that arrive daily at both the Humble Administrator’s Garden and Lingering Garden.
If you are in Suzhou during the summer months, make sure to check out one of the nightly musical performances in the garden. These take place at 7.30 every night and are an ideal introduction to Chinese classical music.
“Over the past decade, Ross Cameron has travelled extensively across Europe, Southeast Asia, North America, North Africa, and the post-Soviet space. As someone who has areal passion for these regions of the globe, he is able to offer an expert opinion that highlights the best off the beaten track destinations.”
Image details and licenses: Shantang Street: https://flic.kr/p/n4MCz1 (Russ Bowling, CC BY 2.0), Lingering Garden: https://flic.kr/p/2cvEZC7 (Kirk K, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), Zhouzuang: https://flic.kr/p/bmN4Qn (barnyz, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), Garden of the Master of the Nets: https://flic.kr/p/foqK38 (Rita Heine, CC BY-ND 2.0)