A Quick Guide to Suzhou, the “Venice of the East”

A peaceful moment in Tongli, on the outskirts of Suzhou

Like perhaps nowhere else on Earth, modern China is dense with the sort of experiences that lead to great travel revelations. Western sensibilities are regularly chewed up and spit out in the “Middle Country” (Simplified Chinese:中国), and for true world-beating travelers, that is something to be cherished. No matter how many of its roads you’ve walked, the China you know will eventually disappear into a mist-cloaked back alley of unknown; wander after it and a new China will emerge—weirder, wilder and more illuminating than before.

In April, I in China for the second time. The China I remembered—the China of Xinjiang, the northwestern province of pristine mountains and colorful landforms cut from geometry class—was nowhere close, and so I walked out of  with no bearings to speak of. Two-hours-by-trafficked-highway later (it’s just 60 miles), I arrived in a world of lantern-lit canals, chicken feet smorgasbords and slow-burning, sweet-smelling wormwood—in Suzhou. It looked a little like this:

Stillness in Suzhou

In Suzhou, the touchstones of Xinjiang were far, but the oddities and ambitions I’d adored of modern China were all around. On Pingjiang Road and Shantang Street, those wizened and ghostly streets of 800 and 1,200 years respectively, there were woks sizzling with animal dregs, rolling carriages of crouched children and chickens, and signs hung with incongruous English translations, like “Cat Grandpa.” There were UNESCO riches (there are  in China, and parts of two in Suzhou), which sometimes welcomed more people than it is comfortable to be around. The fast-paced China of tomorrow even encroached; the world’s longest LED screen (500 meters) soars over a stretch of downtown Suzhou.

But by Chinese standards, the soul of this city was different. Five days in Suzhou revealed a haven for the restful in a country in inexhaustible pursuit of all things bigger, faster and more. On numerous occasions, people I met in Suzhou recalled being lulled by its soothing energy into relocation from the likes of Shanghai. Unexpectedly, and wonderfully for western guests on whirlwind Chinese adventures, it is a place to slow down.

Here’s how to do it:

Water in Suzhou

Suzhou basics
It’s proximate to Shanghai, but there’s more. Like the stories of most cities in China, Suzhou’s is long and colorful. Skipping forward to 2016 for a moment, here are the vitals:

In Tongli water town

The canals and water towns
The “Venice of…” designation has been wrapped rather loosely around far too many destinations. I’ve heard Bruges as the “Venice of Northern Europe,” and Fort Lauderdale as the “Venice of America”—and those are two of the more reasonable examples. Suzhou, you will find with any research, is deserving. The city was christened the “Venice of [the East]” by none other than Marco Polo, a man familiar with the one and true Venice at its peak.

The parallels Polo saw are still appropriate in 2016. The now-famed latticework of canals and stone bridges in Suzhou is enchanting in a way more commonly associated with Europe than with China. Functioning waterways, just a few boats wide, provide the blueprint for the city. Beside them are cobbled pedestrian streets worn tired by centuries of foot traffic.

The city’s special relationship with water has also—again in the Venice mode—brought it moderate fame and fortune. Suzhou has witnessed history since at least 514 BC (!), when lakes and waterways pumped life into a new capital known as Helü City. Over the hundreds of years that followed, the construction of the Grand Canal of China (a  running a Great Wall-like 1,200 miles) linked the city that became Suzhou by water with other great swellings of civilization, and with great pools of tradable goods, it came to flourish; for a spell, Suzhou was the largest non-capital city in the world and the center of the global silk trade.

On the Grand Canal: It’s a , and it runs a Great Wall-like 1,200 miles.

A slow cruise in Tongli

Today, Suzhou’s waterscapes reflect literally thousands of years of life and lamentation. Settlement beside these waterways is in its third millennium, a testament to the eternal respect we reserve for water in large quantities and that locals reserve for Suzhou. A boat tour in Tongli, on the outskirts of the city, was calming. So was the trip by ferry to Tiger Hill, home to a sprawling bonsai garden and the Pisa-esque (leaning 4º) Yunyan Pagoda. I took in a sunset (and a Snow beer, the ) at the bow of an aging stone bridge by Pingjiang Street and watched my concept of time fade into the grey-orange sky. Such moments of restoration are not always associated with modern China. Then again, most of China doesn’t look like this:

A photo posted by Ian Livingston (@iantlivingston) on

Cruise one of the 20- canals splitting the Weichang River. Walk the shops and stalls of chicken feet beside them. Slow things down, at sunset, for example, at the water’s edge. And don’t miss the “water towns”:

Humble Administrator’s Garden

The gardens 
Suzhou’s gardens are regarded as the mother gardens of China, a country in which man has been exploring the nature of life and his place in it through gardens for thousand of years. The city’s tradition of gardens, which originally served as displays of private wealth, dates back to the 6th century BC.

To that point: The , for instance, a jewel in any Beijing itinerary, draws heavily from the Suzhou school.

That’s a significant legacy, and UNESCO has noticed: The  UNESCO World Heritage Site includes nine gardens among the more than 60 preserved by the municipal government. They are:

If you’re a first-timer, you may not be able to extract much from these names, and that’s okay. The feelings you feel in these gardens—provided you visit alongside a reasonable number of people—are stuffed, by intent, with the stuff of life. Four core elements bind all of the many iterations together—rocks, flowers, water, and pavilions—and, as I heard it, rocks represent the male essence and water stands as its female counterpart. Pavilions are staged with latticed windows for curated views, and stone bridges zigzag across water (traditionally, because spirits can’t navigate such patterns).

In Lingering Garden

I also recall that Humble Administrator’s Garden (the most famous) dates back to 1509, that Lingering Garden contains more than 2,500 pieces of jade—and that’s about it. But again, on a 2016 visit, the takeaway is in the physical experience of wandering these beautiful spaces. The sophistication that defines the best of Suzhou’s gardens invokes an earthly precision that transcends cultural and historical context. It does not matter how far you are from understanding why it would be called Net Master’s Garden; in walking its zigzagged paths, you will feel, in some capacity, that you belong to the Earth, and that that is a nice thing. In its gardens most of all, Suzhou flaunts its most superlative achievement: a rare proficiency in massaging the world around us into balance, if just for a moment. Check them out.

More on Suzhou’s gardens from people who know better:

For breakfast!

The food
You must know—or at least suspect—by this time in your life that dining in China is a far cry from the American takeout version. Anywhere in China, you’re likely to discover previously unknown noodle/poultry/fish dishes, and often—but not always—they hit your palate just right. Of course, there is regional variation in a country so large. Sauces and spiciness, most notably, are tweaked to meet the tastes of provinces, cities and even neighborhoods. In Suzhou, the taste is for sweeter flavors.

Duck buns with red bean inside (for under $1), found on Pingjiang Road

Eat always, but also, eat when you travel to Suzhou. Among the culinary highlights:

“Flying squirrel fish”

Chicken feet

For more: .

In the courtyard of the Suzhou Museum, another moment of reflection

Don’t miss
It’s a city of almost six million that hopes you’ll slow down. Meander slowly and float around by boat—and consider:

Yunyan Pagoda on Tiger Hill

Eel-release ceremony featuring students of the Wormwood Institute

Bridge near Pingjiang Road

Do miss
“Stinky tofu.” It is abundant in Suzhou, and its aroma—which plumes in the narrow Suzhou streets—is unpleasant to say the least.

It is a smell that I am happy to miss back home in New York. It is intoxicating in the way that “intoxicating” is used by pathologists, which is to mean “.” And why wouldn’t it poison us? Stinky tofu is regular, soy-based tofu bathed in brine to fermentation (in mass-produced stinky tofu, the fermentation is sometimes imitated). Each brine is unique to its maker, but some of the finest batches of stinky tofu sit for months in fermenting milk twisted with notes of vegetables, meat, shellfish, and on. Legend holds that Chinese affinity for the snack dates back to the  (1644-1912), but times do not always change: In 2016, the people of China, Taiwan and Hong Kong (at least) are still buying, selling and defending stinky tofu. Confronted with this reality in Suzhou, I did none of the three.

I’ve been told that the taste justifies the rest. I cannot say for sure, but I did leave Suzhou with a fondness for the city and its kooky cocktail of affronting experiences. Stinky tofu deserves some credit for that.

Boating to Tiger Hill

Getting around
The most wonderful, water-lined pockets of greater Suzhou (like Tongli) are best linked by wheels, as the city is simply too big to take by foot (though there are two metro lines). Fortunately, taxis in the city are remarkably cheap. One night, my guide Linda took a cab three miles for just seven RNB (around $1). Some destinations, like Tiger Hill, can also be reached by water. .

Note: Saturday traffic (in particular) can be “nightmarish,” per a resident.

Looking in from a Suzhou sidestreet

Where to stay
Suzhou is a huge city, full of hotels that want your RNB. Here are a few to start with:

Tip: Wi-Fi is often free in Suzhou, but don’t forget to consider a VPN for full internet access in China. I used .

The Shanghai business district, from the Bund: 25 minutes away!

Getting there from Shanghai (25 minutes by maglev)
Though it , China contains roughly the same landmass as is governed by the United States. It is of note, then, that Suzhou can be reached so quickly and affordably from Shanghai, whose airport . In just a day—if that’s all you have—you can flee Shanghai’s “Chinese New York” to unwind in a gondola on a canal lined with Buddhist temples and 1,000-year-old streets. Fully commit to the slowdown, and you might consider staying for more than a day—and maybe a Suzhou wormwood treatment to pull out any deeper-seeded stress.

Extra Shanghai fact: Shanghai’s iconic Bund—the promenade from which the photo above was taken—gets its name from the Persian word band, referring to its position by the water.

There are three main train stations in Shanghai that connect to Suzhou by  (magnetic levitation) train, which on paper peaks at 430 kph (267 mph). They are Shanghai Railway Station (on Metro lines 1, 3 & 4), Shangwai West Railway Station (on Metro line 11) and Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station (on Metro lines 2 & 10). In Suzhou, there are four stations that receive and return trains back to Shanghai. They are Suzhou North Railway Station (on subway line 2), Suzhou Railway Station (on subway lines 2 & 4), China–Singapore Suzhou Industrial Park Railway Station, and Suzhou New District Railway Station (on subway line 3).

Shanghai tip: Consider asking your hotel concierge (in Shanghai or Suzhou), travel agent or tour operator to pick up your train ticket. That way, you bypass the considerable language barrier and ensure you get yourself to where you mean to go.

You can also take a bus (much slower than train), arrange transport via private shuttle/with a tour operator (slower, especially with traffic), etc. For a little more help, see:

Final Shanghai tip: Absolutely eat xialongbao, Shanghai’s famous soup dumplings, at Jia Jia Yang Bao (see “The food” above).

For more information on travel to Suzhou, visit .


The comments on this page are not provided, reviewed, or otherwise approved by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

Rate this post