Last updated: 10:30 PM ET, Fri June 12 2015

The Venice of China

Suzhou's historic waterways and luxury hotels blend old and new

Vacation Agent | Destination & Tourism | Greg Shillinglaw

The Venice of China

PHOTO: Tongli, one of six ancient water towns, features boat rides through local waterways. (All photos courtesy of Travel Suzhou)

The nickname doesn’t really do this city justice since it tells only part of the story. Coined the “Venice of China,” Suzhou has more than its fair share of narrow streets and waterways, dotted with gondola-like boats navigating centuries-old stone bridges.

You’ll also find shops cooking up local seafood favorites, including plates of squirrel-shaped Mandarin Fish — a fried, orange-colored dish with a sweet-and-sour sauce. Located in the southeastern part of the country near Shanghai, Suzhou’s claim to fame is certainly rooted in the waterways that traverse its streets.

Just a short drive away, however, there’s a much different kind of city emerging in Suzhou Industrial Park. Glass skyscrapers dominate the skyline as five-star luxury hotels set up shop. European-style restaurants tempt locals and tourists, as do rides on one of the largest Ferris wheels in the world. Indeed, part of the appeal of Suzhou is that it blends different elements of China, both old and new.

Setting the Stage: At the heart of Suzhou (pronounced Sue-Joe) is the old town district, the layout of which has remained untouched for more than 2,500 years. Here visitors can enjoy pagodas, temples, waterways and teahouses in one of the oldest cities in the Yangtze Basin.

Situated about 70 miles west of Shanghai in Jiangsu Province, Suzhou has been an important trade market for centuries, boosted in large part by the silk industry. The city is also known for its gardens, many of which are designated as UNESCO World Heritages Sites. There’s also a significant portion of the Grand Canal to explore, the longest manmade waterway in the world.

Suzhou is accessible via nonstop flights from North America to Shanghai airports that offer access to Suzhou. Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport has bullet train service to the city, about a 50-mile, 30-minute trip; Pudong International Airport, an hour-and-a-half by car (not including the traffic); and Sunan Shuofang International Airport, a 30-minute trip.

What’s Hot: The summer and fall months are prime times to visit the city’s gardens, with lotus flowers and lilies coming into bloom. The Humble Administrator’s Garden (No. 178, Northeast Street) is the largest classical garden in the city, and one of Suzhou’s UNESCO sites. Considered by many to be the city’s best garden, it covers some 550,000 square feet, dating back to the Ming dynasty. The garden is popular among locals and tourists, and weekday afternoons are typically the best time to visit to avoid large crowds.

Altogether, 48 different buildings, 40 monuments and numerous winding streams are scattered throughout three sections: eastern, central and western. The central part of the garden, considered the “essential area,” is covered by ponds, flowers, pavilions and courtyards. Tickets cost about $11 to $14 depending on the season. There’s also an option for groups to enjoy a traditional tea tasting overlooking the garden with help from a “tea artist,” who makes different brews, including a certain green tea found only in Suzhou.

The Lingering Garden is also popular. It’s about half the size of Humble Administrator’s Garden, making for a more manageable visit that can either take an afternoon or morning. Lingering Garden (No. 338, Liuyuan Road,) is famous for its maze of halls and buildings, giving visitors different perspectives from which to take in flowers and animal-shaped rock formations found throughout the garden. Admission is about $8, and guests can pay an additional fee for a floral arrangement class.

Must See: From a distance, you can hardly tell anything is astray, but look closely and the Tiger Hill Pagoda tells a different story: the 150-foot structure is leaning. A foundation problem is to blame at the “Leaning Tower of China,” which is also the subject of several local legends.

PHOTO: The Tiger Hill Pagoda is one of the must-see attractions in Suzhou.

The name is said to have originated when a king buried his father there. Three days later, a white tiger arrived and crouched at the top of the hill as if he was guarding the tomb. Nowadays visitors can make the trek to the top while taking in a Bonsai garden, which features hundreds of small trees showcasing a shaping technique involving wire. The cost to visit Tiger Hill (No. 8, Huqiu Hill), in northwest Suzhou, ranges from $10 to $12, depending on the season. Enjoying tea at the top of the hill is a recommended activity.

Just outside the city, visitors can check out Tongli (No. 1, South Zhongshan Road, Tongli Town), one of six famous ancient water towns. Roughly 11 miles from Suzhou, the town is known for its brooks and small foot-bridges, which are regarded as sacred by locals. There are also hundreds of gardens, temples, mansions and former homes of dignitaries built during the Ming and Qing dynasties.

Visitors can take a daytrip on a bus to town and then walk around the neighborhood, where shops sell souvenirs and desserts, and streets are lined with lanterns. While in town, they can visit the Wormwood Institute, which offers a traditional Chinese medicine featuring the burning of wood inches from the skin. There’s no standard charge for the treatment and the cost depends on the condition of each patient.

Back in the city, the No. 1 Silk Factory offers an inside look at the history of the silk-making process, a craft that dates back millennia. Free of charge, the factory shows visitors how silk is harvested, from worms to cocoons. The best time to check out the process is during the summer months through October. Then you might actually see some real silk worms. But if they’re not in season, visitors can still watch workers use silk to make quilts and clothes. The tour concludes near a shop selling scarves, pillows, duvets and other reasonably priced souvenirs.

For a taste of the new China, head over to Suzhou Industrial Park. At its core is Jinji Lake, which is surrounded by hundreds of high-rises and a massive Ferris wheel that seats up to 360 riders. While the roughly 30-minute ride isn’t particularly exciting and the amusement park doesn’t have anything that’s remarkable, the wheel does give visitors a sense of Suzhou’s size and growth. Nearby there’s also a cultural convention and exhibition center, luxury shopping and several five-star hotels.

Where to Stay: From budget to luxury, there are a variety of hotels to choose from in Suzhou. With 100 properties scattered throughout the city, visitors can pick from a combination of local and international brands, such as Crowne Plaza, Hyatt, Marriott, Shangri-La and InterContinental. New properties are also opening up in the next four years, including W Suzhou, the Westin Suzhou Xiangcheng and Fairmont Suzhou.

Pan Pacific Suzhou is noteworthy because it offers special access to a city gate and pagoda, buildings that guests see when they wake up every morning as locals do Tai Chi. The hotel features classic local architecture, high-speed Internet access (though some American websites are blocked) and close to 500 rooms and suites. Basic rooms start at roughly $80 per night.

Visitors looking for a more boutique experience can sample the Tonino Lamborghini Boutique Hotel Suzhou overlooking Jinji Lake in the more modern part of town. The hotel features Chinese gardens along with some quirks, including Beatles lyrics inscribed on the floor. There’s also Danny’s Kitchen, which serves up French and Italian Mediterranean cuisine, providing a nice break from local fare. Rooms start at around $200 per night.

Where to Dine: Those looking for a real taste of Suzhou cuisine should head to the historical district and Shantang Street. There they’ll find Song He Lou, where diners munch on tiny fresh water shrimp, tofu with crabmeat, Chinese-style pickles and green rice cakes filled with red bean paste for dessert.

The restaurant, which overlooks a bridge and waterway, is an ideal stopping point for travelers looking to explore the neighborhood or try some Mandarin fish. For lunch, you can expect to spend around $20 to $25 per person. Afterward, visitors can stop at the Qian Sheng Yuan candy shop, which sells different preserved plums and pastries, and then take a ride on a local version of a gondola.

Getting Around: Suzhou has two metro lines in service along with another two under construction. One runs east-west, the other north-south. Ticket prices are less than $1 but can vary depending on distance. Taxis are available, and start at about $1.50 using metered rates. A convenient bus system costs about the same as the subway. Bicycling is also a popular way of getting around, with rentals costing about $4 per day.

What Tours to Book: Tour operators that offer programs to Suzhou include Alexander and Roberts, Asian Vistas (formerly Orient Flexi-Pax Tours), China Advocates, and Wild China.

For more information on Suzhou, call 646-465-9770 or visit

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Vacation Agent Magazine

A version of this article appears in print in the June 2015 issue of Vacation Agent Magazine.