With a population of one million and hailed as the Venice of the East, Suzhou is famous for its canals, gardens, silk and beautiful women. As you approach through the industrial suburbs, you might begin to doubt the hype, but visit one of the enchanting traditional gardens or take a canal cruise and you’ll soon get back on track.
With entire blocks of traditional old housing lining the canals, Suzhou’s streets can take you back to another time. If you want to take the experience one step further, Tongli, Wuzhen, Xitang, Zhouzhuang and Zhujiajiao, while touristy, offer idyllic scenes free from the clamor of the city.
See also Suzhou attractions, Suzhou pictures, map of Suzhou
Supposedly founded by the mythical emperor, He Lu in 600 BC, Suzhou didn’t really begin to develop for another thousand years. The construction of the Grand Canalunder the Sui dynasty, which runs from Hangzhoustraight past the city, transformed Suzhou from a sleepy backwater into an industrial hub. With the arrival of the Tang dynasty in 618 AD came the development of the Silk Road across Central Asia, and Suzhou prospered as a result of its silk production.
The establishment of the Southern Song dynasty in 1126 brought the formation of a new capital in nearby Hangzhou. The resulting influx of academics, merchants and government officials to the new capital directed yet more wealth to Suzhou. That laid the foundations for the development of Suzhou’s Chinese gardens.
During the Ming dynasty, Suzhou continued to flourish. It became a center for the arts, especially wood-block carving and silk weaving. The already established gardens were expanded and it is estimated that, in Suzhou’s heyday, the city had as many as 200 of these exquisite retreats.
Despite the Taiping Uprising in the 1860s, which destroyed much of nearby Hangzhou, and Japanese occupation during World War II, Suzhou remained well preserved. Its 2,500-year-old city walls provided excellent protection from attacks and it wasn’t until 1949 that they were totally demolished.
Although a large amount of Suzhou’s old city still remains, it is being lost at a rapid rate. Today, some of the best examples of Ming architecture are found lining the canals, while the waterways themselves remain a
focal point for everyday life in Suzhou, despite their foul-smelling slickness.THE GRANDCANAL
The Grand Canal
Built during the shortlived Sui dynasty (581-618 AD), the Grand Canal is seldom visited, yet it rates as one of China’s greatest achievements. Like that other massive construction of old, the Great Wall, it actually came about through linking countless pre-existing shorter sections. It now stretches 1,000 miles from Hangzhou to Beijing.
The original canal only extended as far as the former capital of Luoyang in Shandong and was created to supply the north with rice or, if need be, troops.
Building the canal was no small feat and millions were forced into slave labor to work on it. The canal was extended to Beijing under the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368). It continued to be used until the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), transporting food, building materials, silk and tea, but suffered from floods and the Taiping Uprising, gradually falling into disrepair.
The advent of new modes of transport such as trains and planes hastened its decline. These days some stretches are completely silted up, but the section between Hangzhou and Suzhou is navigable and you can take an overnight boat trip between the two. Bear in mind though, that, as impressive as the canal is, it was designed with transport, rather than beauty in mind. While it certainly has a gritty charm, there are plenty of factories along the way.
Getting Here & Away
There is no airport in Suzhou, so you’ll have to fly to Shanghai’s Pudong or Hongqiao airport, from where you can take a bus (¥80 and ¥50 respectively). Buses arrive and depart from the Water Garden Hotel on Ganjiang Lu and run every 30 minutes. The buses for Pudong run to Hongqiao airport, from where you will be transferred by shuttle bus to Pudong – the trip takes a couple of hours. A taxi should cost about ¥500 for Pudong and ¥400 from Hongqiao.
Most visitors arrive in Suzhou by train. Suzhou lies on the main Shanghai-Nanjing line so there are plenty of trains and it’s easy to get a ticket, despite the hordes of visitors. However, it is still worth buying your onward ticket in advance, particularly if you have a tight timescale. The ticket office is on the eastern side of the station, as is the soft seat waiting room.
There is also a ticketing office at 8 Taijian Jie (tel. 0512-6523-3027), just off Guangqian Jie, or you can arrange your ticket through your hotel for a small fee.
The station is at the north end of Renmin Lu and is connected to the city center by a number of buses. Buses #2 and #20 run along Renmin Lu, and #2 stops on Shiquan Jie, close to the Master of the Nets Garden and a cluster of hotels.
Destinations, frequencies & durations
Beijing (1 daily, 12 hrs 40 mins); Guangzhou (1 daily, 29 hrs); Guilin (1 daily, 28 hrs); Hangzhou (2 daily, 3 hrs 40 min-4 hrs 20 mins); Shanghai (10 daily, 40-50 mins); Xi’an (1 daily, 15 hrs 45 mins).
There are two main bus stations in Suzhou, one in the north and the other in the south. Most of the buses you’ll require leave from the North Station which is just east of the train station. Minibuses from both stations head to Tongli, while Zhouzhuang is served from the South Station. The North Bus Station (tel. 0512-6753-0686) is the terminal for buses to Hangzhou (12 daily; 4 hrs) and Shanghai (every 20 mins, 1 hr 30 mins).
For the adventurous, it’s possible to take a steamboat along the Grand Canal to Hangzhou. Boats depart daily at from the passenger dock on the southern side of the moat on Renmin Lu, and you should arrive in Hangzhou at the following day. Cabins are for two (¥88-95 per person) or four people (¥30-65) and have bathrooms and airconditioning.
It’s best to get tickets in advance and they can be obtained from the ferry jetty or from the ticketing office at 1606 Renmin Lu (tel. 0512-6729-0093). Take bus #1, #101 or #102 and get off by Renmin Bridge; make sure you arrive 30 minutes before departure.
Central Suzhou is enclosed within the square of canals that make up its moat, and is further dissected by countless smaller waterways within this. The train station is on the north side of the moat at the top of Renmin Lu, with the North Bus Station to its east.
Renmin Lu is Suzhou’s main artery and runs north to south through the middle of the city, passing the commercial center at Guangqian Jie. Accommodation is available all over the city, but there are a host of good options clustered around the Master of the Nets Garden on Shiquan Jie in the south.
In the east, Pingjiang has some of the prettiest canals and an excellent collection of traditional houses. Many of the main sights are within walking distance of here.
The Grand Canal runs along Suzhou’s western flank, turning east to exit in the south east.
Suzhou’s small size makes it simple to get around and with a number of local buses, taxis and cycle-rickshaws plying the streets, you’ll always find an alternative for aching legs.
Local buses are a cheap way to get around Suzhou and cost either ¥1 (non a/c) or ¥2 (a/c). Bus #202 is a good choice and runs past the Master of the Nets Garden in the south, the Twin Pagodas in the east and up to the Humble Administrator’s Garden in the northeast. Buses #1 and #2 drive out to Tiger Hill and bus #691 will take you as far as Taihu (Lake Tai). For more comfort, there are also tourist buses (T services), which you buy a day-pass for, although the onboard guides tend to be in Chinese only.
The base rate is ¥10 for the first 3 km (1.86 miles) and ¥1.8 per kilometer (0.6 mile) thereafter. Although there are taxis everywhere in Suzhou, they often seem to be full whenever you need one! Drivers rarely speak English, so make sure you take your destination written in Chinese.
By Cycle Rickshaw
You will see a number of brightly colored cycle rickshaws weaving their way along the streets. They are a fun way to travel around the city, keeping you close to the sights, sounds and smells of Suzhou! Always fix your price before departure and haggle hard – a trip from Shiquan Jie to Guangqian Jie will take about 15 minutes and should cost ¥5 or less, although the starting price is usually ¥20.
With a number of excellent bike rides offered in Suzhou, cycling is a good choice. There are a number of shops along Shiquan Jie that rent bikes. For good quality bikes and reasonable prices, look near the Suzhou Hotel, where you should pay around ¥10 per day. You may be asked to leave a deposit, although usually your name, hotel and room number will suffice. Try Long Feng Xuan at 390 Shiquan Jie, which has a collection of well-maintained and colorful bikes.
Suzhou canal cruises.
See also Suzhou attractions, Suzhou pictures, map of Suzhou
Shanghai Travel guide homepage
Cities and regions of China homepage
China Travel Guide homepage