Venice of the East
At little over 100 km from Shanghai to the west is this “beautiful” canal-city of Suzhou. A glimpse of very traditional Chinese architecture, gardens, temples and all criss-crossed by many bridges over the countless canals. A must visit should you have enough time in Shanghai. It will truly make your trip to China an excellent addition merely to be able to really appreciate and feel the real ancient Chinese life. You might wonder why the quotations on the word beautiful, but will explain later below.
And at only 25 minutes by super frequent high speed trains from Shanghai, and only around £5 per way there is no excuse nor hassle why not to come and visit. Perhaps the only constrain will be having the time for it. Thankfully for us we planned 3 full days in Shanghai for which we could allow one of them for Suzhou since in 2 days you can more or less visit pretty much every sight in Shanghai. Still for you to know, 1 day in Suzhou is not enough to see everything. At least 2 would make things better.
Shockingly the city is rapidly growing and will soon have 10 million inhabitants! That’s just crazy growth and here comes the quotation on beautiful mentioned before. Sadly most of the old city centre is now gone for horrible constructions, meaning what is basically left are all the gardens, temples and monuments scattered around them, many of them listed on the UNESCO World Heritage Site. A sad truth of what China is really doing with its development.
Now, before you plan something, and more important, before you even get a train ticket at the station, be sure to have written in Chinese the name of the train station you intend to go in Suzhou. We were sold tickets with an arrival station different to the departure one only to find out that Suzhou Bei is the North Station and located 20km from the city itself! While Suzhou Station is in the city centre.
Secondly, forget the maps you can find over internet and the distances between the sights. What seemed to be next door it’s under no exception far away. This is crucial in order to save you time and see the most you can, therefore renting a van/car with driver was the best decision we could have done. it saved us from exhaustion and allowed us to see double than if we would have walked. Still, even with a van, it was impossible for us to see all the sites I describe below in the what to see and do section.
For more information about Suzhou check Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. China’s currency is the Renminbi (¥, CNY). Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Suzhou
In order from the north where Suzhou Train Station is and trying to make the most optimal circuit for visiting one place after another, you can follow the route I describe below. Of course the list is “optimal for a one day visit”, meaning there are many more gardens and temples in the city which you can plan and visit if you are staying longer. Those below are the most important:
1-North Temple Pagoda (Beisi Ta) Is perhaps the most famous and symbol of the city. Not far from the train station will be the first temple and garden you will come across on the northern side of the city. ¥25.
2-Humble Administrator’s Garden (Zhuo Zheng Yuan 拙政园) Located by the north east corner of the old city, two blocks away from the Beisi Ta Pagoda. Beautiful traditional gardens set along canals with a big collection of bonsai trees. Open from 7:30AM to 5:30PM, ¥70.
3-Lion Forest Garden (Shi Zi Lin 狮子林) Located just across the road south of the Humble Administrators Garden on Lindun Road. Originally forming part of a Buddhist monastery, now one of the four great gardens of Suzhou. Open from 7:30AM to 5:30PM, ¥30.
4-Twin Pagodas (Shuang Ta 双塔) Continuing down Lindun Road straight Built during the Northern Song Dynasty is what remains from the Arhat Temple from the same era. The gardens around are nice with some bonsai in display. Open from 8AM to 5PM, ¥8.
5-Garden of the Master of the Nets (Wangshi Yuan 网师园) Located to the south of the old town. Although small at first look, it is one of the most perfect in the city, with origins back to 1140 and re-erected in 1770 by the bureaucrat Song Zongyuan. Open from 7:30AM to 5PM, ¥30.
6-Surging Wave Pavilion (Canglang Ting 沧浪亭) Located to the west of Wangshi Yuan and near the Confucius Temple. One of the oldest in the city, with beautiful Chinese pavilions offering great views to the gardens. Open from 7:30AM to 17:30PM, ¥20.
7-Confucian Temple (孔庙) Located literally across the road from Canglang Ting, is a Confucian temple that traces its origins to the Northern Song Dynasty (1035 AC). Free to visit.
8-Pan Men Area Located on the south west edge of the old city. Was a fortified gate that controlled access to the city both by land and water. Also in the area are the Wu Men Bridge, and in the large gardens various pavilions as the Hall of Attractive Scenery, Hall of Four Auspicious Merits and the Ruiguang Pagoda, 43 meters and 7 storeys tall from where you can get spectacular views. Open from 7.30AM to 17.00PM.
9-Shantang Street Leaving this as last after visiting all those places and while already heading north towards the train station, the best you could do (and must do before leaving the city) is walking or taking a boat along the canals and admire this beautiful and laid back part of the city from the water. You will be amazed of how great this is. Shantang Street is the most iconic in the city with a history of over 1100 year, filled with hundreds of historical buildings aligning the canal.
Reaching the city from Shanghai by train is perhaps the best option every tourist should consider. Although you can come by bus, do not really loose your precious time. It will take you at least 1.5 hours against merely 25 minutes by inexpensive and super frequent high speed trains. Just show yourself at Shanghai Hongqiao Station on metro lines 2 and 10, where you can buy a ticket for any G train for around ¥43. Unfortunately as a foreign you cannot buy tickets in advance and you must do it at the counter. The arrival station at Suzhou is Suzhou Station (苏州火车站, Sūzhōu huǒchē zhàn). Again, please be careful they don’t sell you a ticket to Suzhou Bei which means North Station.
Within the city there are 2 metro lines crossing from north to south (connecting the train station) and east to west. Not the most convenient from a tourist point of view for the limited amount of lines and stations, but good enough on the north south line as this is where you can quickly move crossing the whole of the old town. Further metro lines are right now (August 2014) under construction and will be ready in few years.
As we came on a day trip from Shanghai, there is nothing I could recommend in here. But from the look of it, and the large size of the city nowadays; remember the old town is entirely surrounded by a completely new and ever expanding city, the choice of hotels is big and probably you will get much lower fares than in Shanghai. In any case, and unless you are on a tour and heading somewhere else than Shanghai afterwards, it would be advisable to have your base and hotel in Shanghai, same way as we did. You can visit Shanghai guide here.