China’s Spectacular Suzhou

Tongli Water town's River Walk, with cafes and restaurants facing one of the city's many canals. Janis Turk photos.
Tongli Water Town on the outskirts of the vibrant city of Suzhou, China, is home to a popular river walk where cafes and restaurants line the banks of attractive canals. Photography by Janis Turk.

Suzhou: An absolutely “must-see” Chinese City

By Janis Turk

Noodles for breakfast.
Noodles for breakfast.

If you’re ready to scratch China off your bucket list, but the prospect of a big Asian adventure seems a tad intimidating, then take the advice of one who has made five trips or more to different parts of China.

Keep it simple and start in Suzhou.

That’s right—you don’t need to begin in smoggy Beijing and climb the Great Wall with a million other tourists, and sure sprawling (and crowded!)

Shanghai could be your second stop, but if you want to ease into Asia and enjoy a more accessible and enchanting Chinese city, a place of gardens, pagodas, water towns and myriad other delights, Suzhou (sounds like Sue-Joe) is the place to start.

A Small City Feel

Father and son in a rickshaw in Suzhou.
Father and son in a rickshaw in Suzhou

Even though it’s a city of more than 6.5 million, with 13.7 million in its greater four-county area, it still has areas with a remarkably small-town feel, where arched stone bridges span emerald green canals edged by colorful sidewalk cafes and shade trees droop lazy branches over slender pathways.

Founded in 514 BC, Suzhou is a bustling metropolis. The Yangtze River with its Grand Canal flows through its center, and large Jinji Lake laps at its edge; those waterways, along with its countless creeks, rivers, and canals, have earned the city its nickname, “The Venice of China.”

No Sea in Sight

However, with no sea in sight and a skyline filled with gleaming skyscrapers and condominiums, it looks nothing like Venice. Still, in its neighboring Tongli Water Village, or along canals near its popular Shantang Street and Pingjiang Road, Suzhou could pass for San Antonio Texas’ romantic River Walk.

Another plus is that it is just 65 miles from Shanghai, so after you’ve had a week in the city, you may want to add on a few days in its larger neighboring city before you fly home.

But Suzhou is the destination you’ll likely enjoy most, for it is filled with lush gardens, family-friendly parks, attractive hike and bike trails, rambling rivers, and historic sites, and it draws from a rich and colorful cultural tradition of music, theater, fine food, and art.

Beautiful bridges are all over Suzhou.
Beautiful bridges are all over Suzhou’s serene canals and waterways.

Best of all, it’s a decidedly modern place with world-class hotels and a cutting-edge culinary scene.

It’s the quintessential Chinese city, is Asia at its best: a friendly, accessible city replete with rich treasures and traditions cultivated and carved out over millennia.

Think a trip to China has to be uncomfortable and overwhelming or difficult? It doesn’t have to be I assure you. Just go to Suzhou, wander along its scenic canals and colorful shopping streets, and you’re sure to feel right at home.

What to do there?

Go to the Gardens of Suzhou

Suzhou is known as much for its 50 spectacular Chinese gardens as it is for its canals, and two of its best are the Humble Administrator’s Garden and the Lingering Garden, both being UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Dating back to the early 1500s, they feature ornate buildings, temples, pavilions, and lotus-filled ponds.

Climb Tiger Hill

Boats at Tongli.
Boats at Tongli Water Town outside Suzhou.

Five miles from the city center, Tiger Hill rises 118 feet above Suzhou, with sprawling park-like areas topped by the ancient Tiger Hill Pagoda, called “The Leaning Tower of Suzhou,” (it leans about 3 degrees). At 154 feet/7 stories high, the pagoda is one of the city’s most magnificent sites.

Revisit the River Walk

11 Humble Administrators Garden Courtesy Photo
Courtesy photo, Suzhou Tourism Board.

Eleven miles outside the Suzhou stands the place that reminded me most of the San Antonio River Walk.

Tongli Water Town, surrounded by five lakes, is one of six nearby “water towns” set along picturesque canals.

With 49 stone bridges connecting lakes and rivers, it features hundreds of gardens, temples, teahouses, private homes, shops, restaurants, and cafes along the canals, making it a prime spot to spend an afternoon. Colorful wooden boats fill the waters.

Called a “museum of ancient architectures,” Tongli’s Chinese houses and temples dating from the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368-1911). One such house with wooden windows and a serene courtyard, which you can visit, is home to the Moxibustion Institute of Qing Shan Tang.

Moxibustion is a painless therapeutic Chinese folk medicine technique you should arrange to try while there.

Shop along Shantang Street and Pingjiang Road

Silk worms at a silk factory in Suzhou.
Silkworms at No. 1 Silk Factory in Suzhou.

Other historic areas not to be missed are Shantang Street and Pingjiang Road, ancient flagstone pedestrian thoroughfares flanked by ancient Chinese houses, temples, shops, restaurants, and cafes.

These are part of the “old town.” Take a rickshaw ride and stop at food stalls and markets, or browse the shops here.

Be sure to enjoy a night of traditional Chinese Kun Opera ballads at a local tea house or visit the Suzhou Opera Museum. And for an unforgettable meal, dine along Shantang St. at Songhelou restaurant, and a traditional Suzhou specialty, Mandarin SquirrelFish, a sweet-and-sour seafood delight.

Silk cocoons.
Silk cocoons at No. 1 Silk Factory, Suzhou.

Marvel at the Making

Don’t miss the fascinating Suzhou No. 1 Silk Factory where you’ll witness how silk fabrics are made. From watching the silkworms eat mulberry leaves, to watching the washing of cocoons, to seeing the spinning of the silk, the process is mesmerizing.

Visitors are also wowed by the master craftsmen/women of the Sandalwood Fan Company and the Silk Embroidery Institute.

Stay in Style in Suzhou

The centrally located Marriott Suzhou offers a gleaming, international, and American-friendly setting with brilliant views of the city and delightful restaurants. There’s also a spa, fitness center and pool.

Or, for a real splurge, check into the tony Tonino Lamborghini Hotel—or simply reserve a place at the water table of its posh French

River Walk twin Tongli entertainer.
River Walk twin Tongli entertainer.

Le Lac restaurant with brilliant views of Jinji Lake. In either of these posh cosmopolitan spots, world travelers are sure to feel at home.

Follow Suzhou on Social Media:

A friendly fruit vendor with his mobile stand in Suzhou.
A friendly fruit vendor with his mobile stand in Suzhou.

Official Hashtag: #TravelSuzhou

Instagram @visitsuzhou

Twitter @VisitSuzhou

Facebook @VisitSuzhou

Boat driver in Tongli.
Boat driver on the canals of Tongli Water Town
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