Visiting Suzhou, China: the Venice of the East

Jichao Bai shares with us her recommendations for when visiting her beautiful hometown of Suzhou, China

Jichao Bai
10th February 2020
When people talk about traveling to China, Beijing or Shanghai jump to mind immediately. Well, whilst Beijing is a must visit, be it for the abundance of historical sites and its status as the capital of China, it is not all China has to offer. Let me introduce you to my hometown of Suzhou...

If one would like to differ from the simple straight and narrow path of discovering my country, Suzhou is a lovely city which is a twenty minute train away from Shanghai, and offers a beautiful contrast to the aforementioned plain narrative common to tourism in China.  The city, founded in 514BC (therefore with over 2500 years of history), has an abundant display of historical sites. Theres the iconic ancient classic garden architecture, displayed in over 60 classical gardens in the city, which are in turn now UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Theres also the ancient Watertown, a series of canals and waterworks on a gorgeous backdrop of Jiangsu's stunning natural scenery; perfect for a romantic day, and where Suzhou gets its reputation as being the 'Venice of the East'. Or there is also the opportunity to experience the local silk production; an insight into one of the oldest Chinese traditions not from a major tourist attraction, but from where the best silk in China is crafted. All of this on a backdrop at the heart of Wu culture, having it's own vibe and particular cuisine, which I would invite you to enjoy. With notable dishes such as Suzhou noodles (a vegan friendly option), and Three Whites ( 银鱼 白鱼 白虾 ), this is the perfect opportunity to discover a side to China few travellers do. 

A Suzhou delicacy; the Three Whites consists of shrimp, whitebait, and whitefish (Image Credits: miss_s_stacy from Instagram)

Now I know that the above seems like a lot to keep track of in a journey to one of the biggest countries on Earth, with an abundance of culture visible at every corner, however even if time was an issue for my fellow adventurer, a 2-3 day stop would largely suffice to be captivated by the views, smells, and colours of this enchanted place. 

Firstly, to start your itinerary of the City of Gardens and immerse yourself in Wu culture, one cannot pass up a visit to the Museum of Suzhou! The museum, was designed by the famous architect Leoh Ming Pei (one of the winners of the Pritzker Prize and designer of the Louvre) to be the perfect combination of traditional and modern architecture; allowing one to experience and marvel at various kinds of ancient Chinese artwork, ranging from calligraphies, silk products, to handmade crafts stretching from the Song to Qing dynasties.  There is no shortcut quite like this into an understanding of the Wu culture present in Suzhou in only 2-3 hours.  

The Museum of Suzhou offers visitors a glimpse into the ancient Wu culture of Suzhou in only a matter of hours - Image Credits (Left-Right): qiye from Pixabay,

Upon leaving the museum, you'll inevitably come across one of the many ancient gardens, creating a cityscape of gardens the likes of which is indescribable. You can see them at every corner, giving the city it's namesake, the City of Gardens. Amid all of the gardens on display I’d like to give particular attention to one of the most fascinating ones — the Lingering Garden. In this magnificent place, you will have the opportunity to listen to Pingtan, an original musical performance art from Suzhou, and the next cornerstone in the particular Wu culture from this region. Pingtan is an ancient performing art of storytelling and ballad singing in the Suzhou dialect, sung in an environment complimenting the traditional style of this art form, and surrounded by more than 400 years of unchanged plant-life. The artificial hill, surrounded by flowers and walkways along the lakeside, through which one could access the temples and pagodas situated just in the centre of the small lake, might astonish you. "How could they have made such stunning views in such a confined space?" From here, you truly begin to appreciate the appeal for artists of all creeds, be they ancient poets or painters; a multitude of poems and Chinese brush paintings originate from this area of Suzhou. 

A hidden gem of China, Suzhou is so beautifully captivating and awe-inspiring - Image Credits: Jichao Bai

During the evening, there wouldn’t be a better choice than going for a walk on the Ping Jiang historical district road : Seven-Mile Shantang. While measuring seven miles in traditional Chinese miles, li, this 3 mile stretch, ranging from the Changmen Gate to the Tiger Hill Pagoda, offers a variety of wonders and amusements, such as Chinese pastries to romantic boat trips. One simply cannot give this a miss, as this truly brings to mind the term Venice of the East.  If you're looking for a less historical and cultural attraction, the modern part of Suzhou, the industrial park, is equally deserving of a mention. It’s modern views, harkening to a Singaporean influence, and water shows, are equally as visible from the top of the Gate of the Orient, the biggest shopping centre in China, as they are from the waterfront on the river.  

When one is considering visiting China, of course Shanghai and Beijing jump to mind. However for all of the aforementioned reasons, the Wu culture of Gardens, good food and tradition, should make my home town of Suzhou a high-ranking contender for your next trip!  

Feature Image Credits: Jichao Bai (created on Canva)

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