Suzhou as one of the most beautiful cities in China and today visitors to this city—once fondly referred to as "Venice of the East"—can still see evidence of this beauty along the ancient canals in the old section of town.Suzhou offers an ecclectic mix of old and new and there's a bit of something for everyone. From cozy cafes, lakes, ancient canals, classical Chinese gardens and even a silk factory.
Suzhou has long benefited from its location between two of China's greatest waterways. Covered 42 percent by water, Suzhou is nestled in the midst of a network of smaller canals and natural waterways that historically linked the city to various dynastic capitals in Beijing, Hangzhou and Nanjing, making it a vital center of trade, industry and culture while bringing it riches, fame and patronage of the arts.
From the Song Dynasty onward, its wealthy inhabitants set about turning Suzhou into a green city, building sprawling garden homes alongside willow-lined canals and employing skilled artisans to blend the manmade and natural in classic Chinese style. Despite the building boom, many gardens, temples and classic Chinese canal scenes remain, and Suzhou is still the source of some of China's finest silk.
Cycle around the city visiting gardens, shop for silk and local handicrafts, head out to one of the Ming or Qing-era canal towns on the city's outskirts or the pleasant island-speckled Tai Hu, China's third largest lake—the list of things to do and see in Suzhou is long.
Situated in the west of Suzhou, Tiger Hill (Hǔ Qiū, 虎丘) marks the burial ground of He Lu, the father of Suzhou. Atop the hill stands the Tiger Hill Pagoda, which the Suzhounese love to compare to the Tower of Pisa. The 1000-year-old pagoda began tilting 400 years ago—a good while after the Pisan Tower and arguably less impressively.
The Tiger Hill ground cover an area of about 14,000 sq m (approx. 3 acres) in total, and is home to several historic buildings and landmarks. The burial site of He Lu, entombed here by his son in 476 BC, Verdant Mountain Villa and Lu Yu Well are all accessible and well maintained.
Humble Administrator’s Garden
This is the largest of all the classical gardens in Suzhou at more than 50,000 sq m (12.5 acres), and arguably the most impressive. Like many of the other gardens in the city, the Humble Administrator's Garden is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A private residence during the Tang Dynasty, real development of the garden did not begin until the early 1500s. The garden was later immortalised in Cao Xueqin's Dream of the Red Chamber, also translated as Dream of Red Mansions, which is considered one of the four great Chinese classic novels.
It's nevertheless a beautiful place, with three sections set around a large lake, dotted with myrtle trees, lotus ponds and bamboo groves, and crisscrossed by bridges straight out of a classical painting.
Garden of the Master of Nets
The smallest but most renowned Suzhou garden, the Garden of the Master of Nets welcomes visitors into another world. Lattice windows within the residence perfectly frame scenes of delicate flowers and bamboo outside while elaborate rock gardens complement adjacent fish ponds.
Representative of classic Chinese garden design, no distinction is made between the natural or the man-made and the amazing use of space means visitors don't feel crowded, despite the small size. A must-see in Suzhou.
Lion Forest Garden
Named for the collection of rocks resembling lions, the Lion Grove Garden was built in 1342 during the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) by a group of Zen Buddhists. For centuries, the garden has welcomed and inspired local writers, poets, and monks. Today, visitors try to lose themselves in the limestone labyrinth, lined with stone lions in different poses.
The grounds contain over 20 buildings of various styles built over the centuries. Beautifully carved calligraphy can be found on the grove's large collection of steles and rocks.
Connecting the ancient Shi Lu in the old city center to Tiger Hill, Shantang Street, is a 1500-year old street that lines one of Suzhou's many canals. The street is trod upon from end to end on a daily basis, and takes a particular beating during Suzhou's Gashenxian Festiva, when celebrators dress as Daoist gods and parade down the street.
The majority of old buildings lining the street had begun to crumble when the government renovated them, in a manner similar to Pingjiang Historic Street.
Along the old streets, boats ply the waters of the canals, recollecting the old Suzhou from the days of He Lu, an important local historic figure who is buried at Tiger Hill. Taking a boat to the burial ground is a great way to top off a stroll down this historic lane.
Less frequented than the other UNESCO gardens in Suzhou, the Couple's Garden, sometimes referred to as the Couple's Retreat Garden, was first developed during the 18th century, before being rebuilt by a magistrate from nearby Susong county at the end of the 19th century.
Surrounded by canals on three sides, and divided into two parts (the "couple" from which it takes its name), it's a fine place to enjoy some peace and quiet away from the tourist hordes that often overwhelm the more popular gardens.
Suzhou Silk Factory
For over 80 years, the Suzhou No. 1 Silk Factory has been a leader in local silk production. A complete silk manufacturing facility, the No. 1 Silk Factory handles every facet of production from raising silkworms and cocoon boiling to reeling and packing.
Visits to the silk factory include a tour of the facility, a lecture about silk production, a workshop on making silk goods and a visit to the factory's showroom.
Originally built during the Ming Dynasty, Lingering Garden is a 3 hectare (7 acre) park located 3 km (2 mi) outside of the Suzhou city center.
Designed by Zhou Shicheng, a local stone master, Lingering Garden is one of the most historic parks in China, officially named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.
In addition to numerous pavilions and towers, the garden features a number of rockeries and small lakes, and the tranquil setting of the gardens has been an inpiration to budding and accomplished artists alike for centuries.
Temple of Mystery
First founded in 276 AD, and later destroyed by war, the present day Temple of Mystery was built in 1781. A Taoist place of worship and one of the largest extant examples of Song Dynasty wooden architecture, it now stands in the heart of crowded, commercialized Suzhou. Yet time spent here makes for a welcome change of pace.
Of the various halls inside the temple, the highlight is the Room of the Three Pure Gods, supported by 60 pillars carved with images of hundreds of Taoist gods. Also popular are the daily demonstrations of local folk music and flying cymbals.
Blue Wave Pavilion
The Blue Wave Pavilion is the oldest of the numerous UNESCO World Heritage site gardens in Suzhou. Built in 1044 by Song Dynasty poet Su Shunqing, on the site of an earlier imperial flower garden (and taking its name from a line by another poet, Qu Yuan), the garden retains its original Song layout, and in its more ramshackle corners looks as if it has perhaps not been tended since that time.
Of the various buildings on the site, the largest is the Enlightenment Hall, once used as a place of study and for the delivering of lectures during the Ming Dynasty. Another key site is the Hall of Five-Hundred Famous Ancient Sages, which displays statues of a variety of venerable old men. The best view, however, is from the Mountain-Watching Building, where, as the name suggests, the distant hills frame the garden quite beautifully.
Mostly, though, it's a place for quiet contemplation, amid the babbling streams, the air heavy with the scent of osmanthus flowers.
Cold Mountain Temple, named after a well-respected monk that lived during the short-lived Liang Dynasty, is one of China's most renowned Buddhist temples—mainly in part for its role in several Chinese legends, folk stories and poems by Tang Dynasty poet, Zhang Ji.
Today's visitors admire the temple's unique black roof and domed bridge. Other buildings in the temple complex include a Grand Prayer Hall, Sutra-Collection Building, Bell Tower, Fengjiang Pavilion and Tablets Corridor. The surrounding gardens are well maintained and definitely worth a look.