Suzhou is conveniently located about an hour ride on the bullet train from Shanghai. Not only is the experience of riding China’s ultra-modern high speed railway system a draw in itself, it also makes it feasible for an easy day trip to the Suzhou to wander its alleys, enjoy its foods, meet friendly locals, marvel at pagodas and stone bridges, take a boat tour of the canals and visit various UNESCO World Heritage Sites.Though there are a plethora of reasons to visit, the canals are the top draw to Suzhou. They weave through the city’s streets and narrow alleys to create an intricate matrix of water and stone. The result is a charming, unique and intimate environment that stands in stark contrast to Shanghai’s impersonal high rises, shops and tourist traps. The city is filled with ancient buildings, many of which are noteworthy due to famous former residents who live there centuries ago. Exploring Suzhou on foot is a favorite past-time. Visitors can freely wander around the myriad of meandering alleys and ageless stone bridges, seemingly getting lost only to inexplicably find themselves back at the main canal. Marco Polo, the famed 13th century Venetian traveler, claimed that Suzhou’s canals were spanned by “thousands” of bridges, though only a couple hundred remain today. Shops, cafes and restaurants line the banks of the canals, offering everything from roasted scorpion to dessert dumplings to ice cream waffles.
Walk into any restaurant and you’ll find friendly locals, happy to engage with you and recommend their favorite dish. You’ll not lack for selection and the food is generally quite good. (Except, when it’s not. There was one dish that, as best as I can tell, was chicken legs cooked in a brown marinade that literally reeked like human feces. While I am generally quite open to sampling new foods, even ones that I may not find palatable, I simply could not get myself to taste this one, thus forever depriving myself of the experience.)
Suzhou offers more than just canals and “diverse” foods, though. It’s many famous classical gardens have been designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The Garden of the Humble Administrator, in particular, dates back over 500 years to the early Ming dynasty and is considered one of China’s four great gardens. A leisurely stroll through this lush, sub-tropical garden can easily take two hours. There are also numerous scenic lakes nearby for recreational activities, and locals speak particularly highly of Jinji lake.
Read any travel column about Suzhou and you’ll note that comparisons with Venice are inevitable. Though the buildings of Venice are irrefutably more ornate, in Suzhou, one is at least spared that meretricious and dreadful “tourist trap” atmosphere. And while not nearly as famous as nearby Shanghai, Suzhou offers much more of the quixotic and picturesque feel that its neighbor has lost in its rush to modernize. For visitors to Shanghai seeking perspective, and perhaps some of the same charm that Marco Polo experienced some seven centuries earlier, Suzhou offers the perfect remedy.