It could be the biggest city you’ve never heard of. In China, greater Suzhou is home to 13.7 million people — according to its own official reckoning — making it one of the largest metropolises in the world.
But the green, canal-laced city (pronounced soo-joe), about 65 miles west of Shanghai, is just one of many giants in its own country, behind the financial and political blockbusters of Beijing and Shanghai, as well as southern industrial hubs Guangzhou and Shenzhen.
Like any good urban Chinese powerhouse, Suzhou’s city center is teeming with dazzling new skyscrapers. But as it charges headlong into the future, Suzhou continues to honor its ancient heritage and natural beauty — making it a fantastic destination for second-time visitors to China, or even those looking for a respite from the crowds. Visitors here get to dive into the country’s splendor and culture without having to deal with the mindblowing enormity and chaos of an ultra-huge metropolis.
Of course, if you’re Chinese or spent any length of time there, you’re likely already familiar with Suzhou, as most of your ancestors would have been for the last 50 or so generations. Founded some 2,500 years ago, Suzhou’s fortunes really took off with the building of China’s Grand Canal in the early 7th century, linking Beijing in the north to Hangzhou in the south — still the world’s longest manmade canal. For Suzhou, the Grand Canal meant near-instant prosperity as one of the area’s most important trading centers, and helped its nascent silk industry become one of the country’s most important for centuries to come.
Today you can learn the fascinating history of Suzhou’s silk production — and witness it still happening firsthand, from silkworm larvae to harvesting to thread-spinning — at the Suzhou Silk Museum. Naturally there’s a massive shop, too, where you can pick up silk souvenirs galore, such as purses, pillows and pajamas.
Silk is also the root of another one of Suzhou’s claims to fame: its unique style of double-sided Chinese embroidery. At the Suzhou Embroidery Research Institute, you can watch these pieces (often months in the making) be painstakingly crafted. Its shop, too, features some truly breathtaking creations, from affordable small unframed works to astronomically priced masterpieces.
(A telling sign of Suzhou’s off-the-radar status is how few of its major attractions have English websites. The tourism board’s website — TravelToSuzhou.com — is a good primer on the highlights.)
Suzhou’s growing wealth over the centuries translated into its rise as a hub of high culture — for where rich people go, leisure pursuits will follow — and led to the cultivation of one of its best known attractions: its many classical gardens. Using gorgeous greenery, water features, rock formations, pavilions and bridges, these spaces have been meticulously designed to show a series of striking vistas along their pathways. About 60 of the classical gardens remain, the nine most stunning are collectively designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The largest and most famous (go early to beat the huge crowds) is the Humble Administrator’s Garden, nearly 13 acres of graceful Ming Dynasty-style scene-scapery.
Next door is the Suzhou Museum, with its vast collection of ancient art, ceramics and crafts — but equally visit-worthy for its beautiful design by famed Chinese-American architect I. M. Pei, whose family’s ancestral roots were in Suzhou. Said to be Pei’s last design before he retired, the stylish white structure incorporates inner pools and reflective spaces, and is his modern take on a classical Suzhou garden.
One of Suzhou’s most iconic landmarks is the striking seven-story Tiger Hill Pagoda (also called Huqiu Tower), known as the “Leaning Tower of China” due to its gradual tilt over the centuries. The surrounding lush hillside is covered with several great attractions, including Wanjing Villa, a park showcasing gorgeous bonsai, with scenes crafted to look like Suzhou gardens in miniature.
Shantang Street, one of Suzhou’s most famous arteries, was originally a 9th-century Grand Canal extension linking Tiger Hill to the city center. It was part of the elaborate canal system that earned Suzhou a nickname that stuck: The Venice of China.
Today, the picturesque street is lined with colorful canal-side shops and restaurants, and is extremely popular with visitors. Somewhat less kitschy and touristy is Pingjiang Road, another ancient canal-side pedestrian-only street that’s now filled with a delightfully quirky array of cafés, teahouses, food vendors and shops. For those in need of a more Western-style shopping fix, the far more modernized Guanqian Street will suffice.
Of course food is a key part of any trip to China — try two local favorites, the fabulous noodles at Tongdexing and the superb soup dumplings at Xishengyuan. And be sure to check out a performance of pingtan, Suzhou’s own captivating brand of traditional Chinese story-singing, at Pin Von Teahouse.
Adding to its charms, the city is easy to get to. Bullet trains connect Suzhou with central Shanghai and Shanghai’s Hongqiao Airport in less than 30 minutes, with fares as low as around $6. For that speed and price, it can even serve as a day trip from Shanghai if you’re ambitious.
Suzhou abounds with fantastic hotel options that are also affordable by Western standards, like the sumptuous Shangri-La (from $120) and the resort-like Pan Pacific(from $85). Two more anticipated newcomers are revving up the scene even further this year: Le Méridien at Suzhou Bay in July, and the W Suzhou in August (prices not yet available).
So go ahead, find some fresh air in China.
Second is the best
Sick of Shanghai? Bored with Beijing? Next trip, try these other enchanting second-tier cities in China.
Guilin: With its dramatic landscape of limestone hills surrounded by snaking rivers, Guilin in China’s south is captured in many of the country’s iconic landscape paintings.
Chengdu: The capital of Sichuan in China’s southwest, Chengdu is beloved for its giant pandas and its deliciously spicy food.
Hangzhou: Hangzhou’s natural beauty — especially its famous West Lake — has inspired poets and artists for centuries. It’s also the source of China’s best tea.