Classical gardens and canals are just part of Suzhou’s appeal today.
More than mere performances, the classic operas influence national culture and ensure that Suzhou remains intimately connected to China’s legacy.
Founded in 514 BC as the capital of the Wu Kingdom, Suzhou prospered—thanks to its fortuitous location on the Grand Canal—to become one of the world’s most fashionable centres of wealth and nobility during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Its prosperity was guaranteed by the merchants that flocked to its doors in search of silk. Vestiges of the days when it was known as the Venice of the East can still be found in the Old Town, where picturesque canals and gardens continue to cast their spell, while the city’s tradition of cosmopolitan modernity is now embodied in the dining and entertainment options available in Suzhou Industrial Park.
All the comforts of the present and exceptional service industry make Shangri-La Hotel, Suzhou the perfect place to indulge when discovering the city. The first international luxury hotel in the region occupies the upper 24 levels of the tallest building in Suzhou New District, the 232-metre Metropolitan Tower, offering unobstructed views of the city from all 390 spacious rooms and suites. Its six restaurants, bars and Health Club provide all the creature comforts one could possibly need.
Wealth flowed into the city along its canals, and taking a boat ride around the Old Town is an enjoyable way to experience the waterways that were so busy in the past that boats were said to look like scattered fish scales on the water. While the years and a modern veneer have dimmed some of the splendour that held visitors spellbound in the past, the Old Town can still turn on the charm in such places as Pingjiang Road, where the threads of canals and cobbled lanes appealingly weave the past into the present. Despite the cosy cafés and fascinating craft shops that dot the city, it is still a residential area where the vignettes of everyday life and its photogenic background can sometimes make it seem like you’ve wandered on to a film set.
If the theatre-like scenery whets your appetite, two entertaining museums on Zhongzhangjia Alley at the southern end of Pingjiang Road celebrate two performing arts that originated in Suzhou: Pingtan, a mix of storytelling and singing, and Kunqu Opera, which is known as the mother of all Chinese operas. With hundreds of years of history, Pingtan and Kunqu continue to gain popularity today. More than mere performances, the classic operas influence national culture and ensure that Suzhou remains intimately connected to China’s legacy.
Something Old, Something New
Suzhou’s main claim to fame today is its traditional gardens. Walking north to the end of Pingjiang Road will bring you to the doors of The Humble Administrator’s Garden, which is regarded as one of the top four classical gardens in China. Hidden behind high walls, the gardens were the VIP clubs of their day, offering exclusion and seclusion to the city’s high rollers. However, its size and grandeur makes The Humble Administrator’s Garden seem more like a park, which begs the question, “Was the administrator in question really that humble?” Apparently not. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, the city had up to 200 gardens, which gives an idea of how prosperous it was. Today, only nine gardens survive and are on the World Heritage List.
Award-winning architect I. M. Pei has created a modern interpretation of the traditional Chinese garden at the Suzhou Museum, situated right next to The Humble Administrator’s Garden. It is well worth a visit, not only for its re-imagined garden and fascinating exhibits, but also for its wonderful 440-year-old wisterias. A couple of blocks west of the museum is the Silk Museum, Suzhou’s homage to the humble silkworm’s role in the city’s rise to prominence.
Suzhou also boasts the top two private gardens, as home to The Lingering Garden. While in the area, head over to nearby Taijian Lane and De Yue Lou, one of the city’s oldest restaurants, which dates back to the Ming Dynasty. The restaurant serves Suzhou specialties, such as squirrel-shaped mandarin fish and stir-fried shelled fresh shrimps. If you can’t get in, don’t worry, the restaurant has opened another branch on the causeway of Jinji Lake.
If you feel the need to escape the confines of the past, the mundanely monikered Suzhou Industrial Park is the heart of modern Suzhou. However, don’t be put off by the name. Not only does it offer a pleasant promenade along Jinji Lake’s western shore where you can escape the crowds, but also cafés and restaurants to suit the taste of any traveller.
Over on the west side of the lake, Xiang Restaurant takes top billing for its delicious selection of Japanese dishes. If you are in town for a few days, escape the city altogether and sample authentic Suzhou dishes at one of the village restaurants in Wangshan and walk through the bamboo to Nine Dragon Pond. The charming mountain village showcases the region at its most breathtaking, surrounding nature lovers with lush bamboo forests and picturesque tea and gingko plantations.