Suzhou's canals

Uncover the Secrets of Suzhou – The Venice of the East

This story was created in partnership with: Suzhou Tourism 

If you’re thinking of travelling to China, you’ve probably considered the bustling cities of Shanghai and Beijing. But what if we told you there’s another destination that has all the culture and delicious culinary delights of these big cities – but without all the hustle and bustle? What if you could experience high culture and elegance alongside metropolitan city life? What if there was space to relax, unwind, and soak up 2,500 years of history right in the heart of the city?

It might sound too good to be true, but you can find all of this – and more – in Suzhou. Let us introduce you to the secrets of Suzhou, the must-know destination for the curious traveller.

A bridge leading across one of Suzhou’s many canals | © Memory Catcher/Pixabay

Introducing Suzhou

Dating back over 2,500 years to 514 BCE, there’s a lot of history and culture to soak up in Suzhou. Situated on the lower reaches of the Yangtze River, it’s one of the oldest cities in the Yangtze Basin, an area that covers almost a fifth of China!

Just 62 miles (100km) northwest of Shanghai, Suzhou is easy to get to – but hard to leave. Historically, this captivating city has been associated with high culture and elegance, attracting generations of artists, writers, scholars and dreamers to wander in its beautiful gardens and experience the elegance of its canals. When you get here, you’ll soon discover why this city has been so loved by so many for so long. Let us take you on a trip along the winding streets and flowing waterways to discover the secrets of Suzhou.

Bird’s eye view on one of the canals in Zhouzhuang | Courtesy of Suzhou Tourism

Secret 1: Canals crisscrossing the city

When taking a trip to the “Venice of the East”, it’s impossible to miss the many canals snaking through the city. Whether strolling alongside these waterways to admire the views, or hopping on a boat tour to experience the city from the water, canals are an integral part of Suzhou’s charm and should be top of the itinerary for any traveller. Let’s take a look at some of our favourite canals to explore.

The Grand Canal

You couldn’t possibly head to Suzhou without exploring the Grand Canal, the longest man-made waterway in the world. At roughly 1,200 miles (1,776km) long, it stretches all the way from Beijing to Hangzhou and has 58 sites of historical significance along the way. The entire canal is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and there’s no better way to experience the sights and sounds of Suzhou than by taking a boat trip. You’ll cruise past ancient city walls and gates, glide under elegant bridges and see beautiful temples from the water.

One of the highlights you’ll see along the Grand Canal is the Pan Gate Scenic Area, which is around 2,500 years old. The Pan Gate is part of the ancient city wall which was built in 514 BCE, with a modern two-storey red building with a curved roof sitting atop it, making for a great photo opportunity as you cruise the canal. The other must-see sights in the area are the Wu Gate Bridge, an impressive stone arched bridge that dates back to the Qing Dynasty, and the beautiful Ruigang Pagoda which dates back to 247 CE.

The grand canal in Suzhou I Courtesy of Suzhou Tourism


You’ll definitely want to spend some time exploring the canals of downtown Suzhou. The old city centre is bound by a large rectangular canal which is known as the Weichang River or City Moat. Within this area are nine east-west canals and twelve north-south canals, each of which offers a rich bounty of culture and heritage to explore. Take a tour in a gondola to experience the charm of the old town from the water, taking in the architecture from the Ming and Qing dynasties, listening to the melodic music floating out from the traditional tea houses that line the canals as you watch people go about their everyday business.

Then hop off and explore the area on foot. Pingjiang Street is the perfect example of Suzhou city life, lined with bookshops, opera theatres and tea houses where locals gather to chat and sing. There are twelve beautiful stone bridges in the downtown area, which offer picture-perfect viewpoints whether you’re on foot or in the water.

Classic Suzhou tea house | Courtesy of Suzhou Tourism

Secret 2: Get back to nature in the city’s tranquil gardens

Take one step into any of Suzhou’s gardens and you’ll be struck by the sense of tranquillity and peacefulness. There are over 60 classical gardens in the city, so you’re spoiled for choice. Collectively, these gardens are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and nine of which are World Heritage Sites in their own right.

Classical Chinese gardens aim to emphasise the harmony between humankind and nature, and Suzhou’s gardens are considered to be the very pinnacle of the genre. You’ll want to spend days wandering the quiet paths of these gardens, feeling connected to nature as you enjoy the beautiful flowers and quiet ponds.

The Humble Administrator’s Garden is the largest garden in Suzhou, and one of the oldest as well, dating back to the start of the 16th century. It’s one of China’s most revered gardens and one you definitely don’t want to miss. Explore the Central Garden, imbued with the scent of lotuses and the history of its centuries-old past, or experience China’s tea culture in the tea house beside the Bonsai Garden.

The Lingering Garden is another World Heritage Site, known for its incredible architecture created in classic Qing style. Don’t miss the jaw-dropping Celestial Hall of Five Peaks or the Cloud-Capped Peak, a 21-foot high artificial hill made of rocks from Taihu Lake.

As well as these famous gardens, though, don’t forget about the smaller, unique green spaces dotted all around the city. The Master of the Nets Garden is Suzhou’s smallest, dating back to 1140. The stunning design of this garden makes it appear far bigger than it really is, making it the perfect location for holiday snaps that you’ll treasure forever.

Master of Nets Garden | Courtesy of Suzhou Tourism

Secret 3: Be wowed by the city’s beautiful temples

Suzhou, as well as being a city of canals and gardens, is also a city of temples, sure to inspire awe as you explore these peaceful buildings and take in the history that’s still living and breathing in these colourful structures.

Lopsided Yunyan Pagoda – nicknamed the “Leaning Tower of China” – stands at the top of Tiger Hill and is the oldest pagoda in Suzhou at 1,000 years old. Gaze up in awe at this leaning structure’s ancient architecture, and explore Tiger Hill whilst you’re there. After all, the ancient poet Su Dongpo did say “to visit Suzhou and not see Tiger Hill would lead to a lifetime of regret”.

If you’re taking a boat trip along the Grand Canal you’ll see two of Suzhou’s top attractions from the water, Hanshan Temple and West Garden Temple, but it’s also well worth exploring these beautiful buildings on foot to truly take in their humble majesty. Named for the monk and poet Hanshan, Hanshan Temple has inspired poetry for 1,500 years. Will you feel the urge to pen your masterpiece after visiting this serene temple?

West Garden Temple is the place to come to get away from it all. At 1.6 hectares, it’s the largest temple in the city, with plenty of space to sit and contemplate the world going by. The yellow walls and curled eaves of the temple are to be marvelled at, as is the collection of 500 life-sized gilded statues of Buddhist saints in the beautiful Arhat Hall.

Hanshan Temple | Courtesy of Suzhou Tourism

Secret 4: Shop to your hearts’ content

It’s not all about beautiful gardens and peaceful temples in Suzhou. It’s also the silk capital of the world, meaning it’s an absolute must to go shopping during your trip. It’s thought that the finest silk embroidery comes from artisans in Suzhou, and you’ll be inclined to agree when you see the wonderful wares for sale in the boutiques dotted around the city.

Su embroidery is the most celebrated style of Chinese silk embroidery, as a beautiful style that’s notable for its fine threadwork, balanced compositions, dense stitches and smooth finish. Traditionally, Su embroidery has leaned towards birds, flowers, nature scenes and ancient Chinese paintings, but over time, the subject matter of this type of embroidery has developed to encompass all sorts of subject matters. One of the most famous – and difficult – types of Su embroidery is double-sided embroidery with a different image of each side of the silk. So if you’re looking for something to take home that’s truly representative of Suzhou, make it one of these beautiful pieces.

Take a trip to the Suzhou Embroidery Research Institute to appreciate some of the city’s finest makers at work and learn what to look out for when shopping for silk in the city.

Silk isn’t the only handicraft to look out for, though. Paper-cutting is one of the area’s best-loved folk arts, and you’ll find the perfect piece for you in the shops along Shantang and Shiquan Streets. Discover Chinese characters, beautiful landscapes and legendary dragons all hand-cut by masters of the craft.

In fact, you can’t go wrong with Shantang Street for anything you want to buy. It was China’s most famous shopping street during the Ming and Qing Dynasties and it still stands the test of time as today, it’s home to some of the city’s best teahouses, souvenir shops and dim sum restaurants. You’ll work up an appetite after all that shopping!

Shantang Street | © Russ Bowling/Flickr

Secret 5: Indulge in some of China’s most mouth-watering food

Speaking of working up an appetite, you’re in good hands in Suzhou. Thanks to its position on the Yangtze River, Suzhou’s cuisine is full of delicious fresh fish dishes. Mandarin Fish – sometimes called squirrel fish – is one of the city’s best-loved dishes, and it should be top of your list when you visit Suzhou. Locally caught fish is cross-hatched and deep-fried, served to you smothered in deliciously tangy sweet and sour mandarin sauce. Almost every restaurant in Suzhou has this dish on the menu, making it unavoidable – but we promise you, it’s worth a try.

You’ll also want to try the rice dumplings that you’ll find being served up steaming hot at street vendors all over the city. Usually made from rice and pork (although it can also come with sweet fillings or other savoury options) are packed by hand, rolled in bamboo leaves, tied with string and then steamed or boiled. You can eat the dumplings on the go, or take a seat by one of the canals to watch the world go by as you enjoy this delectable treat. Look out for the street vendors with the longest queue of locals – we guarantee that’s where you’ll find the best rice dumplings!

Much of the food enjoyed in Suzhou has a rich history behind it, which just makes it all the more enjoyable to indulge in. It’s said that New Year Cake, for instance, was used as cement to build the walls of the ancient city, whilst Suzhou mooncakes were used during the Yuan dynasty as a way of passing messages to rebel fighters during wars with Mongolia.

History can be seen everywhere in Suzhou, and its cuisine is no different. Enjoy the city’s delicacies as you wander the winding streets in tranquility, or enjoy an evening meal after soaking up a day of culture. Whatever food you choose to devour, you can be sure that there’s a vibrant story behind it.

Fengzhen Noodles: | Courtesy of Suzhou Tourism

Feeling inspired to start planning a trip to Suzhou to discover its secrets for yourself? Head over to TourRadar to browse a range of Suzhou tours and find your perfect trip today.

Lauren is a freelance copywriter based in Edinburgh, Scotland. As well as writing, she loves exploring her country (and the rest of the world), and can often be found running up a hill or on her yoga mat.

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