Suzhou is called the Venice of China. It is a city about 30min train-ride west from Shanghai, that is full of culture, history and canals. It is also a large commercial center, but there is something about the town that you can really forget about that part. Suzhou has a large number of relics and places of historical interest, and it is the place to visit some tranquil gardens, traditional temples, and stroll narrow roads surrounded by water. It’s a great day-trip destination if you are visiting Shanghai, but you need to go prepared. Here are a few tips to get you started with planning. P.S. No wine tips in this post (Suzhou is not really a wine-city).
Before travelling you need to make some arrangements: train tickets and what to pack. Trains to Suzhou run every 30 minutes from Shanghai Railways Station; the ones destined to Nanjing generally stop there. Tickets can be purchased at the ticket office next to the Railways Station, but to simplify the task for myself, I used the hotel concierge to purchase them. It is not given that the people behind the counter can speak any English or even understand when you try to say the name of the town; use the wrong intonations and the meaning changes. The second class tickets cost only ~40RMB a piece (one way), and its not really a long enough trip to invest in a slightly bigger seat. To my opinion. When purchasing tickets, you need to hand in your passports, and you need to have them with you when you travel. IDs are checked before entering any railways stations in China. Also pack dome toilet paper and hand wash. The toilets in Suzhou are very Chinese, holes in the floor and paper is a luxury. Soap is rarely available in any public bathrooms. Yuk.
Moving around in Suzhou is easiest with the metro as well as on foot. Taxies are more vicious that they are in Shanghai. For the metro, have some coins with you; a one way trip costs only 2 RMB.
What to see
Suzhou is a great place to visit some classic gardens and temples. The Lingering Garden (a UNESCO world heritage site) is one of my favorites. It’s like a sanctuary; a garden with ponds, pagodas and small Bonzai trees. The Lingering Garden demontsrates all the elements of a classical Chinese garden – water, architecture, vegetation, and rocks. It’s a popular place for tourists, but if you come really early, you can perhaps enjoy the garden for a moment just for yourself. There is a small fee to get in, something like 50RMB. Another popular garden is the Humble Administrator’s Garden. We didn’t visit this time as our capacity for groups of Japanese tourists was already full. We decided to walk to Hanshan temple instead. Which was by the way a great choice. The old temple area big and well preserved. There were high and mighty pagodas, colorful carps in the pond, that you could feed by the way, as well as some very nice details in the decorations. They also had a vegetarian noodle restaurant in the back. 15RMB for a bowl of traditional Chinese Miantiao (noodles) and communal seating.
The main attraction in Suzhou is, however, the canals. If you want to get of easy you can stroll along Pinjiang road. Its pretty touristy, but you can see the canals, old shop buildings, as well as local boat taxies paddling in the water (yes, the boat drivers sing as well, like in Venice). If you want some more peace and quiet, you can pop down the side streets. Historical Suzhou is not that big, so you wont get lost very easily. For canals and boats, you can also visit some of the small watertowns close to Suzhou (like Zhouzhuang), but then you really need to take a guided tour or a taxi. They are not possible to reach with the public transportation.
That was my list of recommendations for Suzhou. I also saw some city bikes that you could possibly rent. Which would be great because traffic in Suzhou is not as bad as in Shanghai. You just need an app to use them, and that is something I had not taken into account in my preparations. Next time perhaps. And I am sure there will be a next time – Suzhou is a great place to visit.