Shanghai is one of the world’s great metropolises. With an iconic skyline, a thriving food scene and impressive architecture, there is certainly plenty to keep you busy. However just an hour and a half northeast of China’s largest city is the ancient town of Suzhou, with a history stretching back 2,500 years. Recently travelling on our Chinese Checkers tour, I got to spend a day experiencing this elegant and historic destination.
Venice of the East
Suzhou has hundreds of canals and waterways earning itself the nickname Venice of the East. It’s part of the longest man-made river in the world, the Grand Canal, which stretches from Beijing to Hangzhou. Suzhou is easily accessible from Shanghai by train or car. But once you’ve arrived, the best way to see Suzhou and explore the canals is by boat.
Peacefully cruising down the canals is the perfect way to watch daily life. Attractive and charming houses line the edge of the water. Decorative bridges pass overhead connecting the adjoining shopping streets, with modern cafes, tea houses and shops occupying the historic buildings. It was here we saw a bride in traditional dress posing for photos, the canal as her backdrop.
After the relaxing cruise along the canal, we wandered through some of the world’s oldest shopping streets. Shantang Street is 1,200 years old with tea shops, pottery shops and art galleries now lining the street. Here you will also find snack stalls selling local delicacies such as grilled tofu and sesame peanuts. For a modern twist on Chinese tea I would recommend the Blan Bunny Tea Shop. Their charmingly packaged Chinese tea is a delightful gift to take home.
Classical natural beauty
The Classical Gardens of Suzhou are another must visit, the 69 well-preserved private gardens developed over a thousand years ago. Due to its classical Chinese design recreating natural beauty, nine of these gardens have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. One of the gardens well worth exploring is the Lingering Garden. It’s clear to see why this has previously been declared one of the best gardens of its kind south of the Yangtze River, with its traditional architecture and style.
Water is possibly one of the most important elements in Feng Shui and because of this, you will find many waterways and ponds in the gardens. They’re strikingly beautiful, decorated with rock formations and floral blooms, the ponds filled with bright orange carp.
The Lingering Garden boasts an impressive Bonsai and Penjing collection. Both traditional Chinese art forms, Bonsai is much more about discipline and careful technical skill while Penjing encourages trees to grow in natural and wild shapes. In the north part of the Lingering Gardens is a Bonsai Garden. With each plant needing tending to every day to retain its neat appearance, this section of the garden is very high maintenance.
About an hour and a half drive from Shanghai, Suzhou is the perfect day trip. Cruising along the canal and wandering through the ancient city, it’s easy to imagine what life must have been like during the Imperial dynasties. Suzhou is a must visit for anyone wanting to see another side of China’s exotic and intriguing beauty.