This will be my third year living in Suzhou, China, and I have to say that it is one of my favorite places to be. Being a history buff, I love the fact that within 30 minutes I can be in Ancient Suzhou, where world famous gardens and canals that prove this “Venice of the East” is truly spectacular.
But I live in an area of the city called Suzhou Industrial Park, or SIP, which is truly 21st century China. The area is a joint venture between China and Singapore, and it has wide boulevards, skyscrapers, and shopping malls galore! These drastic differences make this a city both easily livable, but also very popular with tourists.
While Suzhou does not have its own airport, Shanghai has two airports (Hongqiao, which is the domestic airport, and Pudong, which is the international airport) to the east and Wuxi has one airport (domestic) to the west. Both cities are close to Suzhou if you take one of the fast trains on the ultra modern railway line, with Shanghai being 30 minutes and Wuxi being 15 minutes away.
Truthfully, it will take you longer to get from the airport to the train station than it will to get from the train station to Suzhou! Suzhou has several train stations, so you need to pay attention to your ticket and the announcements on the train (which are made in English as well as Chinese) to ensure you get off at the right stop.
One of the lovely gardens you can visit in “Old Town Suzhou.”
Any decent guidebook will give you a list of the beautiful gardens and other sights in the old town area of Suzhou. You can take the subway fairly close to some of them (the Linden Lu station is a good stop), and buses will get you even closer, but stops are only written in Chinese, so this can be more difficult.
The easiest way is to take your guidebook (which hopefully has Chinese characters for the names of the places you wish to go, or at least pinyin, which is the Romanized alphabet version of Chinese…trust me, no taxi driver will understand “the Humble Administrator Garden”), hop into a taxi, show the driver where you want to go, and away you go. You can find lovely little shops and cafes around, as well as the ubiquitous Starbucks and KFC (among others).
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Be prepared for large crowds of Chinese tourists in tour groups. This is even more on the weekends or during Chinese holidays. If you have blond haired (any foreign children, but blond haired ones get the most attention) children, be prepared to have them touched and people asking to take pictures with them. This can be overwhelming for many kids (and parents), but it is all fairly harmless and meant with the best intentions.
There are a number of hotels in the old town area, but they are all fairly local brands, and from the outside (I’ve never been in any of them) look a bit worn down. My suggestion would be to stay in SIP and travel from there into the old town.
As I said, SIP is very modern and a fairly easy place to get around. There are several lakes in the area, but the main one is Jinji Lake, which divides SIP into the East Lake (Hudong) and West Lake (Huxi) areas. The West Lake area is the older of the two (SIP is only 20 years old, but the development started on the west side and has moved eastward over the years) and still has plenty of shops, restaurants, malls, and other things, but more and more is opening on the east side.
Three areas very close to where we live that I quite enjoy are the Culture and Arts Building (which is very pretty when it is lit up at night, and looks like a bird’s nest during the day), which has a multiplex movie theater, but also has quite a few live performances throughout the year. My wife and I went to a recent showing of the ballet Carmen, which I quite liked.
There are also several restaurants connected to the building, including an Austrian managed German restaurant called Meister Brau, which brews its own beer, and a Japanese Teppanyaki restaurant where they cook the food on the table in front of you, which has an all you can eat and drink option that is great value for money. Behind the main building is a lovely lakeside area where children play and some nice sculptures and a somewhat hidden garden area that is quite pretty.
Right next to the Culture and Arts Center
is an area called Moon Harbor, which has a wide variety of shops and restaurants and a lovely lakeside location for watching the sunset while enjoying a drink and a nice dinner. My favorite restaurant there is an Indian place called Ganesh, which has one of the best (but quite pricey) beer selections I have ever seen in China.
The food is quite good as well, and if there is a seat on the outdoor patio I highly recommend it for not only the stunning views of the city on the other side of the lake (assuming it is a low air pollution day), but also for the couples running around the area taking their wedding photos. There has never been a day when I have not seen dozens of couples doing this, and one day my friend and I, along with our children, were even called upon to join a group of about 10 brides to be for a large group photo. Definitely a cultural experience!
And just past this area going further east is the final place I will tell you about. As with many shopping areas I have seen around Asia, it is called Times Square, and it is also a nice place to wander around at night, looking at the lights and one of the largest sky screens in the world up above, as you go from shop to shop and eventually stop at one of the many chain restaurants, or a more local one if you prefer.
Just in case you think I never eat Chinese food, there are two restaurants in this area that I recommend. The first is in Times Square (next to Costa Coffee) and does not have an English name, but the sign says “Szechwan Cuisine” in English. It is a pretty good Sichuan restaurant, if you like your food spicy.
The other restaurant is in the Harmony shopping center just behind Times Square and is called Grandma’s Kitchen. It is a local chain (there is another one called Grandma’s House in the InCity Mall as well) and is always packed. Expect to take a number and wait for a while for a table, but the food is good and the prices are as well.
All of these areas are fairly family friendly, and there is a range of hotels (both international and more local) fairly close by, so I think it would be an ideal jumping off point for your adventures in Suzhou.