Just 2 hours away from the bustling city of Shanghai is the enchanting Suzhou (苏州) — greatly admired for its beautifully landscaped classical gardens, winding canals, traditional waterside architecture, and the nearby water town of Zhouzhuang that is one of China’s prettiest and was also the highlight of my day trip to Suzhou. If Shanghai represents the future of China, Suzhou is where one can experience the nation’s past and present between sipping green tea and munching on rice cakes.
The waterside city’s history dates back 2500 years and was dubbed “China’s paradise on earth” together with Hangzhou in Chinese history for its pleasant scenery, fertile soil and prosperous commerce. We booked our day tour to Suzhou from Shanghai via ChinaTour.net, which I highly recommend. Our tour guide, Tony, was very much helpful, accommodating, and patient enough waiting for us as we try to take the perfect Instagram shot for each stop lol. Here are the highlights when planning a day trip to Suzhou:
— MASTER OF THE NETS GARDEN —
Suzhou’s classical gardens have an international reputation. As the saying goes, “Gardens in the ‘Yangtze South’ area are the best in the world, and Suzhou gardens are the best among them.” One of the most famous (yet also the smallest) in Suzhou is the Master of the Nets Garden.
Also called Fisherman’s Garden, the 0.6-hectare garden is an elegant structure of a typical official’s residence in the Qing Dynasty. Master of the Nets Garden consists of a residential quarter and the garden proper. Inside the refined residential quarter, the halls are linked closely by a corridor (and oval passageways). It was nice going through the small garden (seemed like a maze for us). It was petite but substantial, and is focused on a serene pond decorated with zen plants, rocks, pavilions, and stone bridges. Master of the Nets is definitely one of the most ornate and intact private gardens in Suzhou.
- Location: 11 Kuo Jia Tou Xiang, Dai Cheng Qiao Road, Gusu District
- Transport: Take tourism bus 55, 202, 529 to Wang Shi Yuan (Master of the Nets Garden) Station
- Open: 7:30am – 5:30pm
- Entrance Fee: 40 Yuan
— GRAND CANAL —
The Grand Canal may be the best way to explore and experience the lifestyle of Suzhou locals. Visiting the Grand Canal gave us a glimpse of the water town life. Not only did we saw the typical elements of South China water town but also the elegant life pace of Suzhou. The Grand Canal is the oldest and longest man-made waterway in the world. It flows from the northern Beijing to the southern Hangzhou with hundreds of thousands of ferries for over 2500 years.
With fifty-eight historically significant sites along its route, the entire Grand Canal has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. From ancient dynasties to the present day, the Grand Canal continues to bolster Suzhou’s economy and industry, quite literally putting Suzhou on the map. The canal also serves as the most convenient traffic web that covers the whole city. The majority of Suzhou attractions can be linked by the Grand Canal cruise. If we only had more time, it’s quite amazing to have a cruise along the canal.
— SUZHOU NO. 1 SILK FACTORY —
China is known for its silk and Suzhou is famous for producing it. The Suzhou No. 1 Silk Factory is a historic state-owned plant was established in 1926 and become a particularly honored century-old factory in Suzhou. BBC Travel also recommended visiting this factory for its traditional skills of making silk and direct exhibition of culture and history of silk in China. A tour of the factory got us interested in knowing about silk culture and history as we got to interact with the silkworm cocoons, watch how silk is made, and even bought silk products at the end of the tour.
Inside the factory, we saw an exhibit of the lifecycle of silk worm and demonstrations on how the silk is harvested from the cocoons and eventually woven into fabric. It is quite astonishing to learn that one cocoon can produce about 2km of silk strand, and that several of these strands are twined together to make a single thread. The process is so slow and painstaking; it comes as no surprise that genuine hand-made silk articles are so expensive.
- Location: 94 Nanmen Road, Canglang District
- Open: 8:00am – 5:00pm
- Entrance Fee: Free
— ZHOUZHUANG WATER TOWN —
Reputed as the no. 1 Water Town in China, Zhouzhuang (周庄水乡) is often ranked as one of the “ten most beautiful towns in the globe” and “one of the world’s most charming water towns.” Zhouzhuang lies between Shanghai and Suzhou and is thought by many as the best waterside town in China. The town is built amid canals, ponds, and lakes. What makes it special are the old buildings and bridges, boat rides, crafts, and the quaint water town scenery.
Definitely, the highlight of my visit to this enchanting water town is the canal cruise. Touring the water town was quite magical. I actually did not want the gondola ride to end. There we saw ancient particular stone bridges built in multiple dynasties and courtyards linking together on the winding water, which is the perfect scenery of a serene historic water town in China.
Zhouzhuang also has about 1,000 households living in old dwellings that were built in the Ming and Qing dynasties and the early Republic of China. About half of the houses are well preserved, a hundred of them having their own courtyards. The canals that crisscross Zhouzhuang have many stone bridges, and some of them are ancient. The most famous ones are the Twin Bridges, Fu’an Bridge, Zhenfeng Bridge and Fuhong Bridge.
- Location: About a 1½-hour drive from Shanghai or Suzhou
- Transport: Take a coach to Zhouzhuang from Shanghai, Suzhou, Kunshan, or Hangzhou/Jiaxing
- Entrance Fee: CNY 100 (entry to the town and 15 sights)