Just Back: The "Venice of China" and "Paris of the East"

One of Suzhou's ancient canals

Suzhou, the "Venice of China," is a national treasure, but not well known to Western tourists. Just 60 miles from Shanghai, it dates back 2,500 years and is home to some of the country’s most spectacular UNESCO classical gardens, canals and ancient water towns. On a six-day educational trip with Visit Suzhou, I recently discovered this well-kept secret deserves far more than a day trip from Shanghai. 

Our team of advisors met at Shanghai Pudong International Airport for a 90-minute private transfer to Suzhou (the bullet train shaves travel time down to 30 minutes).

We checked into the centrally located Pan Pacific Suzhou, a classic upscale hotel modeled after a traditional pagoda. I stepped out onto my balcony to admire my first taste of traditional gardens. Even better, Suzhou is attracting higher-end international hotel chains: I really enjoyed the rooftop bar and sweeping views from the hip W Hotel and the massive suites at the five-star Italian Lamborghini Hotel.

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Imperial Gardens and Suzhou Museum

After a good night’s sleep and taste of the lavish East-meets-West breakfast buffet, I was ready to explore the city. Our guide Sophia explained that Chinese gardens are a great way to learn about traditional culture, architecture and design. We started in the historic district at the Humble Administrator’s Garden, one of the top two in the entire country. It dates back to 1509, with romantic footbridges connecting waterways, pavilions and a sea of pastel blossoms. Symbolism is everywhere.

Next door, the modern Suzhou Museum stood in striking contract. Designed by renowned architect and local resident IM Pei, it’s a peaceful oasis constructed in steel, glass and stone. The architecture and outdoor koi pond were as much of a draw as the collection of ancient art it houses.

Lunchtime was a thrilling opportunity to navigate the busy streets by rickshaw to Hong Deng Ji, a traditional eatery along the canals of Pingjiang Road. This charming cobblestone walkway dates back 800 years and is lined by whitewashed homes, traditional tea houses, silk shops and enticing snack stalls.

The Magic of Tongli

A visit to Suzhou isn’t complete without a day trip to Tongli, an ancient water town where time appears to stand still. Gliding along the tree-lined canals in gondolas, we got a glimpse of rural life from 1,000 years ago. It’s one of China’s most Instagrammable places and easy to see why. I would recommend spending the night after the day tourists have gone.

One of my favorite meals was a vegetarian lunch served inside a private home along the canal. The traditional whitewashed exterior opened on to a chic, Elle Decor-styled dining room. Pumpkin soup, bamboo shoots and marinated cucumbers may sound simple, but because Suzhou is known for incredible local produce, vegetable dishes really shine.

Lake fish is another Suzhou specialty. Meals were served Lazy Susan-style which made sampling the variety of dumplings, seafood soups, delicate vegetables and the local “sweet and sour squirrel fish” (because of its shape) a culinary adventure.

Silk Roads and Chinese Opera

Historically, Suzhou residents made their wealth in silk, a tradition that continues today. At the Silk Embroidery Institute, we watched skilled craftswomen stitch works of art. It takes an apprentice 10 years to master her craft and is a career commitment. Silk production is another time-consuming art, which we learned about in an interactive tour of the Suzhou No. 1 Silk Factory.

Another highlight was our intro to Chinese opera, an important Suzhou tradition. Known as Kun, this opera style is elegant and gentle. While sipping green tea in a centuries-old playhouse, we watched the story of two star-crossed lovers unfold. Before the performance, we were taken backstage to see the actors transform from their street look to Imperial royalty. 

Suite Shanghai

After five hectic days learning about Suzhou’s fascinating history and culture, I couldn’t leave without tasting the suite life of Shanghai. Five-star hospitality is plentiful in China’s city of the future. The year-old Sukhothai Shanghai, in the upscale Jing’an District, was an urban sanctuary made for pampering, fine dining, retail therapy and sightseeing.

No wonder I felt calm the moment I walked in, welcomed by soothing neutral tones, minimal design and flawless service. I was fortunate to be the very first guest in the new Premier Suite. With 1,334 square feet, the massive one-bedroom offered refined comfort at every level. Floor-to-ceiling windows with a wrap-around balcony overlooked the city from above. The sunken stone bathtub and rainforest shower felt as good as they looked. A fully stocked complimentary minibar and coffee and tea service were thoughtful additions. So were the two types of bathrobes.

My 48 hours in Shanghai was just enough time to sample the famous soup dumplings, tour the city, enjoy dinner with chef Stefano Sanna of La Scala and have a drink at the Peninsula overlooking the famous skyline. (After a week of Chinese cuisine, I was craving La Scala, the Sukhothai’s signature Italian restaurant; with chef Sanna, a protegee of Michelin-starred Theodor Falser, at the helm, each dish creatively featured every part of the vegetable.)

Shanghai is a walking city, so the hotel arranged a private guide to show me around. We headed out, passing the world’s largest Starbucks Reserve Roastery, and continued down Nanjing Road to the Peoples Park. On weekends, the park is home to the Marriage Market, a lively exchange of parents seeking potential mates for their children. East Nanjing Road dead-ends into the Bund and Shanghai’s epic skyline—with building nicknames like “the bottle opener,” “the whisk” and “the cooking syringe.”

The colorful back streets of Old Town are the last relics of traditional life in Shanghai. I think they’re a must. We ended in Yu Garden, the city’s most popular tourist site, where I’d get my fill of Shanghai’s delicious soup dumplings.

The next day, I took a leisurely stroll through my favorite part of the city, the fashionably historic French Concession. Its leafy picture-perfect streets are why the city was dubbed the “Paris of the East.”

I loved pairing Suzhou and Shanghai for my first taste of China. It was a high-energy contrast of old and new—where ancient tradition coexists with international flair.

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