What was once tacked on as a day trip from bustling Shanghai, China, the neighboring city of Suzhou (pronounced “SOO-Joe”) has come into its own, thanks to sophisticated infrastructure, UNESCO World Heritage Sites, romantic gardens, world-class museums and options to explore history, cuisine and architecture. Located in the center of the Yangtze River Delta in the southeast Jiangsu Province, Suzhou is 70 miles west of Shanghai, and easily accessible from three airports that offer non-stop flights from several North American cities. The most convenient, Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport (SHA) has bullet train service to Suzhou that will reach in just 30 minutes.
Travelers to Suzhou will discover a mix of ancient and new, thanks to a commitment to historic preservation coupled with modern neighborhoods such as the SIP, a.k.a. Suzhou Industrial Park, home to the largest Ferris wheel in Asia and the world’s largest sky screen. We suggest spending your day exploring Suzhou’s World Heritage gardens, lush canals and ancient neighborhoods, then head to SIP’s Harmony Times Square in the evening for an awe-inspiring light and music show, 7 p.m. daily.
We stayed at the Marriott Suzhou, which we found to be a luxury hotel within Suzhou’s ancient city walls; it’s also in a good location from which to visit main attractions. The hotel’s grand lobby with its hanging crystal chandeliers, gleaming marble and water features has staff positioned at well-trafficked intersections to direct guests to its restaurants, spas, meeting spaces and gardens. With English spoken in few places, business and leisure travelers will appreciate that nearly every employee here speaks English and can offer guidance on anything — from directions and subway stops to restaurants and shopping. For special requests and excellent tips, reach out to Chief Concierge Andy Zhou ([email protected]). For day trips that cover significant ground, we recommend hiring a professional guide. Hint: Suzhou Peace International Travel Service is one of the best.
All guestrooms and suites (Executive Suites come with access to the private Executive Lounge) have unobstructed views over Suzhou City, thanks to lower floors occupied by the spa, pool, gym, meeting rooms and private condominiums. At an average of 430 square feet, they are some of the largest in the city and are outfitted with Marriott amenities that travelers have come to expect, high-speed internet, lavish marble bathroom with separate tub and a rainforest shower that has a picture window overlooking the city (Gooood morning, Suzhou!).
The top suite is, of course, the Presidential. At nearly 2,000 square feet, it has panoramic views of Suzhou City amidst plush surroundings framed by silks, art and décor from local artists practicing many-millennia-old techniques. A dining room with table for 10 is complemented by a private kitchen where a chef can prepare gourmet meals. The bedroom is separated from the living area, and while there are no connecting rooms, a rollaway bed can be brought for no charge. The suite has Executive Lounge access with a private chef cooking up breakfast, lunch, dinner or mid-day cravings from 6 a.m. to midnight. For VIP bookings and travel agent requests, e-mail at [email protected]
While there are many dining options in the area (head to the nearby colorful Pingjiang Road for authentic Chinese cuisine), the hotel’s Asia Bistro restaurant has one of the largest and most mind-boggling breakfast buffets any jet-lagged traveler has ever seen. Guests have abundant choices of local fruits, fresh-squeezed juices, American comfort food, pastries and Chinese delicacies with chefs preparing foods ready-to-order. Sit in light-filled indoor surroundings, or enjoy your meal in the tranquil garden. The hotel’s Alto Vino restaurant serves authentic Italian pizzas, while Man Ho Chinese restaurant is known by locals for its all-you-can-eat dim sum lunch. To reserve times or tables for larger groups, contact Jacky Tian ([email protected]). For local fare, Hong Deng Ji at 80 Pingjiang Road is a favorite among locals, who make up a large percentage of diners, yet much of the staff speaks English. Exhibition kitchens allow diners to watch everything from fresh noodles to round puffy balls of bread being prepared from scratch (the stretchy noodle spectacle is not to be missed). Most evenings, live Chinese musical pingtan (local folk ballad) performances entertain guests as they dine.
In the event you want to work off your breakfast binge or noodle overload, the Marriott’s indoor pool is a lavish surprise, not an afterthought. With its undulating ceiling, recessed lighting, curved glassed atrium, palm trees and lounges, it is a hidden, and nearly private, gem. Excellent for lap swimming, it has an adjacent whirlpool to soothe sore muscles after a day of meetings or sightseeing. Should further pampering be required, don’t miss the 3,000-square-foot spa with its tranquil water features, separate men’s and women’s locker rooms and soothing menu of treatments, including the popular Meridian Unblock and LomiLomi massages. Masseuse Cherry Wang is an expert and the most requested therapist. Book directly with Spa Manager Nikki Dai ([email protected]).
While local nightlife is subdued, except for an abundance of Karaoke bars, many restaurants have evening performances of local traditional music and Suzhou opera. Concierge Andy Zhou can point you in the right direction and make reservations.
Marriott Suzhou also boasts an abundant and well-configured 17,061 square feet of meeting space, which includes 14 event rooms, 11 breakout rooms and a 5,000-square-foot grand ballroom that can accommodate up to 450 people under its grand and gleaming chandeliers. To request meeting specifics, including menus, contact Vanessa Cao ([email protected]).
The Grand Canal
Like the Great Wall, Suzhou’s Grand Canal is recognized as one of the most magnificent and wondrous construction feats in ancient China and was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Site list in 2014. Built 2,000 years ago and 1,200 miles long, it is the longest man-made waterway in China and features 27 sections and 58 historical sights. Boating on the old Canal is one of the best ways to get a panoramic view of the landscape, which includes ancient dwellings, stone bridges, historic relics and charming tea houses. Spend a day, venture down tributaries and be drawn to the mysticism and romance of the waterways that enchanted Marco Polo to such a degree, he named Suzhou “the Venice of the East” during a visit in 1276.
The Humble Administrator’s Garden
With more than 60 glorious classical gardens to discover in Suzhou, it’s confusing to know where to start. These aren’t western gardens of flowers and vegetables, mind you, but ancient Chinese gardens of rocks, ponds, lotus flowers, fragrant trees, elegant pavilions, winding streams, covered bridges and hidden alcoves. The largest and most famous of these gardens is the Humble Administrator’s Garden. Originally a private garden of a retired government administrator (whose son lost it in a game of Mahjong), it was built in 1509 during the Ming Dynasty and covers 12 lush acres. There are altogether 48 different buildings with thought-provoking names like “Hall of 36 Pairs of Mandarin Ducks” and “Hall of Distant Fragrance.” Lotus pools and ponds surround ancient pavilions once used for entertaining, while classic zigzag bridges frame the gardens. Why zigzag? According to Chinese lore, ghosts can’t turn, thus if one were following someone, its intentions would be thwarted on a zigzag bridge.
Built in 2006 by famed architect I.M. Pei as his last significant body of work, this is Suzhou’s largest comprehensive museum on local culture. The building’s design is an interpretation of a Suzhou garden with a creative combination of water, bamboo and straight lines. Galleries host a collection of more than 15,000 pieces, mostly of ancient paintings, calligraphy, porcelain craft and unearthed relics. Sit outside at the koi pond, contemplate the beauty of the surroundings and strike up a conversation with locals (many speak English), who are fascinated by westerners.
Named after “Stone Road” in English as it was paved with stones in the late Qing Dynasty, Shilu Street is in the nearby Jinchang District. The now-renewed street (it opened on New Year’s Eve 2004) is sprinkled with oversized musical fountains, towering trees, vibrant neon lights and clean rivers. Along the street, visitors can find cafés, pubs, local shops and more, with most stores open until 10 p.m.
Tongli Water Town
Located on the bank of famed Taihu Lake and east of the ancient Grand Canal, Tongli Water Town is one of the six famous water towns in the area and just 11 miles from Suzhou. Surrounded by lakes, its 47 bridges have auspicious names like Taiping (peace), Jili (luck) and Changing (celebration) and are regarded by locals as sacred architecture. With hundreds of gardens, temples, mansions and former celebrity residences built from 1271 to 1911 during the Ming and Qing Dynasties, there is much to explore.
Given its name by eminent monk Han Shan who lived there in the Tang Dynasty, it, like so many historic attractions in Suzhou, has a romantic link. From the bells tolling in its famous temple to a Tang Dynasty poem named “Mooring for the Night at Fengqiao Bridge,” its ancient walkways, temple and boats on Maple Lake make this an enchanting stop.
SIP (Suzhou Industrial Park)
Although the off-putting name conjures up thoughts of warehouses and factories, this is the newest, most modern and au courant area of Suzhou, filled with luxury apartments, modern hotels, stylish restaurants, new attractions and two man-made islands around Jinji Lake, the largest inland city lake in China. Visitors can walk around the lake or tour by a lake boat. Don’t miss the Suzhou Ferris Wheel, Asia’s largest water Ferris Wheel reaching nearly 400 feet above the lake, or the musical fountain and water curtain movie screen, the largest waterscape engineering in East China. SIP is also home to new hotels, including the Hyatt Regency and the soon-to-open W Suzhou (Summer 2017).