Often referred to as “Venice of the East,” Suzhou, China offers an off-the-beaten-path experience for even the most well-traveled clients. Its lakes, waterways and ancient gardens are spread throughout the city offering a natural oasis to the modern, urban sections.
Located about 60 miles west of Shanghai, the city lies in the center of the Yangtze Delta. Travelers can easily take a day trip to (or from) Shanghai in about an hour by high-speed rail.
Other than the gardens, another big draw is the number of corporate buildings in the city. Dozens of international companies have offices nearby including Apple, Mercedes Benz, Microsoft, Samsung, Johnson & Johnson and Tesla Motors.
When to Go
Because of its location, Suzhou experiences hot and humid summers and chilly winters making the best time to visit the city in spring (March through May) or autumn (October through November.) If clients don’t mind trading less crowded streets for their winter coats, then winter is still a bearable time to travel, with temperatures ranging from the low 50s to the low 30s. Summer is generally the best time to avoid as it gets extremely hot, rainy and crowded.
Book a trip during the fall for any foodie-inclined client. October through December are the only times of year that hairy crab can be enjoyed. Known for their furry claws, tender meat and sweet and creamy orange roe, hairy crabs are a sought-after Suzhou specialty.
There are plenty of restaurants that serve it but one of the best is DeYueLou Restaurant (43 Taijian Alley, Gusu District; and 8 Ligongdi Road, Suzhou Industrial Park). Designed in traditional Suzhou garden architecture style, the restaurant is one of the city’s oldest, having opened 400 years ago.
Another fall favorite is Fengzhen noodles, long thin soup noodles often served with meats deep fried fish and shrimp in a clear broth. Check out Tong De Xing (624 Shiquan Street, Canglang District) for some of the best noodles in the city.
If clients are planning a trip for late spring or early summer, a must-see event is the dragon boat festivals in May and June. The ancient tradition is celebrated throughout many parts of China but especially so in Suzhou. Participants race long boats with dragon heads; it’s also a time to ward off illness. Many locals (especially in the more rural areas) will hang mugwort, garlic, or other plants outside their door to keep away disease and bad luck.
Where to Stay
W Suzhou is one of a couple new luxury hotels that have sprung up in the city. And it’s no wonder affluent travelers choose Suzhou, with much of the city covered in water, there’s no reason not to get a room with a water view.
This hotel happens to be next to Jinji Lake and across the street from a park, which makes for a perfect place for a relaxing stroll.
The hotel itself offers 334 guest rooms and 45 suites, in addition to 60 serviced apartments great for business travelers who are planning longer stays. Rooms feature the brand’s signature modern design with colorful statement fixtures. Try to book clients the Wonderful Room for amazing views from the bathtub.
At W Suzhou, guests can grab a quick snack at the Woobar or sit down for a more refined meal at Su Yan featuring local specialties, Toro Loco for grilled meats and tapas, or the international Kitchen Table buffet.
Amenities include the AWAY Spa, FIT wellness center, and WET indoor heated pool.
Shangri-La Hotel, Suzhou
Located on the 28th through 51st floor of the Metropolitan Tower, the Shangri-La was made for optimal city views. The 390 guestrooms and suites offer a minimum of 450-square-feet of space and expand as large as the 2,400-square-foot Presidential Suite. There are also two- and three-bedroom serviced apartments for longer stays.
For your ultra-VIP clients, make sure to book them a Horizon Club room. Guests in these rooms receive special attention from hotel staff as well as private check-in/out, hot beverages delivered to the room with wakeup call, and access to the private lounge. The lounge offers daily breakfast, evening cocktails and canapés, all-day beverages, Wi-Fi, suit-pressing and shoe shines.
There are five dining and bar options on the property including a pastry and chocolate shop, Japanese Nishimura Restaurant and the Cantonese Shang Palace.
Other highlights include a health club, spa, Jacuzzi, sauna, steam bath, indoor swimming pool and outdoor tennis courts.
On the other side of Jinji Lake is the InterContinental Suzhou. Many rooms, including standard accommodations, offer views of the lakes from the bed or the bathtub.
Club-level rooms include access to the private lounge, dedicated staff, complimentary breakfast, evening drinks, canapés and a personalized welcome, including a special gift and turndown service.
The property’s dining options include Jing, offering global cuisine, Riva Mediterranean Steakhouse, Xiu Chinese restaurant, and The Lounge, where guests can relax with a cup of coffee or tea. Make sure clients don’t miss Carumba, offering a selection of rum, whiskey and cocktails as well as a cigar lounge and wine cellar with live music.
What to Do
Spend Time in a Garden
No trip to Suzhou would be complete without time spent in in one of the city’s 69 preserved gardens—nine of which are designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites. While clients certainly don’t have to see all of them, there are some that stand out as must-sees.
Humble Administrator’s Garden is the city’s largest and one of the most famous in China. It was built in the 16th century and features a maze of ponds, pavilions, and trees.
For those looking to see more manmade structures, the Lingering Garden is full of Qing Dynasty architecture. It’s divided into four areas: hills in the west, pastoral scenery in the north, structures in the east, and water features at the center. The sections are connected by a long walkway where old calligraphy can be found carved into the walls.
Buy a Wedding Dress
Down several streets near Tiger Hill, travelers can find hundreds bridal shops specializing in dresses made of one of Suzhou’s biggest exports, silk. In fact, the city produces a fair share of the world’s supply. And it’s no surprise since the material dates back 6,000 years in China.
Brides-to-be can find dresses ranging in price (from next to nothing to a few thousand dollars) and quality. The higher quality stores will mostly be on the main street, but window shoppers might want to head down the smaller streets just for fun. They might also get a better deal in smaller shops as the store owners are often willing to negotiate.
The area isn’t just for brides, however. There are also quite a few shops for menswear and other types of gowns.
If your newly engaged clients are looking for a souvenir to remember, make sure they have time to check this area out.
Take a Gondola Ride Through Water Town
If it weren’t for the traditional Ming and Qing Dynasty architecture, you’d swear you were in Venice. Zhouzhuang, like Venice, is built on local waterways and residents and tourists get around by boat. While it’s not in Suzhou, it’s only 18 miles out of the city and well worth the trip.
More than half of the buildings in the area were built between 1368 and 1911, making Zhouzhuang not just visually fascinating but historically, as well.
There are also lots of traditional shops in town, perfect for clients who are looking for more authentic keepsakes. The narrow streets are lined with herbal medicine shops, tea houses, bamboo weaving stores and businesses selling local silks.
Visit the Suzhou Museum
There’s also a collection of rotating exhibits, many of which feature international artists and museum collaborations.
The building itself is a work of art. The museum itself was founded in 1960 and is housed in the Zhong Wang Fu palace complex. Using traditional design, the building is surrounded by a series of gardens and courtyards. The Great Hall connects all areas of the museum and features unique geometric patterns of squares and triangles with plenty of windows to bring in natural light.
Where to Eat
If dining at the 400-year-old DeYueLou Restaurant is too modern for your clients, send them to Songhelou Restaurant (72, Taijian Lane, Pingjiang District). The 2,000-year-old establishment in Taijian Alley serves up authentic Suzhou dishes. Make sure clients order squirrel fish, a local favorite of fried fish dressed with a sweet and sour sauce. And don't worry: Squirrels aren't an actual ingredient.
Eating vegetarian in China isn’t as difficult as it seems. Thanks to the abundance of Buddhists, many restaurants cater specifically to them. Lotus in Water Vegetarian Restaurant (Yan Su Ji in Chinese; 1B-121 Xindu Plaza, Jinjihu Rd., Industrial Park) in a top choice for a high-end vegetarian meal. The large selection of imitation meat dishes will satisfy both carnivore and herbivore.
For more Western-style fare, check out Taiwanese steakhouse chain Wang Steak (Wang Pin Tai Su Niu Pai; 158-116, Xinggang Street, Industry Zone). The restaurant prides itself on only using six parts of the cow to ensure the highest quality product. Make sure to leave room for dessert since it’s equally known for its steaks as its sweet treats.