Dubbed “Venice of the East,” the ancient city of Suzhou, located in the Yangtze River Delta, teems with enchanting canals and winding waterways. Complemented by waterside gardens, sacred landmarks and historic dwellings, Suzhou’s dynamic thoroughfare of narrow water passages are among the oldest and most charming in the world. Here is a look at some favorite Suzhou waterways.
The Grand Canal
The Suzhou Grand Canal, like the Great Wall, is one of China’s most magnificent and astounding creations. Approximately 1,200 miles (1,776 km) from tip-to-tip, the Grand Canal is the longest man-made waterway in the world. Officially known as the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal, its route runs from Beijing in the north to Hangzhou in the south, connecting to various river systems along the way.
The origins of the Grand Canal can be traced as far back as 495 B.C., making it more than 2,000 years old. 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.
While much of the Grand Canal is no longer in use, various sections running through Suzhou can still be toured. More than 50 miles (80 km) of scenery and wonder flank the waterway, including hundreds of old-world river dwellings, ten ancient city gates, twenty-plus stone bridges and two of Suzhou’s crown jewels, Hanshan Temple and West Garden Temple. For an added treat, consider an evening boat tour to see the sights illuminated along its historic stretch.
Widely considered downtown Suzhou or the old city center, a portion of the Gusu District (once the Canglang, Pingjiang and part of the Jinchang districts) is entirely bound by a large, rectangular canal. Known as the Weichang River or City Moat, nine east-west canals and 12 north-south canals exist within its boundaries. Along each passage lies a bounty of Suzhou’s rich culture and history.
On foot, enjoy the sights and sounds of Pingjiang Street as you watch traditional Chinese boats pass by and hear melodic Pingtan music echoing from each teahouse. Gaze at the architectural stylings of the Ming and Qing dynasties and adore the magnificent Master of the Nets Garden with a voyage down Shiquan Street. Stretching northwest from Changmen Gate to Tiger Hill, Shantang Street abounds with historic temples, ancestral halls and memorial arches — specifically Old Shantang Street, a 395-yard (361 m) slice often referred to as “old Suzhou’s miniature.”
For a rare vantage of the ancient city and its labyrinth of canals, take a boat tour on the Weichang River (Hu Cheng He), or City Moat as it’s also known. From the arresting Panmen Gate — once the city wall of Suzhou — to the amorous landscapes of the Couple’s Retreat Garden, so much can be seen from this below-street-level perspective.
While Suzhou’s old town boasts an eclectic mix of aquatic channels and river systems, its sophisticated water towns showcase a spellbinding array of waterways. For a real local experience in the countryside, take a lazy stroll along a tree-shaded path or spend hours sipping herbal tea at a waterside teahouse. After all, it is the “Suzhou way of life.”
Set sail for a relaxed cruise through the meandering canals of Luzhi, best known for its Buddhist sanctuary, Shen Temple. Or opt for a romantic gondola ride alongside the whitewashed homes, lush hills and outstretched gardens of Mudu. Head to Zhouzhuang to spend time at its five lakes, or explore a sundry of water lanes to see the famed Twin Bridges, Shen Residence and Zhang Residence. Tongli, in Suzhou’s Wujiang District, boasts fifteen brooks and a staggering forty-seven bridges, the most celebrated bridges being Taiping (peace), Jili (luck), and Changing (celebration). If you’re lucky, you may even catch a couple of newlyweds walking over one of these bridges — it’s believed to bring peace, fortune and happiness to their union.
Featured Tour Packages
15-Days : Mandarin Sunrise
Travel a full circle in China over 15 days, discovering temples, tombs, palaces and cities along the way on this amazing adventure. Start in Beijing, travel to the Terracotta Warriors in Xi'an, take a city tour of Shanghai, and enjoy a cruise on the Grand Canal in Suzhou.
8-Days : Eastern China Private Tour: Shanghai, Suzhou, Hangzhou and Huangshan
From Shanghai, make a day excursion to Suzhou and admire waterfront views on a boat ride on the Grand Canal. Then, visit one of the largest and most renowned classical gardens in Suzhou – the Humble Administrator’s Garden. Explore its natural landscape and marvel at the Ming Style temples, pavilions and bridges. To end the day see the Pan Men (Coiled Gate), which is Suzhou’s only remaining city gate.
8 Night: Private China Classic Tour
Popular choice for most first time visitors to see the Great Wall in Beijing, Terracotta Warriors in Xian, modern Shanghai and beautiful gardens of Suzhou.
Humble Administrator’s Garden is one of China’s finest, the centerpiece of a UNESCO World Heritage Site that comprises nine classical Suzhou gardens. Visitors during spring and summer may attend the azalea or lotus festival. Adjacent, the Suzhou Museum is the latest masterpiece of China’s most famous architect, I.M. Pei. For transportation, take tourist buses No.1, 2 or 5.
Traveling with children? Don't miss the Suzhou Amusement Park at Junji Lake with zipline ride, a dancing water fountain show on weekends and one of the world's tallest Ferris Wheels. The 60 cabins carrying a total of 300 passengers take 20 minutes per rotation, providing great views of the lake and the Suzhou skyline.
Currency in Suzhou, and throughout China, is abbreviated as CNY for Chinese Yen or as RMB for Renminbi. Along with 13 other major currencies, US dollars can be exchanged at all the outlets of the state banks of China at the same rate. Bring a passport to make any transaction.
Known as the "Silk Capital of the World", those keen to see silkworms in action can be guided through the process from mulberry leaves to finished product at Suzhou No. 1 Silk Mill. The region's temperate, subtropical zone that's ideal for deciduous mulberry trees has supported 5,000 years of silk cultivation.
Picturesque canals, stone bridges, temples, gardens and pagodas make the ancient city of Suzhou one of China's top tourism destinations. Calligraphy carved onto Tiger Hill rocks indicate that it has attracted visitors for thousands of years. A Song Dynasty poet, Su Shi, said, "It is a lifelong pity if having visited Suzhou you did not visit Tiger Hill."
In Suzhou, the regional Chinese language is called Wu, the subgroup is called Taihu, and the local dialect, one of nine, is known as Suzhounese, considered one of the most elegant, flowing in all of China. Most people are bilingual in Mandarin used in schools, because Suzhounese is not mutually intelligible with either Mandarin or Cantonese.
Atop Tiger Hill, the Yunyan Pagoda, nicknamed the Leaning Tower of China, stands as a symbol of Suzhou. Completed during the Song Dynasty in the year 961, the 1,000-year-old pagoda is taller than the Leaning Tower of Pisa and has become a symbol of Suzhou. The 3-degree tilt means that since 2010, visitors are no longer permitted entry.
Visit an authentic Buddhist monastery and temple just 3 miles west Suzhou old town. The temple has been well-known since the Tang Dynasty of the 7th and 8th centuries. Take bus No. 3, 6, 9, 17, 21, 31, 301 or Y3 and get off at Fengqaio Station.
Suzhou Railway Station, one of China's busiest, dates back to 1906. Now throughly modernized, the fast train connection with a design speed of 217 miles per hour covers the 52 miles to Shanghai in a journey of only a 24 minutes.
One of the best ways to tour the "Venice of the East" is from a front row seat on a hand-steered canal boat. Afterwards, stop into 130-year-old Pin Von Teahouse for exotic teas served in private booths on the second floor. It overlooks Pingjiang Lu, an 800-year-old lively pedestrian street, one of China's "National Historic and Cultural Streets."