Best Cities to Visit in China (IX): Suzhou

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Best Cities to Visit in China (IX): Suzhou

Best Cities to Visit in China: Suzhou

 

"The city is very great, as large as 60 square miles. It contains merchants of great wealth and an incalculable number of people. Indeed, if the men of this city and of the rest of the country had the spirit of soldiers they would conquer the world; but they are not soldiers at all, only accomplished traders and most skilled craftsmen. There are also in this city many great philosophers and others who do not appear to work." – Marco Polo, "On the Noble City of Soochow"

 

One of China's most famous and prosperous cities throughout the centuries, Suzhou is above all famous for two things: silk and gardens. The nearby Grand Canal, completed in 609 CE, facilitated trade with north China, helping to bring in wealth, craftsmen, merchants and increasing numbers of officials as Suzhou became one of the Middle Kingdom's most important centers of commerce and shipping. 

 

To be sure, this is no "Venice of the East" – much of the city's postcard charm has eroded with development – but nevertheless, an effort has been made to restore certain important cultural sites and develop others. 

 

Best Cities to Visit in China: Suzhou

 

What's Here?

Suzhou's greatest legacy is its private gardens, many of which are centuries old. These gardens were attached to the residences of wealthy merchants or officials and offer insight not just into landscape design but Chinese aesthetics, architecture and philosophy as a whole. There were once as many as 200 gardens here, but now only about 16 are open to the public. Since most are relatively small, they tend to get crowded very fast – start your visits at 7:30am. 

 

The most famous gardens include: the Master of Nets (the smallest and most exquisite), the Humble Administrator's Garden (the largest and most impressive), the Pavilion of the Waves (featured briefly in Shen Fu's Six Records of a Floating Life), the Lions' Grove (built by a Buddhist monk), and the charming Garden to Linger In.

 

Best Cities to Visit in China: Suzhou

 

After the gardens, the next big sight is the striking Suzhou Museum, designed by native son I. M. Pei. The museum has a large and diverse collection, ranging from local artifacts and textiles to Chinese paintings and porcelain, a reproduction of a Ming dynasty scholar's study and temporary modern art exhibits. 

 

Another popular visit is the Silk Museum, which introduces the ancient textile industry that made the city famous. A few other scattered temples and opera and storytelling museums ensure that you will have plenty to keep you busy over a two-day visit.