A stroll through a piece of heaven right here on Earth

High above, there is Heaven; down under, there is Su-Hang (上有天堂,下有苏杭) – so say we Chinese. Su-Hang, of course, refers to the cities of Suzhou (苏州) and Hangzhou (杭州), both handy getaway destinations for Shanghaiese.

Hangzhou may well be stealing the limelight as the host of the Asian Games this year, but low-key Suzhou is arguably the more elegant and culturally rich of the two. It is certainly closer – a train ride from either Shanghai Hongqiao or Shanghai Railway Station will take you there in about 25 minutes. Just make sure you head for Suzhou Station, not Suzhou North Station!

Most visitors head to Suzhou for the classical gardens (园林). So attractive are these UNESCO World Heritage sites that the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York took the trouble to build a model of one of them as early as 1981. You will do well by visiting at least one garden.

My own favorite is the Lion Grove (狮子林), which once belonged to the family of I.M. Pei, designer of not only the Louvre in Paris but also of his hometown's architectural gem of a museum, only five minutes away from the Grove.

Throw in a good lunch – Suzhou is famous for its soup dumplings (汤包) and specialty noodles, a stroll in the iconic Pingjiang Road (平江路) historical district, and some shopping for the city's fabled silk products, and you already have a splendid one-day itinerary.

A stroll through a piece of heaven right here on Earth
Louis Lee

The splendid Taihu Rock Grottoes at the author's favorite garden, the Lion Grove

Yet there is so much more to Suzhou than the picturesque city. Let's take a historical stroll.

After you arrive at Suzhou station, take the South Plaza Exit (南广场出口) where you will be greeted by a statue of the Song Dynasty (960-1279) chancellor, Fan Zhongyan (范仲淹).

Fan is best remembered for his foresight and responsible governance. "Be the first to be concerned about what is worrisome; be the last to take delight in the world's joy" (先天下之忧而忧, 后天下之乐而乐) was his motto that set a fine example for all scholar-officials that came after him.

Beyond the statue and across the moat stands Pingmen (平门), one of the eight gates (门) of the Old Town. The Old Town is remarkable in that its layout has remained broadly the same since its founding some two thousand years ago. Turn left, walk along the moat, cross the first bridge, and you are in the Old Town.

Continue walking on Renmin Road (人民路) and you will find the imposing Beisita (北寺塔), or the North Temple Pagoda, on your left after 15 minutes. With a history dating back to the Three Kingdoms Period (AD 220-280), when Suzhou was a Wu Kingdom (吴国) stronghold, the pagoda was the tallest edifice in Suzhou for much of the past 1,600 years.

It was so iconic that Suzhou's most celebrated garden, the much newer Humble Administrator's Garden (拙政园), which is still 500 years old, had to adopt it as a backdrop.

Enjoy a bit of tranquility at the temple teahouse followed by some succulent soup dumplings across the street from the temple entrance – the dumplings served at Wushengxing Dumplings (吴盛兴绉纱汤包) differ from those you find in Shanghai in that they do not have tips on top!

A stroll through a piece of heaven right here on Earth
Louis Lee

Suzhou Museum is an architectural gem designed by one of its most famous sons, I.M. Pei.

The stronger impulse after lunch would be to venture east to the Suzhou Museum and the adjacent Humble Administrator's Garden, but you won't do badly by going west either. The Taohuawu (桃花坞), or the Dock of Peach Blossoms, area was lined with studios producing New Year's woodcut paintings (桃花坞木刻年画) from the mid-Ming (1368-1644) to early Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.

Meander through narrow alleys, marvel at the distinctive local architecture, and get a real taste of local life until you reach Xizhongshi (西中市), one of the city's busiest roads in the late Ming and early Qing periods. It is still a bustling neighborhood.

The road leads to Changmen (阊门), another of the eight gates. For those familiar with Mandarin, I urge you to eavesdrop – much will remain incomprehensible to you, as it is the local Wu dialect that you will hear. Take the last right before the gate; you will cross a small canal. The canal is but one of the myriads of waterways in Old Town. Suzhou has often been referred to as Venice, and not for no reason.

A stroll through a piece of heaven right here on Earth
Louis Lee

Glorious Changmen at night

Look back to Xizhongshi and exit the gate this time. Continue onto the bridge, but take a rest once on it. Look to your right – if I have to pick an iconic spot in the city, this is it. You are at the confluence of the moat and two other canals, the bigger of which is named Shantang River (山塘河).

The stele you see at the pier marks a significant historical event. In the mid-14th century, Suzhou famously refused to concede to Zhu Yuanzhang as he was consolidating power to found the Ming Dynasty. As soon as Suzhou was captured, the new emperor wasted no time rounding up locals and exiling them, most of them to present-day northern Jiangsu Province. The exiles departed from the very pier you are seeing, and the Stele of Root-Seeking (寻根碑) commemorates the event.

Suzhou's waterways, which were connected to the Yangtze River and the Grand Canal of China, had better uses than exiling rebels. Lo and behold, you are actually standing at the CBD of the Jiangnan region from mid-Ming to early Qing. (Suzhou was only usurped as China's economic powerhouse in the mid-1800s – by who else but Shanghai).

Now continue and head toward the Shantang Scenic Area (山塘景区), where you can reminisce about the spot's vibrancy. The Shantang River runs parallel to its eponymous boulder-paved thoroughfare. Check out the little piers along the canal, which made goods delivery easy for the shops on Shantang Road, as well as several guilds (会馆) set up by merchants from other provinces. The guilds are now either museums or shops.

A stroll through a piece of heaven right here on Earth
Louis Lee

Baijuyi Pier, at the confluence of the moat and three canals. Note the Stele of Root-Seeking by the tree.

You have two good options at this point. The first is to walk along the entire canal up to the Tiger Hill (虎丘), a must-see not only for modern-day visitors but also for the early Qing emperors Kangxi (康熙) and Qianlong (亁隆), who each made it a compulsory stop for their respective six inspection tours down south.

The upper stretch of Shantang Road is a decidedly off-the-beaten-track delight. An alternative option is to return to Changmen, take the walk that runs between the city wall and the moat, and head south toward the southwestern gate of Panmen (盘门). Panmen distinguishes itself by being the only surviving land-and-water city gate in the whole of China.

Take your time exploring the Panmen Scenic Area; you may even be able to locate a gondola gifted by Suzhou's twin city! Budget three hours for either option. Round off your day with a proper Suzhou-style dinner; and await my next article on food in Suzhou!

A stroll through a piece of heaven right here on Earth
Louis Lee

A Venetian gondola in the Orient – a gift from Suzhou's twin city

About the author

Dr Louis Lee is an award-winning author, lecturer and radio presenter who has visited over 70 countries and regions, and toured China extensively. He is most at ease taking his students of all ages to all corners, from the historical observatories in Shanghai and Nanjing to the ancient whaling stations of the Azores. Lee, who hails from Hong Kong, has written over 180 books as well as music reviews and essays on education, psychology and culture for China's main newspapers and periodicals. He is fluent in Mandarin, Cantonese, English and German and has a working knowledge of Spanish and French.