With so many towns, cities and points of interest in China, it can be overwhelming to know what to do. This essential guide gives you the best advice regarding where to stay, what to eat, where to drink and what to do whilst visiting Suzhou, China.

Suzhou (sue-joe), or the Venice of the East as it is sometimes known, is a water city about two hours away from Shanghai Pudong Airport. It was also the place I called ‘home’ whilst living in South-East Asia. Despite being unknown to most outside China, Suzhou is a fast growing city with an abundance of beautiful chinese gardens, delicious restaurants and a connected network of expats. Below you’ll find my essential guide for Suzhou with everything you need to navigate this wonderful city.

City Structure

Similarly to how many large western cities are split into boroughs, districts or areas, Suzhou is separated into a few areas. These are the three most notable Suzhou districts:

  • Downtown Suzhou/Gusu

The historical part of the city which boasts narrow streets, traditional canals, and a very real insight into modern-day China.

  • SIP (Suzhou Industrial Park)

A newly built area which comprises of both residential and commercial buildings. It is home to Suzhou Centre (a VERY large shopping centre), the famous trouser building and the Suzhou Art and Exhibition Centre. It is also where most expats live and work.

  • SND (Suzhou New District)

Kind of does what it says on the tin – an up and coming area of Suzhou which is largely under construction. It has a few very wealthy schools which in turn also means lots of wealthy people. The SND is quickly becoming a place to live and work for expats, but if you’re only in Suzhou for tourism, it probably isn’t worth your trouble visiting.

Transport

Suzhou’s transport is one of the best I’ve experienced in China. As a fast growing and modern city, Suzhou’s network of buses, trains and tubes ensure almost any part of Suzhou is accessible.

High Speed and Slow Trains

There are two railway stations in Suzhou: Suzhou Railway Station and Suzhou North Station. Suzhou Railway Station is located almost within the centre of the city whilst its northern counterpart is a little further out but still easily accessible by metro. Both offer fast (bullet) and slow trains with some able to take you to as far as Beijing.

I would recommend downloading the Trip.com app and either checking which train you want or buying in advance. If you buy in advance, the app will give you a Order Number which you can hand over to the ticket office with your passport. If you buy at the ticket office, these can work as a good translation or reference point.

Note: always arrive for your trains at least 30 minutes in advance. Chinese railway stations are more like airports.

Subway/Underground

Suzhou has three subway lines: Line 1, Line 2 and Line 4. (I’m not quite sure what happened to 3…)

This is a quickly developing method of transport in the city and the local government has plans to expand these significantly over the coming years. Costing between 1-5元 each time or you can get a Suzhou Card which reduces the price slightly (acts similarly to a London Oyster Card).

Note: The Underground/Subway in China acts similarly to airport security. You will be asked to put your bag through security and any opened water bottles need to be drunk from in front of the guard.

chinese underground train
Image Courtesy of Without A Tour

Buses

An older form of transport but still incredibly efficient and organised. Great for getting to further reaching parts of Suzhou or for getting a real insight into Chinese life, the buses are a great way to explore the city. Either use a Suzhou card as mentioned for the underground and swipe when boarding the bus or simply drop between 1-4元 into the box next to the driver (the cost is usually lit up above his head).

If you have an iPhone, Apple maps can give you direct routes to places you want to visit with correct bus routes and prices – I used this almost every day!

Taxi

Green in colour and almost everywhere, Suzhou’s taxis can be flagged down on almost any street. Like everywhere in the world, you shouldn’t expect the taxi driver to speak English so make sure you have a Chinese address for your destination and you point to the metre!

DiDi

Think Uber but in China. A really easy way to get around and it removes the awkward discussion of where you want to go (kinda). Best for those with a Chinese SIM card and debit card, Didi is cheaper, easier and quicker than most traditional taxis.

Note: Many DiDi drivers will still want directions once you get close to your location and some will call you if they can’t find you once you’ve ordered the car. There is an instant messaging element to the app and I would recommend pre-typing (copying and pasting) a message in simplified Chinese into the instant replies that highlights you’re a foreigner/don’t speak Chinese. It helps a lot!

Where to stay in Suzhou

Where to stay in Suzhou is largely based upon your budget, reasons for travel and interests.

£: Suzhou Blue Gate Hostel 

Prices are around £4 a night for a dorm bed. I have never stayed here but the location, reviews and cost would make it a likely choice if I were to ever stay in a hotel.

££: Mecure Hotel Downtown Suzhou

Prices are around £40 a night for a big double/twin room. This is where my parents stayed when they visited Suzhou. It’s two minutes from Pinghe underground station and incredibly comfy.

£££: Crowne Plaza Suzhou

Prices are around £100-120 a night with views of the lake. Personally, I would never pay this much for a hotel in Asia but it is luxurious and the Woo Bar attached to it is high-end and classy.

Essential Places to Visit in Suzhou

Whilst there are many incredible places to visit whilst in Suzhou, I have chosen just three which highlight not only the city’s ancient beauty but also how it’s developing itself into a metropolis.

A full guide of all the places to visit in Suzhou is coming soon…

  • Shantang Jie/Street

Looking to visit an ancient water town whilst in Suzhou but not sure you have the time to go to Tongli or Luzhi, no problem – go to Shangtang Jie. Small cobbled streets, touristy shops, sticky tofu in the air…what more could you want.

How to get there: Underground. Exit via Shi Lu Station (Exit 12) or Shantang Jie Station.

Cost: Free. Although options to pay to go on a boat down the river.

traditional chinese water town with boats and lanterns
Image courtesy of Without A Tour
  • Tiger Hill

Tiger Hill or Huqui Tower is not just any old pagoda. Closely linked with the Yunyan Temple, this incredibly pagoda is a symbol of Suzhou and one not to be missed. Whilst it leans slightly (think the Leaning Tower of Pisa), this beautiful tower is situated amongst stunning gardens and water features. A historical treasure you cannot miss!

How to get there: A tricky one to describe how to get there. I would recommend getting a subway to Pinghe Road and grabbing a 10-minute taxi. It will be the quickest and easiest option. There are tourist buses which stop off there but usually, the best way is to order a taxi and just show the driver a picture.

Cost: 80元 during peak season (April to October) or 60元 during low season (November-March).

tiger hill pagoda
Image courtesy of Katrina @ www.travelbrighter.com
  • Suzhou Centre Mall

Suzhou Centre Mall is situated next to Jinji Lake and is noted as being the city’s largest shopping in the city. I wouldn’t usually be inclined to include a shopping mall in a list of essential places to visit in a city, but Suzhou Centre Mall is quite something. Spanning a space of over 300,000 square metres, the mall offers an array of shops, restaurants (menus in English!), cafes, cinemas and even an ice rink and games centre. With several viewing platforms throughout the shopping centre, it is easy to mistake the building for a tourist attraction.

Located near to the famous Gate To The East building (also known to expats as The Trouser Building), Jinji Lake, The Crowne Plaza Hotel and the Suzhou Museum and Exhibition Centre, the Suzhou Centre Mall is well worth a visit – even if it is just for lunch!

How to get there: Take metro Line 1 to Dongfangzhimen Station. The Mall will be signposted in English.

Cost: FREE!

Suzhou's gate to the east at night
Image Courtesy of @bozkurtko via Instagram

Where to eat in Suzhou

Whether you’re new to China or have been visiting for years, the largest thing that usually stands in people’s way is WHERE to eat. Unless you’re fluent in Mandarin or open to eating absolutely everything (I mean everything!) then eating in China can be a little tricky. If you’re in Suzhou for 48 hours and looking for restaurants to eat at, I would recommend the following:

My all-time FAVOURITE restaurant in the whole of China – Lingron Dry Pot. A customisable and very accessible restaurant that doesn’t cost more than about £3 per person. Available in a range of flavours and meat types, there is something for everyone. See the image below for an insight into the yumminess.

How to get there: Come out of Exit 4 from Lindun Lu Station (the exit is unhelpfully straight onto a relatively busy road) and as soon as you can, use one of the canal bridges on your left to get off the road. Walk for about 5 minutes until you almost meet the main shopping street. It’s a restaurant with large glass windows and people will be sat around tables with giant woks.

What to eat: The crispy chicken was my favourite. We added lots of vegetables, fried potatoes and tofu skin.

Why I love it: It’s a build your own meal kind of place where food is served in large woks which you finish cooking at your table. I went over 20 times and the novelty nor the appeal of the food ever wore off. Also, unlike many restaurants in Suzhou, this place has an English menu and the staff are very accommodating to those who speak little Mandarin. If my directions fail, there’s a McDonalds nearby (don’t hate me).

chinese dry pot on table
Image courtesy of Without A Tour

Located close to the ancient street of Shantang Jie, this restaurant serves delicious local food and doesn’t over-charge despite being in one of the main tourist areas.

How to get there: Take exit 12 from Shi Lu station. Walk straight until you see Mcdonalds on the other side of the road. Now turn left and walk until you get to a cross-roads. Cross straight over and then, when safe, cross to the right hand side of the road. If all else fails, use Apple Maps – it will work wonders!

What to eat: Chicken Dumplings that come in an MSG broth (it’s worth it) or the soup dumplings which are filled with pork and tasty when dipped in Chinese black vinegar.

Why I love it: Cheap, local food, served right next to one of the best areas of Suzhou.

Where to drink in Suzhou

Best for: cheap nights and pre-drinks.

Clientele: Expats and Chinese partiers.

Where to next: Ellen’s or Syndrome Downtown.

Best for: Watching sport and Wednesday night Burger Deal.

Clientele: Expats

Where to next: Home.

Best for: Cocktails, date night, or entertaining clients.

Clientele: Expats and wealthy Chinese locals.

Where to next…

So you’ve been to Suzhou and you’re looking where to go next. I would recommend:

  • Hangzhou

Often mentioned alongside Suzhou, Hangzhou is the beautiful capital city of Anhui province. A wonderful place to spend a few days, Hangzhou is home to beautiful scenery, pagodas and The National Tea Museum of China. Well worth a visit.

hangzhou west lake
Image courtesy of Without A Tour
  • Wuxi

Home to Linghshan, the giant Buddha, and multiple beautiful temples. Wuxi is a great option to explore for the day or as a stepping stone to elsewhere in China.

big buddha at lingshan in wuxi
Image courtesy of Without A Tour
  • Shanghai

The metropolis. An incredible city and one most people pass through when visiting China. If you’re looking hustle and bustle, an underground propaganda museum and the world’s largest Starbucks, head to Shanghai.

Image courtesy Edward He on Unsplash
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