A city of culture, canals, crafts and exquisite gardens — nine are UNESCO World Heritage treasures, designed from the 11th to the 19th centuries — Suzhou, China, is just 30 minutes from Shanghai by bullet train. "Heaven above, Suzhou and Hangzhou below," an ancient Chinese proverb says about it. That's a lot to live up to. But in spring, flowers and festivals abound in this 2,500-year-old city. Celebrate the year of the rooster in style.

Wander in the Humble Administrator’s Garden

Photo by Jonathan via Flickr

This 16th-century garden is Suzhou’s biggest, built by a government official who retired to enjoy gardening. Chinese gardens are designed to mimic nature in miniature, so it has ponds and streams, dense forests of bamboo and pine, three islands, poetically named pavilions with Ming Dynasty furnishings, flowers and a teahouse. It’s alive with vivid magenta when about 70,000 azaleas bloom during the Azalea Festival from March to May (in summer it hosts a lotus festival). Check out the “map” composed of 2,500 jade pieces at the entrance. 

No. 178 Dongbei St., Suzhou,
Jiangsu, China


Explore Pingjiang Road

Photo by S Tsui via Flickr

South of the garden, this narrow 800-year-old flagstone street next to a canal is the heart of the well-preserved historic district in northeast Suzhou. It’s flanked by whitewashed houses roofed with black tiles, small arched bridges, quaint teahouses, Buddhist and Daoist temples, shops, restaurants, inns and tiny lanes. Hear pingtan, traditional singing-storytelling accompanied by a stringed instrument, in a theater, teahouse or at the Pingtan Museum. Admire the ornate costumes and makeup of Chinese opera on stage at the Kunqu Opera Museum, which houses more than 100 opera-related items and thousands of photos. Nightly Kunqu opera performances take place in the Master of the Nets Garden, a 12th-century garden in southeast Suzhou, where red lanterns bedeck the main gate and you’re greeted by men clad in dragon gowns holding masks. 

Pingjiang Rd., Suzhou, Jiangsu, China
Master of the Nets Garden, No. 1 Kuo JIa Tou Lane, Suzhou, Jiangsu, China


Get schooled in the ancient art of silk making 

Suzhou Silk Museum via Website

Suzhou is famous for silk making, and its high-quality silk was once used for royal bedding and clothes. In fact, the city resembles a piece of double-sided embroidery, a fabled local craft, where a different “painting” of meticulously woven silk threads appears on each side. On one side, see ancient Suzhou and its traditional art forms; on the other, the skyscraper-filled modern city. The Humble Administrator’s Garden displays masterpieces of silk landscapes and flowers in its Embroidery Pavilion.

Watch a demo about the silk-making process and see a fascinating film
 silkworms munch on mulberry leaves, humans sort their cocoons, machines spin thread from the cocoons, then looms weave the silk  at Suzhou No. 1 Silk Factory. Its shop sells Chinese and Western clothing, bedding, brocade and scarves. Learn about the city's silk history at the Suzhou Silk Museum.

Suzhou No. 1 Silk Factory, No. 94 Nanmen Rd., Suzhou, Jiangsu, China. +86 512 65613733; 1st-silk.com
Suzhou Silk Museum, No. 2001 Renmin Rd., Ping Jiang Qu, Suzhou, Jiangsu, China. +86 512 67535943; szsilkmuseum.com


Treasure teatime       

Photo by Charlie Qiu via Flickr

It probably doesn't come as a surprise that tea is prized in China. Serving it is an art form, and you’re expected to sip it slowly and reverently. Biluochun green tea is one of China’s top teas, and you can join in the bud-to-teacup process during the Biluochun Tea Culture and Tourism Festival in late March. Visitors at tea plantations can help pick the tea, watch the roasting of tender buds, taste the delicate result and enjoy folk art performances. The festival is near Taihu Lake in a mountainous farm region ringed by 72 peaks (actually, green mountains, islets and peninsulas). If you find yourself there in March, you’ll be lucky enough to see plum blossoms blanket the trees and hills with pink snow during the Taihu Plum Blossom Festival.


Mingle with the locals at Suzhou Industrial Park

Photo by Simon D via Flickr

This modern (and misnamed) complex is where hip expats and locals go to dine and drink at a wide array of restaurants on the Li Gong Di causeway. Or hear jazz or pop, or see the ballet or catch a movie. Or hop on the Ferris wheel for a bird’s-eye city view, or sail on Jinji Lake (check out the colorful dancing fountains at night), or ride a bike. Or visit a gallery, like the Yao Jianping Embroidery Hall. Or shop at Times Square mall, where, on weekends, the world’s biggest LED "sky screen" is a changing slideshow of images from flowers in bloom to a gold dragon jumping from the water. If the shiny newness reminds you of Singapore, no surprise: China tapped Singapore to co-develop SIP. Hard to believe it’s just 20 minutes by subway from Pingjiang Road.

Wuzhong Qu, Suzhou, Jiangsu, China. sipac.gov.cn​


Gorge on seafood

Photo by Danny Pang via Flickr

Due to the many lakes and rivers nearby, seafood is very popular in Suzhou. Savor local specialties like squirrel-shaped Mandarin fish in sweet-and-sour sauce, Yangcheng Lake hairy crabs, Biluochun tea shrimp and eel rolls at Songhelou Restaurant, a famous restaurant built in 1737 where a Chinese emperor once dined. It's located just off Guanqian Street, Suzhou’s busiest street.

No. 72 Taijian Lane, Pingjiang District, Suzhou, Jiangsu, China. 
+86 512 67700588

By Sharon McDonnell

Sharon McDonnell is a San Francisco-based travel and food/beverage writer for many outlets.