Lonely Planet Writer

Just back from: Suzhou, China

Megan enjoying a sunny walk along the canals © Megan Eaves Megan enjoying a sunny walk along the canals © Megan Eaves

Megan Eaves, Destination Editor for North Asia, recently returned from a trip to Suzhou, China.

Tell us more… I spent a week hanging out in chilled-out Suzhou, a historic city not far from Shanghai on China’s east coast. Suzhou is most well-known for its canals and its classical gardens, and it has a really lovely ancient feel. There is a grid of streets dating to the Qing, Ming and Song dynasties as far back as the 900s.

In a nutshell… Suzhou has 69 classical gardens that are collectively a Unesco World Heritage Site. Most of these were built by wealthy families and scholars as places for contemplation, debate and respite. In addition to visiting several of these gardens, I also went green-tea picking, took a canal boat ride and ate lots and lots of delicious food.

An evening performance at the Garden of the Master of the Nets © Megan Eaves An evening performance at the Garden of the Master of the Nets © Megan Eaves

Defining moment? Going to an evening performance in the idyllic Garden of the Master of the Nets. The garden is all lit up in magical lights under a clear evening sky, and as you walk through the various halls and rockeries, performers play classical Chinese music and give theatrical renditions of traditional stories and plays. It was an absolutely magnificent evening, with the full moon out, glistening off the water of the garden’s ponds, and the sound of erhu (a Chinese two-stringed bowed instrument) strings floating on the warm breeze. It was like being transported into a moment of classical Chinese poetry.

Good grub? But of course! This is China, after all. Suzhou’s cuisine (sū bāng cài, 苏帮菜) is a little different than some of the more widely exported Chinese food. The city’s most beloved dish is the squirrel-shaped mandarin fish: a fish is deboned except for its tail, then sliced into a pattern and deep-fried so that the pieces stick up in easily-munchable slices. Everything is coated in a sweet-and-sour sauce – one of the most moreish dishes you will consume in China (and that’s saying something). I also had plenty of street food snacks, as well as a really lush modern Chinese meal at the W Suzhou hotel’s Su Yan restaurant, which has an amazing view of Jinji Lake.

Examples of traditional Jiangnan-style architecture along Suzhou's canals © Megan Eaves Examples of traditional Jiangnan-style architecture along Suzhou's canals © Megan Eaves

You’d be a muppet to miss… A boat ride around Suzhou’s canals. It has become a bit of a cliche to call the city the ‘Venice of the East’, but the fact is that Suzhou has just as many charming canals as its Italian counterpart and they are a huge part of the life and culture here. There are lots of companies offering boat rides, during which you get to see some of the ‘backstreet’ canals where locals’ homes still overlook the waterways, with stoops covered in potted plants and hanging laundry.

Fridge magnet or better? Silk production has historically been a big industry in Suzhou, so you’ll see lots of silk items on sale and you can pay a visit to a silk production factory to see how silk cocoons are harvested and transformed into thread and eventually fabric. I came away with a beautiful silk handheld fan, as well as a scarf that’s so lightweight and smooth and luxurious. Oh… and Suzhou has some of the best Chinglish signs in all of China, so I got plenty of great pictures for my collection.

A tai chi master demonstrates the forms in the Humble Administrator's Garden © Megan Eaves A tai chi master demonstrates the forms in the Humble Administrator's Garden © Megan Eaves

Fave activity? I was given a unique opportunity to have a tai chi lesson with a martial arts master inside Suzhou’s drawcard garden, the Humble Administrator’s Garden. It was pretty amazing learning tai chi (a very slow moving martial art practised to harness one’s inner energy for self-defence) in the surrounds of a classical garden with loads of tourists going by. We were quite a spectacle, and lots of people stopped to watch and take photos. It also sparked an interest for me, and I’ve actually signed up for tai chi lessons since coming back home!

Megan Eaves travelled to Suzhou with support from Suzhou Tourism. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.