• Ilaria Storelli


I was lucky enough to get the chance to live in 蘇州 - Suzhou for one year and a half and discover this beautiful city. Suzhou is located in China’s Jiangsu province, not far from Shanghai. It’s very famous all over China and in the whole world for its classical gardens and for silk production. Many poets and Chinese artists through the centuries have been enchanted by this city, as I was too, and praised its beauty in their works of art. It is also known as “the Venice of the East”, because the city center is full of beautiful canals, just like Venice. The two cities are also twin - cities and there must be a reason! Well, now let’s get to the point, I’m here to tell you about my top 8 favorite places in the city! Let’s begin.

1. 北寺塔 (Běisì tǎ) - The North temple Pagoda

This was one of the first places I visited when I moved to Suzhou and it quickly became one of my favorite places. The original site dates back to 1.700 years ago, it collapsed and was built again during the centuries. The original pagoda was built in the Southern Song Dynasty (1153 BC) and it’s the tallest in Suzhou. The big pagoda is right in front of the entrance, behind that there is the temple and on the right side of the pagoda, a garden with a big pond.

At the bottom of the pagoda there is a sign explaining that taking turns around the pagoda can bring good luck, which is a practice related to Buddhist tradition. I found out about it precisely when I was living in Suzhou and read that sign. In fact, from that moment on, every time I saw a pagoda, I could spot people taking turns around it. So I started doing it every time I went there, also with some friends, hoping it could bring us some luck! It’s such a peaceful place, people actually go there to pray, monks live there too. it’s the perfect place to chill: you can go there, strolling inside, sitting alongside the pond and staying there for a while, sipping some tea, reading a book or chatting with friends.

2. 双塔寺 (Shuāng tǎ sì) - Twin pagodas temple

The Twin Pagodas Temple 双塔寺 is located in Suzhou’s old town. What is special about it is the presence of two almost identical pagodas, which is something that one doesn’t often see in China. The pagodas were built in 982 BC, during the Song dynasty, by the Wang brothers and they were named Clarity - Dispensing Pagoda and Beneficence Pagoda. I had the chance to go there just once, unfortunately. One afternoon me and a friend headed to the city center as we were curious to explore this place.

If you are looking for a peaceful place to take a break from the hustle and bustle of Suzhou, then this is the spot for you. I loved the whole atmosphere inside of the temple complex. It’s not possible to climb the two pagodas, but you can admire them from the bottom. There are several legends surrounding these pagodas, according to one of them, the two brothers built them as homes for their souls.

3. 艺圃园 (Yì pǔ yuán) - The Garden of Cultivation

This garden is definitely my favorite among the classical gardens of Suzhou. It’s quite small and hidden inside of the city center, and not one of the most famous, but I was immediately struck by its beauty. I went there for the first time during Winter of 2019 with a couple of friends. After that time, every time someone came to visit me, I always brought them there. The garden was built in 1541 and it’s in full Ming dynasty (1368 - 1644) style.

Inside there is also a tea house, right on the side of the small pond, if you want to rest for a while. Reaching the garden is not the easiest thing to do, as it is hidden inside a labyrinth of old town’s small lanes. However, this is also part of its charm in my opinion, if you are well equipped with a maps app on your phone, you won’t have any problem finding it, asking the locals would be also a good option! (I would suggest the Chinese ones as Google maps gets a bit confused inside of these small lanes, don’t worry, they are not that hard to use as it might seem, once you get used to them!).

4. 网师园 (Wǎng shī yuán) - The Master of the Nets Garden

This garden is my favorite along with 艺圃 garden, it’s located near another place in my top 8 list, 十全街 Shiquan street, I will tell about it right after. This is another garden where I took people who came to visit, as it’s a must stop once you are in Suzhou, in my opinion. Classical Chinese gardens aim to recreate the beauty of nature in miniature, the Master of the Nets Garden specifically aims to recreate a “mountain and water” landscape.

The garden was built duringthe Southern Song Dynasty (1127 - 1279) as a residence of a government official and it was named: “The Hall of Ten Thousand Books”, as the owner stored numerous books in three studies within the garden. Later, during the Qing dynasty (1644 - 1911) the garden was restored by the official Song Zongyuan. Apparently, in a moment of frustration with bureaucracy, he said he would rather be a fisherman than a bureaucrat, that’s where the actual name of the garden comes from. If you decide to visit the garden, afterwards you could take a stroll in 十全街, keep reading if you want to know why!

5. 十全街 (Shí quán jiē) - Shiquan street

You might be wondering what’s special about a street and I will tell you! Shiquan street is located in the downtown area of Suzhou’s old town. The street is characterized by silkware and craftwork shops, small restaurants where you can taste Suzhou’s delicacies, hotels, teahouses etc.

I loved strolling along this street. I remember I first went there with a bunch of friends, one of them had been living in Suzhou for a year already, so he showed us some of his favorite places. This area soon became one of my favorite places too. Parallel to Shiquan street runs a smaller lane, alongside one of the canals. It’s more peaceful compared to Shiquan street, which is accessible to cars. This small alley is stunningly beautiful, the whole area is characterized by Ming and Qing style buildings, but by walking on this alley, you will be immersed in Suzhou’s truest atmosphere. Another thing I love about this area is that you can find many cute cafés here, kind of South Korean style cafés, the same you would find in Seoul or any other South Korean city.

I went there several times to study or do some research. One that I liked particularly was Solo Café, near Suzhou University. I went there one afternoon in Spring of 2019 and enjoyed the first gelato of the season, needless to say it was delicious and the place was very cute!

6. 时代广场 (Shídài guǎngchǎng) - Times Square

Well, by now you must have figured out that I’m a sucker for historical and cultural spots. The next place I want to mention in my list is a very modern area instead, in fact Suzhou is a city with many facets (as most of the cities in China). This is another thing I like so much about China: the duality between tradition and modernity.

Times square (yes, the name is the same as New York’s square. I’m not really sure if that’s the actual name or just the way we used to call the place) is an area located inside of Wuzhong district, in the modern part of the city, on the Western bank of Jinji Lake.

This area is full of huge shopping malls where you can find almost everything, clothes, food, toys etc. There are also some conbini, Japanese convenience stores (which are scattered all over the city), cafés and restaurants. I went there to study sometimes, but mainly to do some shopping, to chill and take a walk.

7. 西园寺 (Xī yuán sì) - West Garden Temple

Back to the historical places y’all, here’s another of my favorite: 西园寺 West Garden Temple, which is located outside of old town, on its Western side. It was built during the Yuan Dynasty (1271 - 1368), it’s a big complex where classical gardens and temple architecture blend together. The temple is still nowadays a place of worship, it also houses the famous Hall of the Five Hundred Arhats; “arhat” refers to Buddhist monks who achieved enlightenment and inside of the hall there are five hundred sculptures of Buddhist monks. Another attraction of the temple is 放生池 (Fàngshēng Chí) Fangsheng Pond, with an octagonal pavilion in the middle. Inside of the pond there are carps, tortoises and other fishes.

According to a legend, the pond is also inhabited by two huge 400 - years - old tortoises which were freed in the pond during the Ming dynasty. People believe that if you manage to see one of them, it will bring you good luck. One afternoon I literally spent 3 hours sitting on the octagonal pavilion and I didn't manage to see them, in retrospect I probably should have read that as a bad omen ahah.

I love the place so much because it’s filled with nature, many birds live in the park, like a few ducks and doves, and it’s such a peaceful place. Inside of the temple complex there is also a 包子(Bāozi) baozi shop (delicious, I tried them out!) and a small noodles restaurant (I tried them as well and they were once again very tasty). If you are an art, history, nature lover then this is the right place for you!

8. 虎丘 (Hǔ qiū) - Tiger Hill

Last but not least: 虎丘 Tiger Hill, one of the most famous attractions of Suzhou. I think I went there 3 or 4 times, again a must - visit place if you are in town. A famous Song Dynasty (960 - 1279) poet 苏轼 Su Shi said: “ 到苏州而不游虎丘,乃憾事也” ( It’s a pity if you go to Suzhou and you don’t visit Tiger Hill) and he was right! This place is made up of many different attractions. First of all, in 496 BC during the Spring and Autumn Period (770 BC - 476 BC), He Lu, King of the Wu State was buried on Tiger Hill.

Legend has it that three days after the funeral, a white tiger appeared and sat on the grave as if guarding it, this is where the name of the place comes from.

On the top of the hill stands one of the oldest pagodas in the Suzhou area, which was built during the Northern Song Dynasty (959 - 961 BC), as it is slightly leaning, it is also known as China’s Leaning Tower and it is also one of the symbols of the city. When I went there I used to take turns around it for good luck, just like I did around 北寺塔.

On Tiger Hill there is also a tea house and a small tea plantation, where we had tea with my friends, in fact the story of this place has something to do with tea as well. Lu Yu a Chinese writer, during Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 BC), lived on Tiger Hill when he was old and there he completed his work: The Classic of Tea 茶经, the first monograph on tea known in the world.

Another interesting spot on Tiger Hill is the Wanjing Villa, a place dedicated to bonsai, this kind of art has always been popular in China as well and has a long tradition. In Chinese, it is called 盆景 Penjing, it refers to the art of replicating landscapes and elements of nature in miniature. Specifically, the art of reproducing trees in miniature 树木盆景 (Shùmù pénjǐng) is one of its expressions. Well, on Tiger Hill there is an entire section dedicated to penjing gardens, which is beautiful and definitely worth a visit. It’s not that strange to spot bonsai trees inside of several other classical gardens around Suzhou (I noticed them in 沧浪亭 (Cāngláng tíng) Canglang Pavilion and inside of the Master of The Nets garden) as well as in Shanghai botanical garden.

On the hill there is also a temple and other attractions, a Temple Fair is held on Tiger Hill from September to October , where one can discover Suzhou’s folk culture and delicacies.

I could go on with the list as there are other places which are very dear to me, but i will stop here. All these places are very unique and special. I left my heart in Suzhou and it shows. Next time I will go to China, I want to go back and visit all my favorite spots once again, to see if they still look the same or if they have changed while I’ve been away. Hope you found this article useful or at least interesting!

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