Suzhou: The Pleasantest Place in China

Ah, Suzhou, the Venice of the East. Or maybe that’s a bit Eurocentric? For all we know, Venice is the Suzhou of the West. Either way, Suzhou is only a half an hour away from Shanghai and makes a pleasant weekend getaway.

A narrow canal in Suzhou.

“Pleasant” is maybe the best word to describe Suzhou. The calm turquoise canals meander between narrow cobblestone alleys past old Chinese buildings that look exactly like how you probably imagine old Chinese buildings should look. Even the more modern parts of the city have a more… pleasant feel to them than the concrete mountain range of Shanghai.

Of course, Suzhou is touristy. How could a city this pleasant not be? That Ming dynasty era house is now a Starbucks. That building where an ancient long-bearded scribe once sold bits of wisdom now sells tacky plastic souvenirs. But it’s hard to complain because the whole place is just so darn… pleasant.

One of the most pleasant things you can do in Suzhou is to take a boat ride down the canals. You sit back and enjoy the scenery and the other tourists from the bottom up. Wonder at the underside of a restored bridge and the whitewashed rear wall of the Starbucks. The boatman wears an old style silk shirt and will offer to sing for you. For a fee, of course.

A boat glides down a canal.

After the boat ride, it’s worth wandering away from the main tourist streets for a bit. There are plenty of narrow alleyways to get lost in. There are plenty of people who live in the old part of Suzhou, too. You can peer inside their doors to get a voyeuristic glimpse of the pleasant life.

And then there are the gardens. Suzhou’s gardens are impressive, although a bit less pleasant than the rest of the old city.

For one, foreigners are not allowed to use the automatic ticket machines, and the entrance fees are cash only. You can wake up at the crack of dawn, skip breakfast, and head to the Humble Administrator’s Garden early in an attempt to beat the masses. But by the time you’ve wandered around to find an ATM, there’ll be about a hundred tour buses waiting at the entrance.

Blossoming trees alongside the water in the Humble Administrator's Garden.

Follow the crowds through the winding gardens, past blossoming trees and placid gardens, rubbing elbows (and almost everything else) with groups of elderly Chinese couples and students on middle school history class field trips. But aside from the crowds, it’s still, for the most part, pleasant. It would be a great place to bring your mom when she comes to visit.

Suzhou’s more than just gardens and waterways. There’s also a street near the university that has a bunch of bars in old Chinese buildings that might be kind of fun. I can’t say.

We ended up getting tall boys of Tsingtao and sitting on a set of stairs next to a canal. Bats flitted around under the street lights, snatching insects from just over the water. An old woman stopped and stared at us for a full minute until I gave her a smile and a hearty “nǐ hǎo!” She grinned and waved and walked on her way. It was one of the most pleasant evenings I’ve had in a while.

An old building on an old street in Suzhou.

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