China has opened up for travelers in the past two years, with airlines adding more nonstop flights from multiple cities and a change in visa rules making it easier to visit frequently.
While it’s easier than ever to get — and return — to China, this huge country can be an exotic, overwhelming destination. Where do you begin?
Having recently visited, I recommend focusing on one area and then finding attractions that match your interests to make a manageable itinerary.
We flew into Shanghai then zeroed in on the 2,500-year-old city of Suzhou, just a half-hour away by bullet train. Famous for its gardens, canals and arts traditions, Suzhou, in eastern China’s Jiangsu province, is nicknamed the “Venice of the East.”
Visiting a nearby tea plantation in the Taihu Lake region’s East Hill Mountain area at harvest time to help pick the tea is delightful.
Note: Some people make day trips to Suzhou from Shanghai, but if you want to stay overnight, luxury hotels and western brands abound at prices much cheaper than in the west. At the Pan Pacific Suzhou, built pagoda-style with free entry to the lovely garden behind it, rooms start at $80 per night. The Hyatt Regency, which opened in 2014, offers rooms starting at $l35.
And for help planning a DIY tour, stop by the Suzhou Tourism Center to ask for a free 200-page Suzhou guidebook, which describes hundreds of attractions, and brochures on Old Town Culture, cuisine and nearby water towns like Zhouzhuang and Tong Li (all in English).
Here’s a description of our four mini-tours:
Gardens of Delights
Suzhou is home to some of China’s most famous classical gardens, celebrated in paintings and poems for centuries.
With its canal and river systems, the town became a hub for the silk-making industry and a draw for government officials and scholars who built homes and created gardens. Over 60 are now open to the public, and nine are on UNESCO’s World Heritage list. Each exquisite little masterpiece re-creates nature in miniature in its placement of pavilions with upturned eaves, ponds, rocks and plants. Depending on the season, you may be lucky to enjoy colorful cherry or plum blossoms, peonies, azaleas, chrysanthemums, lotus or crimson fall foliage.
One with the UNESCO designation is the 12th-century Master of the Nets garden, which inspired the Astor Court Chinese garden in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. At night, you can visit and hear Chinese opera performed.
The biggest garden is the 16th-century Humble Administrator’s Garden, while the 14th-century Lion Grove Garden is known for its multi-story rock maze.
Watching a documentary on Suzhou gardens that aired on a local PBS station, Decoding Ancient Chinese Gardens, soon after my visit greatly enhanced my experience.
Discovering Ancient Art
Suzhou Museum is filled with art treasures from jade carvings to landscape paintings to a 10th-century bluish-green porcelain bowl. The museum itself was the architect I.M. Pei’s last design, and his stylized take on a classical Chinese garden. It is fittingly located next to the Humble Administrator’s Garden and the Lion Grove Garden (Pei’s family’s estate).
The Suzhou Embroidery Museum, Suzhou Embroidery Research Institute (next door) and the Yao Jianping Embroidery Art Gallery Silk all showcase Suzhou’s 2,000-year-old tradition of distinctive Su silk embroidery. You’ll see gorgeous royal gowns and robes embroidered with dragons, phoenixes and flowers from centuries past, tapestries plus astoundingly ornate embroidered “paintings” of landscapes, flowers, animals and people. In the most extraordinary double-sided embroidery, different images appear on each side of the fabric. You can watch over 8,000 women doing silk embroidery on Zhenhu Embroidered Products Street, located in a modern district in Suzhou.
Silk production began in China in the fourth century B.C., and the city also has a Silk Museum tracing the history of how it was made, including local distinctions. Suzhou’s high-quality silk was famously used in royal bedding and clothing.
Other museums also showcase local art forms. There’s one on Kunqu Opera, considered the pinnacle of Chinese Opera with elaborate costumes and makeup; one about Pingtan, a storytelling style in dialect accompanied by stringed instruments; one on local handicrafts and one for folk customs.
For Old World charm, Suzhou’s most completely preserved neighborhood, Piangjiang Road, is itself a work of art. Crammed with restaurants, Buddhist and Taoist temples, ancient houses, shops, galleries and guesthouses in traditional wooden architecture style, it’s colorful by day, but lantern-lit and enchanting by night. Take a boat ride to heighten the effect.
Silk Shopping and More
China is still the world’s top silk-producing country, and most of its silk is made in Suzhou. The No. 1 Silk Factory sells everything from silk duvets and sheets to pajamas, blouses and scarves. It offers eye-opening demonstrations of the silk-making process, from hardworking silkworms munching on mulberry leaves to machines unraveling cocoons spun by the worms to looms weaving the threads. Catch the film and exhibit on how many silk cocoons it takes to make one silk item.
Fans crafted from sandalwood are another top local product, and the Suzhou Ruyi Sandalwood Fan Company was the winner of China’s top national arts and crafts award. Lanterns, jade carvings and mahogany furnishings are other traditional handicrafts you can find for purchase around town.
Food and Drink
Seafood is very popular in Suzhou due to nearby lakes and rivers. Squirrel fish (sweet-and-sour fried mandarin fish, shaped like a squirrel), tea-scented shrimp, steamed or fried hairy crabs (in season in fall; Yangcheng Lake crabs are considered the best in China) and eel, often stewed with dates and garlic, are local specialties.
Other local favorites include braised ham in honey sauce, boiled lotus root and pan-fried steamed stuffed buns. Food tends to be sweet, light and not spicy, and is served lazy Susan-style so guests can share many dishes. The city’s oldest restaurant, almost-300-year-old Songhe Lou, has a branch overlooking Shantang Street, a quaint 1,100-year-old street on a canal lined by humpbacked stone bridges and white houses topped with black tile roofs.
Tea drinking is very popular in Suzhou, and many teahouses stage Kunqu Opera and pingtan performances at night. A local specialty: Biluochun tea, one of China’s most famous green teas. Visiting a nearby tea plantation in spring in the Taihu Lake region’s East Hill Mountain area at harvest time to help pick the tea is delightful, since the tea is grown in hilly, emerald-green areas.
Tourists can pick tea, watch a tea roasting and tea presentation, and sample the tea for a bud-to-glass experience, at Rain Flower Resort (about $30).
Timing your trip to a festival makes the experience more memorable. On New Year’s Eve at Hanshan Temple, Suzhou’s most famous, thousands gather to hear 108 bells toll at the same time and pray for good luck and happiness. Colorfully decorated boats ply waterways during the Suzhou International Tourism Festival in April, while many plant festivals range from the lotus flower festival at the Humble Administator’s Garden from June to October to the Biluochun Tea Cultural Festival in late March.