Things to do in Suzhou

There are tons of things to do in Suzhou, but perhaps the most famous are the many Suzhou Gardens… so we’ve given them their own page here.

Tiger Hill

Tiger Hill is Suzhou’s most popular tourist attraction and has been for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Kings, emperors, holy men and boisterous tour groups, following a flag-waving guide, have all climbed to the man made hill’s 36 metre high top, and arrived, since 961 CE, at a large pagoda, leaning precariously to the north-east.

Cloud Rock Pagoda is sometimes referred to as the “Leaning Tower of China.” The top of this 47 metre high structure, built half on soil, half on stone, hangs more than two metres from its original position. Although set atop such a low hill, the pagoda is high enough to be visible from the city centre, four kilometres to its south-east.

King Helü, the founder of Suzhou, was buried on Tiger Hill. Two days later, a white tiger was apparently seen guarding his tomb, and the hill has since been called by its present name. A cache of 3000 swords – tested on the perfectly cleaved “sword-testing rock” halfway to the hill’s top – are thought to have been buried with the king, below what is now called sword pond. A dig to confirm or debunk this theory would, unfortunately, destabilise Cloud Rock Pagoda’s already shaky foundations.

Worth noting on your way up is Lu Yu Well, named after the first author of a book about tea. Lu Yu visited Tiger Hill and declared its water to be the third best in China. Wanjing Villa, near at the hill’s south-eastern base, uses bonsais to create classical gardens in miniature.

The site’s popularity is most obvious at the large tourist market near the main entrance gate. It might be possible to weave through this into the site, without buying a ticket.

Shantang Street

Shantang Street, and the broad canal that runs beside it, connect the north-east corner of old Suzhou, near Changmen Gate, to Tiger Hill. The canal was built more than one thousand years ago, at the instruction of Bai Juyi, the city’s poet-governor.

The street is a little under four kilometres long. At its western end, near the busy shopping area around Shi Lu, it is a mess of tacky trinket shops, snack stalls and identically-stocked art galleries. A few hundred metres to the west, commerce slowly dissolves. Tourist traps thin, and fade into restaurants, hairdressers, and vegetable shops, which fade, in turn, into ramshackle homes.

The houses along Shantang Street are among Suzhou’s oldest. Many don’t have plumbing – public toilets appear at regular intervals among the network of alleys that lead off the street – and residents still wash their clothes in the canal. The area is most alive at night, when people gather on the canal’s banks to watch fish feeding on mosquitoes in the glow of electric lights.

You can walk or cycle beside the canal, or take a boat along it. Boats leave from a dock on the eastern end of the street, at number 173, directly opposite a stage where live music performances are held every evening. The return trip costs ¥25 per person and takes 40 minutes. Boats leave with a minimum of eight people and a maximum of twenty, so you’ll have to wait for one to fill up. You can choose to get off at Tiger Hill, but the price is the same and you can’t catch a different boat back.

Bird and Flower Market

A cramped market with songbirds, tropical birds, squirming live bird food, big dogs with brightly painted ears, mewling kittens, sun-stunned hamsters, chipmunks, fighting crickets, big turtles, tiny turtles, heavily pincered crabs, green trees, brown shrubs, cut flowers, delicate bonsai, antiques, precious gems and scholar’s rocks all piled high.

It’s chaotic and the condition of some of the animals is distressing, but is also a jolt of China at its loudest and a striking contrast to the high-minded tranquillity of Suzhou’s gardens. If you turn left at the market’s entrance, you can skirt the animals and go straight to the shops selling scholar’s rocks, which make an unusual souvenir.

Suzhou Museum

In 2006, the Suzhou Museum packed up the 30,000 or so items in its collection and moved. It traded the palatial residence of Taiping leader Li Xiucheng for a new, custom-designed building and became, in the process, one of China’s best, most compact museums.

The new building was architect IM Pei’s last project before retiring. Pei, perhaps most famous for designing the glass pyramids outside the Louvre, spent a part of his childhood in Suzhou and the World Heritage listed Lion’s Grove Garden was, for a time, his family home. His building – a synthesis of modernist austerity and the classical garden’s imitation of nature – is itself worth visiting.

The items in the new building are well organised and labelled in English as well as Chinese. Most are the products of Wu culture, including artefacts found at Tiger Hill and the nearby Rui Guang Pagoda. Audio guides are available for ¥20.

Find more things to do at TripAdvisor, and don’t forget the Suzhou Gardens.

Where next?

This page by Iain Manley, who arrived in China at the end of an eighteen month overland journey from London and stayed for three years. His first book, about the pirates, prostitutes and opium pedlars of old Singapore, was published last year. You can find him at Old World Wandering, his award winning collection of overland travel stories.

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