Suzhou, China

Photo: Roberto Franceschini via flickr

You only have 144 hours. You could stay in Shanghai to stare at some of the tallest buildings in the world and shop at luxury boutiques. Or you could jump on a bullet train to find interlocking canals, stone bridges, beautiful gardens, and peaceful temples in less than 30 minutes. Canals and gardens? We thought so.

It almost looks like you took the wrong train as you approach Suzhou. The East China city is a major economic center and one of the fastest growing cities in the world. But it’s also quite old—more than 2,500 years old actually. While unlike so many other Chinese cities, which have destroyed their historic centers in favor of rapid modernization, Suzhou has protected its sites. No wonder it’s known as the Venice of the East.

Suzhou lies near the end of the Yangtze River and along the shores of Lake Tai. The water flows into more than 20 miles worth of canals that surround Downtown Suzhou. Brick walls and ancient buildings line the canals. Colorful lanterns and greenery dangle from them. The gardens, which are collectively a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are hidden just out of sight. There are pagodas, temples, and fascinating museums, as well.

The gardens are your first stops, of course. The Lingering Gardens, created in 1593, have inspired famous poets for centuries. Their wisteria and ginkgo groves are stunning. The Humble Administrator’s Garden, designed in 1513 for contemplation, is a maze of pools and islands that are connected by bridges. Keep an eye out for the collection of bonsai trees. The Lion Grove Garden, established by a Buddhist monk in 1342, has rocks that look like lions. Plus the Master of the Nets Garden, built by a retired minister of the Song dynasty in 1174, features covered walkways, arched bridges, and flowering shrubs that open to a pond. The small garden might be the city’s most beautiful.

That’s just the beginning. Winding steps lead up Tiger Hill to a seven-story pagoda. The Panmen Gate was created when the Wu people first settled the area. The Confucian Temple was the first temple school in China. The Suzhou Museum was designed by I. M. Pei, whose family was from Suzhou. While traditions—like silk, embroidery, freshwater pearls, and Biluochun green tea—are still important to the local economy, despite all of the modern industries that now bring so much money to the city.

Then, if you still have time, ride a boat through the canals or ride a bike along the lake. Just keep an eye on your watch. Your visa-free transit time will end, your connecting flight will take off, and Suzhou will start to feel like a dream—a beautiful, peaceful dream.

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