At just 20 minutes away on the new high-speed trains, Suzhou is perfect for a day trip, but we suggest you skip the tourist trap gardens and canal tours and instead head for some more alternative areas and a dose of culture.
Whether for a late breakfast or an early lunch, your first port of call should be The Bookworm (77 Gunxiu Fang, near Shiquan Jie, Suzhou, 0512 6581 6752, Open 9am-1am daily) and their menu of Western standards such as jacket potatoes with tuna mayo, baked beans, chili or cheese (28-45RMB). The English-language bookshop’s canal-side setting and relaxed atmosphere make it our favourite branch of the chain, which also has shops in Beijing and Chengdu.
The Bookworm, Suzhou
From The Bookworm, a short taxi journey will take you to Pingjiang Jie, a narrow street running parallel to a pretty canal that’s yet to be overwhelmed by megaphone-wielding tour guides. Start at the southern end (near Ganjiang Dong Lu), heading north until you come to Zhongzhangjia Xiang. Here you’ll find the Pingtan Museum (3 Zhongzhangjia Xiang, near Pingjiang Jie, 0512 6727 0103, 5RMB/entry including tea), where from 1.30-3.30pm daily you can see impassioned actors perform in local dialect to packed audiences huddled around wooden tables. A few doors down, the Suzhou Kunqu Opera Museum (14 Zhongzhangjia Xiang, near Pingjiang Jie, 0512 6727 3334, 30RMB/entry) has performances from 2-3.30pm every Sunday.
Suzhou Kunqu Opera Museum
The rest of Pingjiang Jie hosts pleasant canal-side cafés and galleries such as Le Pont des Arts gallery (Pingjiang Jie, near Kuntang Xiang, 6581 3330. Open 10am-6pm Tue-Sun. Free), which has an adjoining art shop where visitors are welcome to sit down and paint their own glass vase or canvas.
The IM Pei designed Suzhou Museum
At Pingjiang Jie’s northern end, a left onto Dongbei Jie will bring you to The Humble Administrator’s Garden, one of the most crowded of Suzhou’s gardens, but skirt round the bustling tourists and next door you’ll find Suzhou Museum (204 Dongbei Jie, near Qimen Lu, 0512 6754 1534; Open 9am-5pm Tue-Sun. Free). The exhibits are generally pretty underwhelming, but it’s worth a visit for the building itself, a modern rendition of traditional white-walled Jiangsu dwellings designed by renowned architect IM Pei.
High-speed ‘G’ trains run between Shanghai Hongqiao and Suzhou regularly, take just over 20 minutes and cost from 41RMB/one way (first train 6am, last train from Suzhou 10.05pm).