Suzhou: All of China in One Place

Full Article + 444 Photos


If you only have time to visit one place in China, it should be Suzhou (pronunciation: SOO JOE). Suzhou provides a sampling of virtually all that China has to offer. Suzhou is Old China, from its temples, pagodas and canals to its tastefully designed and attractive gardens. Suzhou is also modern China, ringed by light industrial and commercial development. Suzhou also has elements of Italy, with canals like Venice and a leaning tower like Pisa (Yunyan Pagoda). Like other large urban areas in China, there are expanses of massive multiple building high-rise condominium development as well as lower rise townhouse developments and detached housing (called “villas” in China). Finally, Suzhou has a freeway and road system which is more comprehensive than most in North America.


There is another reason to visit Suzhou --- it is conveniently located close to Shanghai, so a Suzhou is only a quick train, bus or taxi ride away from China’s principal urban area. Suzhou is on the new high speed rail line (CRH) from Shanghai to Nanjing. Air service is by the Shanghai airports.


Suzhou is located 45 miles (70 kilometers) west of Shanghai’s Hongqiao International Airport and 50 miles (80 kilometers) west of Puxi, Shanghai’s commercial core. It is another 20 miles (32 kilometers) to Pudong International Airport, which serves most international flights. Suzhou is in Jiangsu province, which, along with the provincial level municipality of Shanghai, occupies the south bank of the Yangtze River Delta. Suzhou city (the regional government) is bounded on the south by the Huzhou city (regional government) in Zhejiang, on the east by the provincial level city of Shanghai and to the west by Taihu and Wuxi city or regional government (Slide 2).


Suzhou sits at the gateway to China’s lake country. There are a number of lakes within the urban area. The west side of the urban area reaches into Taihu (Tai Lake), China’s third largest natural lake, at 900 square miles (2,250 square kilometers).

The topography is generally flat, however there are some hills in the urban area, including Tiger Hill, on which Yunyan Pagoda stands. The urban area extends to three islands in Taihu.

The Suzhou urban area now has 2.6 million people and is expected to increase to 3.2 million by 2025. The urban area covers 245 square miles (635 square kilometers) and a population density of 10,600 per square mile (4,100 per square kilometer). Suzhou is one of the least dense urban areas in China, principally because core densities are lower than elsewhere. The most dense core district (qu) reaches less than 50,000 per square mile (20,000 per square kilometer), well below Shenyang’s 80,000 (30,000) and Shanghai’s more than 100,000 (40,000).

However, as is the case in virtually all of the urban areas in China, the pattern of density is very uneven. Population densities are very high in the core or old city and fall off precipitously in the peripheral areas.


The most unique feature of Suzhou is its canals. The most famous is the Grand Canal, or the Beijing-Hangzhou Canal, which is more than 1,100 miles (1,700 kilometers) long. The canal was started more than 2,500 years ago and completed 1,500 years ago. It is the longest canal in the world.
The Grand Canal courses through Suzhou. It carries considerable commercial traffic (Slides 3-24).


The Old City: The core, or old city of Suzhou covers approximately six square miles (15 square kilometers) and is surrounded by a broad canal, which forms a rectangle (called the Peripheral Canal in this Rental Car Tour). Parts of this “ring” canal have parks and well manicured green spaces on the old city side. This is particularly evident in the southwest section of the Peripheral Canal (Slides 419-444).

Boat cruises are available from the western side of the canal. The boat route goes to the north and continues into smaller canals further north toward Tiger Hill and the Yunyan Pagoda (Slides 25-104). The cruises provide a view of Yunyan Pagoda at their northern terminus. However, the terminus is well south of the pagoda. The rest of the canal toward Tiger Hill is closed to tourist traffic.

There are a number of additional canals within the old city. Many of these canals are also closed to tourist traffic. It would seem that Suzhou could increase tourist traffic by taking the necessary steps to open more of the canal system and making it possible to travel around the area by canal. Suzhou would appear to have greater potential as a tourist destination than it is now experiencing.

The old central business district is located in the middle of the old city (Slides 127-166). The central business district contains major shopping areas, but does not have much in the way of high rise commercial buildings. The population density of the core area appears to be somewhat lower than usual for the such an area in a Chinese urban area. In the older areas, the mid-rise multi-unit developments so typical in China appear to be up to five stories instead of six to nine. Like many Chinese core areas, the old Suzhou has many tree lined streets.

The old city is home to the Humble Administrator’s Garden (Slides 167-186).

The Emerging Western Center: Approximately three miles (five kilometers) the west of the old city a newer, bustling commercial core is emerging. This area contains a number of shopping centers and the tallest buildings in the urban area. As is the case with Chinese urban areas, the large commercial buildings are somewhat dispersed, rather than being concentrated as would be the case in North American or Australian urban areas. The Grand Canal divides this core, running north and south within walking distance of some of the largest buildings in the urban area (Slides 4-16). Just to the east of the Grand Canal is Suzhou Henghe Plaza, which is 48 floors and 600 feet high or 180 meters high (Slides 11, 120) . Suzhou’s tallest building, the Suzhou Xindi Center is located just to the west of the Grand Canal. The Suzhou Xindi Center is 54 floors, 761 feet and 232 meters high (Slides 203 & 205).

The Eastern Sector: To the east, there is a large number of new and under construction luxury condominium developments. These are both high-rise and mid-rise residential developments. There are also shopping centers.

Western Industrial Area: The western industrial area is to the west of the western core. This area has a grid of wide streets, which are up to eight lanes in width. The generally light industrial buildings are low rise, as would be expected in a similar area in Europe or North America. In addition, the area also includes some large luxury condominium developments.

Southwest: The southwest includes two older suburbs that have been engulfed by the expanding Suzhou urban area, Xiukou and Mu Du. These areas have older housing, much of it multi-unit and commercial districts. This area also includes much of the older industrial base of the urban area. There is a new area of more sparse development between these suburbs and the mainland shore, which includes commercial areas, hotels and housing, both multi-unit and detached.

Taihu (Tai Lake): The Suzhou urban area continues into Taihu, over a causeway that connects three islands to the mainland. The first island, Changsha, is nearly fully developed with detached housing. The second island, which is the smallest, is covered on its eastern half by detached housing and undeveloped in its western half. The third island, which is the largest, includes at least one older village that has been engulfed by the urbanization of Suzhou and contains commercial areas, some multi-family housing and considerable detached housing. Most of this island is rural.

Southern Sector: The southern sector, located to the south of the old city’s southern canal appears to be an older extension of the urban area. There is a variety of principally multi-unit housing, both mid-rise and high rise. Some of the developments are somewhat older, while others are new or still under construction. The Grand Canal crosses the southern sector (Slides 17-24)

Northern Sector: Tiger Hill and Yunyan Pagoda are located in an attractive park in the northern sector (Slides 70-85). Like the leaning tower of Pisa, Yunyan Pagoda leans, but not as far. Good views of the urban area can be seen from the top of Tiger Hill. Tiger Hill can be climbed from both the south and the north sides, though the climb from the south side is more gentle and more interesting. Like the rest of Suzhou, Tiger Hill and the northern sector also have their share of canals. The rest of the northern sector has residential buildings, principally multi-unit buildings, with some new high-rises. There are also older light industrial activities (Slides 251-269).

Small Businesses: As is the case in virtually all Chinese urban areas, many major streets are lined by small businesses (Slides 212 & 220)


Generally, older residential housing is lower rise in Suzhou than in other major Chinese urban areas. There are fewer of the old standard design apartment/condominium buildings that are found throughout Chinese urban areas (Slides 136 & 156).

As in other Chinese urban areas, there are many outdoor advertising signs for new luxury condominiums, town houses and detached housing (Slides 225, 289, 295, 306, 320 & 352)


Suzhou is well served by high-quality roads. There is a freeway ring road (Slide 315) and freeway connections to the west, east and south. In addition, there are various freeways within the urban area itself. Suzhou is well served by freeways, with nearly 100 route miles (160 route kilometers). At nearly 0.4 route miles per square mile (0.25 route kilometers per square kilometer), Suzhou has a higher freeway density than any major urban area in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand other than Montreal and San Antonio.

Similarly, virtually all of Suzhou is served by a grid of wide arterial streets, as is typical of Chinese urban areas (Slide 230).

Most urban transport in Suzhou is by bus. A metro line is under construction, which will extend from near the eastern periphery of the urban area, through the old city core, the newer western center and continue well out into the western


Suzhou is one of the principal urban areas on the Yangtze River Delta, which includes Shanghai, Nanjing, Wuxi, Hangzhou, Ningbo and a number of smaller urban areas. This is one of China’s two “mega-regions,” --- areas of large adjacent metropolitan areas. The other is the Pearl River Delta, with a somewhat smaller population but much higher population density (see Rental Car Tour: Pearl River Delta Overflight).


China has been successful in housing its large urban population, which includes the registered population --- people with the right to live in a particular urban area --- and the unregistered, or floating population. The unregistered population is legally permitted to live in the urban area only temporarily, but the reality is that they have become a permanent fixture, staffing the many growing businesses. In all of our travels in China, which now cover more than 15 urban areas, we have seen no “shanty towns” or informal housing. This is unusual for a nation of China’s economic status. Nations that are rated as much more affluent, such as Mexico and Brazil have significant shanty towns, which cannot be missed in traveling through the urban areas. Moreover, China has every bit as big an urban housing challenge, since the strong movement of people from the rural areas to the urban areas continues. China will add more urban residents in the next quarter century than the population of the United States (more than 360 million).


The local food is superb. My rule in China is to never frequent a restaurant that takes credit cards. That way, there is a good chance of getting genuine local food. The experience is a happy one, though language difficulties make it virtually impossible to enunciate any recommendations. There are, along all business streets in the urban areas of China, a plethora of good local restaurants. Ordering can be difficult, since few such establishments have menus in English (though rather more than have Mandarin menus in Western Europe or the United States). Moreover, given the humble status of these restaurants --- low prices, good food, they will not be found in any of the tour guides.

It is recommended, however, that tap water be avoided. The hotels provide bottled water. Generally, bottled water should be relied on in all but the most affluent nations. This is my unfortunate advice after having contracted Montezuma’s revenge on every continent but Australia and Antarctica.


China has one of the world’s most advanced air transport systems and has built many new airports. The new Beijing Terminal 3 and Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport are among the most impressive in the world. Other large and medium sized urban areas also have new airport terminals, such as Chengdu, Wuhan, Xi’an, Shenyang, Shenzhen, Taiyuan and a new terminal is under construction at Hongqiao International Airport in Shanghai.

Passenger rail is a very inexpensive and comfortable way to travel, especially over shorter distances. China has developed the fastest intercity train in the world, which operates between Tianjin and Beijing. It reaches nearly 220 miles per hour (350 kilometers per hour). Rail travel is very inexpensive. For example, second class travel between Hangzhou and Shanghai has an approximately cost of $15.

China has developed the world’s second longest freeway system, but it is largely inaccessible to foreign drivers because China has not ratified the international drivers license treaty. When and if they do, anticipate a rental car tour covering thousands of miles of Chinese intercity freeway.


Analysts are often confused by the “city” (“shi” in Chinese) terminology used in China. All of the Suzhou urban area is contained within the city or municipality of Suzhou. Similarly, most (if not all) Chinese urban areas are contained within a single city. While Chinese “cities” are municipalities, they are far different from municipalities in the western world, by virtue of their geographical size and vast rural territories. A better rendering of the Chinese word “shi” would be region.

These cities or regions routinely include large areas of agricultural land, which keeps their density relatively low and leads publishers and analysts to report density data that is so low that it belies a complete misunderstanding of urban geography. For example, the largest municipality in the world is Chongqing, which has more than 30,000,000 people. Its land area is more than 30,000 square miles (more than 80,000 square kilometers) --- nearly as large as Austria or the state of Indiana. The urban area of Chongqing, however has a far more modest population of 4,000,000