Suzhou is one of China’s most beautiful cities. For centuries, emperors came here to rest in their lavish mansions with even more impressive gardens. Most of that heritage still exists, together with temples, pagodas, and city gates. Suzhou is a city of rivers and canals. Historically, it was an important stop on the Grand Canal, and several traditional water towns are remnants of those times. However, that’s not all. Outstanding contemporary architecture and first-class museums complete the feast. The following are our 10 most interesting facts about Suzhou city.
01 Suzhou Is China’s Thirteenth Largest City
Suzhou is China’s thirteenth-largest city ahead of Harbin and Qingdao. According to the last Official Census of 2010, the urban population of Suzhou was 4.2 million people. It’s not clear how many people lived in Suzhou’s Metropolitan Area at that time. In the last decade, the city has grown more than 5% yearly. According to the latest estimates, Suzhou’s urban population stands at 7.1 million. Just like most other big Chinese cities, Suzhou’s population is overwhelmingly Han Chinese. Apart from Han Chinese, around 15,000 Koreans are living in the city.
02 Its Name Derives From a Herb
The word Suzhou consists of two words: Su and Zhou. Sui Dynasty first used it in 589 AD. The word Zhou means province, though it also often refers to the provincial capital (such is the case of Guangzhou, Hangzhou, or Fuzhou). The word Su refers to the perilla mint plant, one of the fundamental herbs in Chinese plant medicine. It is an abbreviation of Suzhou’s ancient name Gusu. Gusu, in turn, got its name from the nearby Gusu Mountain. During its reign over the State of Wu, Suzhou was called Wu and later on Helü City.
03 Suzhou Was Never the National Capital
Suzhou is an old city with a long and rich history. Between the 12th and 5th centuries BC, it was the capital of the State of Wu. However, Suzhou prospered into the world metropolis only after the inauguration of the Grand Canal. For centuries, it was a commercial hub and a major trading post. Under the Ming and Early Qing Dynasties, Suzhou reached its golden age. The silk industry and embroidery were the sources of its wealth. In the 19th century, the publishing industry flourished here. After the rise of Shanghai in the late 19th century, Suzhou lost its importance.
04 The City Center Is on an Island
In 514 BC the King Helü of Wu State relocated his capital to the present-day Suzhou city center. We are talking about Suzhou’s Old Town, located on a large island surrounded by the Grand Canal. An imposing 17th century City Wall used to encircle the island. Today, only a few smaller sections of the wall still exist. The centerpiece of the old town is the pedestrian Pingjiang road. This lovely street running along the canal with the same name is famous for the historical mansions that surround it. Shantang Street, connecting the old town with Tiger Hill, is Suzhou’s main street. Again, there are ancient houses on both sides. Guanqian Street is the third pedestrian street worth visiting.
05 World Heritage Sites Dot Suzhou
Throughout centuries, Chinese emperors built their houses with gardens in Suzhou. The gardens showcase the metaphysical importance of natural beauty. The origins of Suzhou classical garden are in the royal hunting gardens from the State of Wu. The first gardens emerged in the 4th century, while they reached their peak in the 18th century. At one point, there were 200 private gardens all around Suzhou. Sixty-nine still exist and have been designated National Heritage Sites. In 1997, UNESCO added the Classical Gardens of Suzhou to its list of World Heritage Sites. The list includes nine gardens: eight in downtown Suzhou and one in Tongli ancient town.
06 Suzhou Hosts Plenty of Heritage
Classical gardens are not the only heritage Suzhou has to offer. Tiger Hill, northwest of the old town, has been Suzhou’s main attraction for centuries. The Wu king Helu was buried here in 496 BC. The Tiger Hill Pagoda or the Leaning Tower of China is the main structure on the hill. The pagoda dates back to the 10th century, while its upper floors are from the 17th century. The Hanshan Temple, south of the hill, is Suzhou’s most famous temple described in the epic poem A Night Mooring by Maple Bridge. Most other heritage buildings are in the old town. The Beisi or North Temple Pagoda is from the Ming dynasty. The Panmen or Pan Gate is one of the best-preserved parts of Suzhou’s City Wall.
07 Outstanding Modern Architecture Is Everywhere
Suzhou skyline changes substantially east of the old town. Most of the city’s skyscrapers are here in the area known as the central business district or Suzhou Industrial Park. The enormous Suzhou Center Mall, the iconic Gate to the East Tower, and the Zhongnan Center Skyscraper (under construction) are here. Another interesting contemporary building is across the Jinji Lake: the Suzhou Culture and Arts Centre. Suzhou Museum, designed by the renowned architect I.M. Pei, hosts a more sophisticated architecture. If you are into flashy architecture, you must visit the newly opened Suzhou Bay Grand Theater by Christian de Portzamparc.
08 Suzhou Has Great Museums
Suzhou hosts some of the best museums in China. The abovementioned Suzhou Museum is the best China has to offer in terms of architecture and art. With more than 15,000 pieces, it is one of the largest museums in China. Its permanent collections include ancient Chinese art, paintings, calligraphy, and handmade crafts. The Suzhou Silk Museum showcases the city’s rich silk production and embroidery. One of its most unusual rooms displays silkworms eating mulberry leaves and spinning cocoons. If you want to know more about the city’s classical gardens, head directly to the Suzhou Garden Museum.
09 Several Water Towns Are Close to the City
Though Suzhou looks like a giant water town with rivers and canals, it is in the nearby small water towns that you get to feel ancient China. They still preserve their unique old houses and elegant bridges. Traditional boats are roaming around the canals, taking tourists around the area. The closest one to the city center is Tongli water town. You can reach it via line no 4 of Suzhou metro. Luzhi water town is also at the edge of the city, though it’s a bit less connected. The most popular one, Zhouzhuang water town, is 30 km (19 miles) southeast of Suzhou. China nominated both Luzhi and Zhouzhuang for inclusion on the world heritage list.
10 Suzhou Metro Is One of China’s Largest
Just as Suzhou is China’s thirteenth largest city, its metro is thirteenth longest. When Suzhou Metro opened in 2012, it was the 15th urban rail transport system in Mainland China. Since then, the system has grown steadily and now boasts 164 kilometers (102 miles) on four different lines. Three lines are 100% underground, while the fourth one has a small overground section. Additionally, Suzhou New District, west of the old town, hosts two modern tram lines. Five lines are currently under construction, including the 41 km (25 miles) long line connecting Suzhou with Shanghai!