We had over-ordered by about eight dishes, but that was the joy of travelling through China as a group: unending family-style meals. The night before, we shared beers on an overnight train to Suzhou — and although we expected to arrive tired, all we really needed was a delicious feast to gear us up for another day of explorations.
Suzhou was the stop I knew least about on our two-week tour through China, but within just hours of arriving, I realized it would provide some of my favourite memories — not least of all because this city takes gardens to a whole other level.
The city's roughly 200 private gardens have collectively earned a place on the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list. Showcasing nearly 2,000 years of history through various garden pools and perfectly planted beds, each garden has a unique selling point, and some can take hours to explore.
After somehow finishing every last bite of our meal, we took a short stroll to the Master of the Nets Garden, famed for its ornate woodwork and pristine layout.
Master of the Nets is regarded as one of the best gardens in the whole country. The use of space gives the impression of a much larger area when, in reality, the postcard-perfect garden is one of the smallest in the city.
You could likely spend days wandering through the gardens of Suzhou, but this city has another huge draw you can't miss: its network of small canals. In parts of the old town, you can take a small gondola or larger public boat along the waterways, but before committing to the canals, be sure to explore the city by foot.
For those wanting a temple fix, Tiger Hill or Hanshan Temple are a little out of the city and would require transport, but within the city itself, the two towers of Shuang Ta near Suzhou Park are a quiet respite from the intense midday heat.
For sunset beers, many tourists head to Shantang Street, a bustling hub of restaurants and bars around the popular attraction of Tonggui Bridge. From there, larger tourists boats cruise up and down this stretch of water, where the reflections of the houses either side slowly turn to ripples as you glide along.
If you are after a more authentic waterway experience, a short stroll until the music and bustle is behind you will take you through the stalls and street hawkers of the Shantang Markets. Once there, keep walking until day-to-day life comes into sight. On the opposite side of the river, you'll find a more relaxed vibe: Children play by the edge of the water as locals sip green tea after a long day at work.
Grab yourself some sweet and sour fish, a signature dish in Suzhou, from one of the small restaurants overhanging the canal before snacking on fresh fruit for dessert.
Taking the 30-minute bullet train between Suzhou and Shanghai can feel like travelling between different countries rather than cities. I left Suzhou so grateful it was included on the tour itinerary. If it hadn't been, I wouldn't have found my favourite city in China.
Want to see Suzhou for yourself? G Adventures can get you there. Check out our small group tours to Suzhou here.