81km (50 miles) NW of Shanghai

Suzhou's interlocking canals -- which once earned it the moniker of "Venice of the East" -- its unparalleled collection of classic gardens, and its embroidery and silk factories are the chief surviving elements of a cultural center that dominated China's artistic scene for long periods during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. Rapid modernization in the last decade has robbed the city of much of its mystique, but enough beauty remains, especially in quiet corners of its celebrated gardens, to merit at least a day of your time.

Getting There -- Suzhou can easily be visited on your own. There are frequent trains (approx. 40 min.; ¥26-¥31 from the Shanghai Railway Station), with the most popular trains for day-trippers being the D196, which leaves Shanghai at 7:56am and arrives at 8:32am; and the D232, which departs at 8:26am and arrives at 9:02am. There are many return trains to Shanghai in the afternoon, including no. D5435 (departs 5:54pm, arrives 6:38pm). There is also an express direct train from Suzhou to Beijing, D386, departing at 9:38pm and arriving at 7:09am. At press time, there were plans for new China Railway High Speed (CRH) trains to depart from Shanghai's Hongqiao Railway Station (Hongqiao Huoche Zhan) that will reduce travel time to Suzhou to less than 30 minutes. For the most up-to-date information on Suzhou train schedules in English, check the website travelchinaguide.com (www.travelchinaguide.com). The Suzhou Railway Station (Suzhou Zhan) (tel. 0512/6753-2831) is in the northern part of town on Chezhan Lu just west of the Renmin Lu intersection.

If you miss your train back, Suzhou is also well connected by bus to Shanghai. From Suzhou's North Bus Station (Qiche Bei Zhan) (tel. 0512/6577-6577), just to the east of the railway station, buses depart for Shanghai (90 min.; ¥33) every 20 minutes from 6:30am to 7:40pm. There is also a direct airport bus (at least one every hour between 10:40am and 7:40pm; ¥82) from Shanghai's Pudong Airport (PVG) to Suzhou, but no direct return bus to PVG. You'll have to first take a bus from Suzhou's China Eastern Airlines office at Ganjiang Xi Lu 115 to Shanghai's Hongqiao Airport (SHA) (11 buses between 6:20am and 2:50pm; ¥50) and then take Airport Bus 1 to Pudong Airport. Buses depart hourly between 10am and 4pm and at 5:30pm and 7pm from Hongqiao Airport to Suzhou.

If you don't wish to visit on your own, check with your hotel tour desk to book a bus tour of Suzhou. The Jin Jiang Optional Tours Center, Changle Lu 191 (tel. 021/5466-7936), offers a convenient 1-day group bus tour to Suzhou and the village of Zhouzhuang with an English-speaking guide and lunch, departing daily between 8am and 9am and returning in the late afternoon. At press time, the price was ¥650 for adults, ¥300 for children ages 2 to 7, and free for children up to age 2. The same tour operator can also arrange a private tour with a guide, air-conditioned car, lunch, and door-to-door service (¥2,000 for one person, ¥1,200 each for two people, ¥1,000 each for three or four people).

China International Travel Service (CITS), at Dajing Xiang 18, off Guanqian Jie (tel. 0512/6511-7505), can provide an English-speaking guide and vehicle for the day at around ¥500 (lunch and entrance tickets not included), but it's just as easy, and a whole lot cheaper, to see the town on your own.

Where to Stay & Dine

If you plan to spend the night in Suzhou, a traditional favorite for its quintessential Chinese garden setting is the former Sheraton Hotel and Towers, now the Pan Pacific Suzhou (Suzhou Wugong Zhi Taipingyang Jiudian), Xin Shi Lu 259, near Pan Men in southwest Suzhou (tel. 800/325-3535 or 0512/6510-3388; fax 0512/6510-0888; www.panpacific.com/suzhou). With 481 rooms and prices starting as low as around ¥800 to ¥1,000 in the low season for a standard room, this five-star hotel receives rave reviews for its Chinese-style buildings, which blend seamlessly into the environment. Another excellent choice is the luxury Shangri-La Hotel Suzhou (Suzhou Xianggelila Fandian) (Tayuan Lu 168; tel. 0512/6808-0168; fax 0512/6808-1168; www.shangri-la.com), but located less conveniently in the Suzhou Hi-Tech Industrial Development Zone about 20 minutes west of the old town. Delightfully luxurious rooms (¥1,880, 30% discount) offer high ceilings and panoramic views of the city. Between the Suzhou Industrial Park and the old city is the new Suzhou Marriott Hotel (Suzhou Wanhao Jindian) at Ganjiang Xi Lu 1296 (tel. 0512/8225-8888; fax 0512/8225-8899; www.marriott.com), a modern high-rise with all the familiar luxury rooms and amenities. Standard rooms start at around ¥1,000.

If you want to be in the heart of the old town, the best location belongs to the Sofitel Suzhou (Suzhou Xuanmiao Suofeite Dajiudian) (Ganjiang Dong Lu 818; tel. 0512/6801-9888; fax 0512/6801-1218; www.sofitel.com/asia), with plush standards (with free Internet access) starting at ¥1,488 (up to 50% discount), but its proximity to the nearby shopping and pedestrian streets can be a bit noisy for some guests. For those on a budget, the lovely 37-unit Scholars Inn (Shuxiang Mendi Shangwu Jiudian) in the center of town at Jingde Lu 277 (tel. 0512/6521-7388; fax 0512/6521-7326; www.soocor.com) offers simple but clean standard rooms with air-conditioning, phone, TV, showers, and broadband Internet for ¥520, with discounts up to 50%.

Although hotel restaurants serve the most reliable fare and accept credit cards, Suzhou has a number of good restaurants that deserve to be tried, many of which are located on Taijian Nong (Taijian Lane), also known as Gourmet Street, around the Guanqian Jie area. One of the most famous local restaurants on this street is the more than 200-year-old Song He Lou (Pine and Crane Restaurant) at Taijian Nong 72 (tel. 0512/6727-2285; 8am-9pm), which serves Suzhou specialties such as Songshu Guiyu (squirrel-shaped Mandarin fish), Gusu Luya (Gusu marinated duck), Huangmen Heman (braised river eel) and the exquisitely shredded Luobosi Su Bing (pan-fried turnip cake). Dinner for two ranges from ¥140 to ¥250. The Bookworm (Lao Shu Chong) at Shiquan Jie, Gunxiufang 77 (tel. 0512/6526-4720; www.suzhoubookworm.com), is a lovely bookstore-restaurant-cafe offering coffees, smoothies, salads, sandwiches, pastas, and desserts guaranteed to cure any homesickness.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.