To the west of Shanghai, romantic Suzhou has centuries of culture and art behind it. You can glide on a gondola through a latticework of glassy canals crisis-crossed with arched bridges, or discover Old China in a traditional teahouse. This is the birthplace of Kunqu opera (one of the oldest styles of Chinese opera), but the city's crowning glory is its classical gardens. You'll find over 60 of these flowery spaces lit by delicate paper lanterns at night, several of which are on the World Heritage List.
In keeping with the city's cultural past, Suzhou hostels often have an artsy touch. You can stay in boutique accommodation with whitewashed walls and green tumbling plants, a traditional house with four-poster beds in private rooms or a contemporary hostel designed by a well-known architect. One Suzhou hostel even puts out its own weekly podcast. Expect social spaces like on-site bars, cafés and lounges, and most hostels in Suzhou have board games, books to read or even free postcards for you to send home.
The centre of Suzhou is Gusu District; this is where you'll find the city's oldest buildings, gardens and picturesque areas like Shantang Old Street and Pingjiang Ancient Street filled with bars, restaurants and teahouses. To the west is the Grand Canal, the longest and oldest man-made canal in the world. Head east for Suzhou Industrial Park, a large district containing most of the city's skyscrapers (including the 452-metre-tall Suzhou IFS Tower). To the south, you'll find a magical network of interconnected lakes and the picturesque Zhouzhuang Water Town.
While Suzhou is rapidly modernising, it's also home to awe-inspiring vistas locked in the past. Top picks include the 16th-century Humble Administrator’s Garden known for its zigzag bridges, or the Lingering Garden's ornate viewing pavilions. You can learn about the city's silk industry at the Suzhou Silk Museum, or experience a thrilling night-time opera performance at the Master of Nets Garden. For sweeping city panoramas and a landmark pagoda, climb Tiger Hill before spending a relaxed afternoon wandering the lantern-lit alleys of Zhouzhuang Water Town.
To get to Suzhou, it's best to fly into one of Shanghai's two airports – both have regular shuttle buses to the city that take around 3 hours. You can also catch a high-speed train from cities like Shanghai (35 minutes), Nanjing (1 hour 15 minutes) or Beijing (4 hours 15 minutes). Navigate Suzhou itself via the extensive subway system and local bus routes, or rent a bike to explore the city using pedal power.