The last post discussed Suzhou in very general terms, so here’s the good stuff – inside details on where to go, what to do, and where everyone hangs out on the weekend! (The focus here is on places that are maximally accessible to non-Chinese speakers like myself.)
Suzhou Center is so obvious it has to be discussed before anything else – this flagship shopping mall lies at the base of the city’s most iconic building. All of us foreigners called it the “Pants Building”, which hopefully makes a lot of sense once you look at it. It has a north and south wing, several coffeeshops, a Toys R US, designer clothing shops, a spa, a movie theater, afood court in the basement, better restaurants on the higher levels, a movie theater, miniature pony riding of all things on the highest floor, and an ice skating rink.
I definitely recommend Suzhou Center, but then, it’s unavoidable! If you’re trying to make plans with a friend to hang out on your day off, and one of you lives near the city center, the odds are pretty high that you’ll start off at Suzhou Center, given that it has the most options. I have fond memories of speeding around that wonderful ice skating rink, watching the water and light show on the upper levels in the evening, walking around the bookstore, lunch at the Greek restaurant with work friends, trying the Italian, Mexican, and both Thai restaurants, getting an excellent haircut at the expensive salon on the second floor, and going in the French nightclub with two other unattached white women when it had just opened and getting free drinks from the staff.
The city’s coffeehouses are good for instagram feeds but not for coffee connoisseurs. Most coffee in China really doesn’t taste that great, but I can heartily recommend the ambiance of my two favorite places – Cagic Coffee, between Central Park and Xinghai Square, and Unico Coffee by Jinji Lake. If you’re going to hang out for an afternoon, those are the places to do it. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, Starbucks is on almost every street corner; it tastes exactly as you would expect, is exactly as expensive as it is everywhere else in the world, and is of course still every bit as popular as it is everywhere else in the world. For those just looking for something drinkable, Luckin Coffee is a chain almost exclusively for delivery only. It tastes better than any other chain and is a little cheaper. Download the app and you’re off to the races!
Remember the bird’s nest arena from the Beijing Olympics? Suzhou has an arts center that looks like that. It lights up in different colors at night, which is great. The night view of Suzhou from anywhere on Jinji lake is just special. Jingi Lake in general is great to walk around – you can start from Suzhou Center and stroll along the wide paved walking paths, with trees, flowers, statues, restrooms, and parks along the way. Unless you’re from a big city, it will probably impress you just a little. Something about such a scenic view feels so good and right.
In nice weather, you will see dog walkers, families (with one young child and perhaps a baby, given the recent switch to the two-child policy), the ubiquitous elderly landscapers/sidewalk sweepers employed by the city, young couples with their arms all around each other, groups of young women taking selfies, grandparents out for exercise, and the occasional foreign family or pair of friends out for the same stroll as everyone else. Central Park is nice too – all the parks are, and they are well-used and spotlessly maintained.
Suzhou is largely a city of transplants, so you will meet a good variety of born-and-bred locals, who probably know all the good spots and make local dishes at home, and people from all other parts of China. It’s always fun to ask someone where they’re from because you just never know how far away their hometown is. Within the expat community, there are many students and medical doctors from a variety of African countries as well as Pakistan, India, etc.
English teachers are mostly American, British, and (as of the last few years) South African, with a few Australians in the mix. This is because the latest government regulations make it almost impossible for any foreigner from a non-English speaking country to legally get a job teaching English in China, regardless of skill level. Curiously, I don’t remember ever meeting anyone from continental Europe, although I must have heard Russian, French, or German spoken at some point. I met one man from El Salvador, a graduate researcher like so many other foreigners, but no one else from Latin America that I recall.
Speaking of being foreign, there are plenty of swanky upscale western restaurants for a nice evening out. (Morton’s comes to mind.) Be aware that McDonalds’ and KFC’s menu choices are not exactly in Kansas anymore, Toto. I liked to get omelets, burgers, or pancakes at After Hours, an American restaurant in the same building as Morton’s, right outside the Xinghai Square subway station. The Blue Marlin is excellent; it’s run by a British man who caters special Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners upon reservation.
Dozens of bars carry a variety of foreign beers, including German ones, (try going to World of Beer or Lenbach for starters) so beer lovers will hopefully manage to survive. Camel is a popular foreign hangout, with half-off burger night being the main attraction for those who can’t get behind its smoky love-it-or-hate-it vibe the rest of the week. There are also a handful of good Indian restaurants. Your friends and coworkers are your main source of information for the best places to go.
Thanks for reading, guys! I’ve barely scratched the surface of Suzhou here. I hope you all get the chance to go out and explore your own cities as much as possible. There’s always more to see and do than we know.