Suzhou and Shanghai, China



Historically, Sūzhōu (苏州) was synonymous with high culture and elegance, and generations of artists, scholars, writers and high society in China were drawn by its exquisite art forms and the delicate beauty of its gardens. Like all modern Chinese towns, Sūzhōu has unfortunately had to contend with the recent destruction of its heritage and its replacement with largely arbitrary chunks of modern architecture.

Having said that, the city still retains enough pockets of charm to warrant two to three days’ exploration on foot or by bike. And the gardens, Sūzhōu’s main attraction, are a symphonic combination of rocks, water, trees and pavilions that reflects the Chinese appreciation of balance and harmony. Adding to the charm are some excellent museums, surviving canal scenes, pagodas and humpbacked bridges (but don’t expect much peace and quiet).

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Shànghǎi pulls a rabbit or two from its top hat. This is home to the world’s second-tallest tower and a host of other neck-craning colossi. But it’s not all sky-scraping razzmatazz. Beyond the crisply cool veneer of the modern city typified by Pǔdōng, you can lift the lid to a treasure chest of architectural styles. The city’s period of greatest cosmopolitan excess – the 1920s and 1930s – left the city with pristine examples of art deco buildings, most of which survived the 20th-century vicissitudes assailing Shànghǎi. And there’s more: from Jesuit cathedrals, Jewish synagogues and Buddhist temples to home-grown lòngtáng laneway and shíkùmén housing, Shànghǎi’s architectural heritage is like nowhere else.

Thirty years ago, Shànghǎi’s dour restaurant scene was all tin trays and scowling waiting staff, with international food confined to the dining rooms of ‘exclusive’ hotels. Chinese cooking was everywhere, of course, but it was pedestrian stuff. Today, you simply don’t know where to start – the mouth-watering restaurant scene is varied, exciting and up-to-the-minute. Food is the hub of Chinese social life. It’s over a meal that people catch up with friends, celebrate and clinch business deals, and spend hard-earned cash. Some of your best memories of town could be culinary, so do as the Shanghainese do and make a meal of it.

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