Abraham Lim’s TRAVEL BLACK BOOK

Old and new in Suzhou

The beauty of the city lies in how tradition co-exists with modernity, says Fraser Suites Suzhou GM

Who: Singaporean Abraham Lim, 48, is general manager of Fraser Suites Suzhou, China, where he has lived with his wife Sandy, 34, and their two children, aged seven and four, since 2012.

Favourite destination: Suzhou, China

Why: Suzhou is more than just the Venice of China. Here, the ancient city, known for its canals, stone bridges and manicured gardens, co-exists in perfect harmony with incredibly modern areas such as the China-Singapore Suzhou Industrial Park.

Favourite restaurant

Xie He Cai Guan (No. 15-1 Jinshan Road, Mudu Town, Suzhou City; tel: +86-512- 6511-7830) is famous among the locals for its bafei tang, a nutritious soup made with freshwater Barbel fish.

The restaurant has more than 200 years of heritage, a good selection of local specialities and is very reasonably priced. The average cost of a meal would be about 60 yuan (S$13) a person.

You can also try the fu ru qiang xia (live shrimp "stunned" in distilled spirit), dan zheng tang li yu (steamed egg with river carp) and hu pi qing jiao (deep-fried green chillies).

Wu Di Ren Jia (29 Cang Street, East Ganjiang Road; tel: +86-512-8765-9177) and Songhe Lou (198 Stantang Street, Jin Chang Qu, Suzhou, Jiangsu; tel: +86-512-6581- 3872) are two other local restaurants to try.

Suzhou cuisine

Traditional local food is a little bit on the sweet side. My favourite Suzhou dish is song shu gui yu or Mandarin Squirrel Fish, the local version of sweet and sour fish.

A whole fish is skilfully sliced into strands, flesh still attached to the bones. Once the fish is deep-fried, the flesh fans out from the bone like squirrel fur, hence the name. Piping hot sweet and sour sauce is poured over it just before it is served.

The best place to try it is in one of the oldest restaurants in town, Deyue Lou (43 Taijian Lane, Guanqian Walking Street). This restaurant is said to be around 200 years old and is popular with the locals.

Favourite museum

The Suzhou Museum (204 Dongbei Street, Suzhou; tel: +86-512-6757-5666; www.szmuseum.com). It was designed by worldfamous architect I.M. Pei, who designed the glass- and-steel pyramid for The Louvre Museum in Paris and the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong.

The Suzhou Museum houses a vast display of Chinese art, paintings, calligraphy and handmade crafts. It also has a folk exhibition, which features the various folk customs and traditions of the Suzhou area.

Favourite tourist site

You cannot go wrong visiting the Classical Gardens of Suzhou (whc.unesco.org/en/list/813), known for their meticulous designs and emphasis on natural landscapes. There are a total of 69 preserved gardens, nine of which are Unesco World Heritage Sites.

Dating from the 11th to 19th century, the gardens are masterpieces of classical Chinese garden design, recreating natural landscapes in miniature, and are the proud jewels of Suzhou and its residents.

Walk slowly through the gardens or take a seat in your favourite spot to best admire their peacefulness and harmony of construction.

Best place for retail therapy

Popular shopping spots such as Guangqian Walking Street, Pingjiang Road and Shantang Street are a must for all visitors to this city.

Take a walk down the side and back alleys, where you can find a number of Suzhou's famous handcrafted silk products, such as scarves and ties, which can be found from 20 yuan a piece, bedsheets starting from 200 yuan and dresses from 500 yuan, as well as handcrafted and embroidered silk fans, purses and handbags.

The stores on these streets also sell traditional Chinese crafts, such as vases (from 50 yuan) or wood frames with silk embroidery (from 200 yuan), that are perfect gifts.

Do not forget that in these shops you can always negotiate a lower price.

Best place to watch the sunset

Jinji Lake. Located in the centre of Suzhou Industrial Park, it has stunning views of the city at sunset and at night.

You can walk around the lake, sit and enjoy the view of the modern city skyline on one side and the traditional buildings on the other.

There are also a good number of restaurants nearby where you can enjoy a drink or a meal at sunset.

Best hidden find

The Suzhou Confucian Temple (635 Renmin Road, Cang Lang Qu, Suzhou; tel: +86-512-6519-7203) is where you can enjoy a taste of old China and on the weekends get a feel of the local life.

In addition to the temple, visitors will find all sorts of antique sculptures, paintings and jewellery for sale by peddlers from all over the country. It is a collector's paradise.

Perfect day itinerary

Start your day at the south end of Pingjiang Road, at the intersection with Ganjiang Road, and take a stroll along the road, observing the well-preserved traditional buildings. Take your time and stop for a cup of coffee or tea as you make your way towards the north end.

Once there, turn left onto Dongbei Street and head towards Suzhou Museum, which is two streets away.

Spend some time viewing the exhibits and then head towards Guangqian Walking Street for lunch and some window- shopping.

End your day with the magnificent sunset view at Jinji Lake, which is a 10-minute drive from Guangqian Walking Street.

Literary guides

Suzhou Basics by Shelly Bryant is a complete guide to Suzhou city, with locations of the different attractions, some historical background of the city, suggestions on accommodation and travel tips.

Ideal length of stay

Depending on your desire for adventure or how much you want to get to know this place, I consider one week to be enough for sightseeing and rest.