In travel circles, it seems every continent is quick to claim its own “Paris.” Search for “Paris of the East” and you’ll find cultural hubs like Beirut, Bucharest, Hanoi, Jaipur. “Paris of the North” conjures Belfast, Edinburgh, Salzburg. Replacing Paris with “Rome” or “Athens” surfaces even more cities that seem to be experiencing an identity crisis. But one “Paris of the East” stands out for also laying claim to a certain Chinese proverb: “In heaven there is paradise, on Earth there is Suzhou.”
I’ve been to Paris, Rome, and Athens, and for me none of them are heaven. But Suzhou comes close thanks to its well-preserved ancient history, hyper-modern skyline, and some very historically significant dumplings.
A city of 13 million people, Suzhou is mainly known for its pristine UNESCO-designated gardens dating back to the 11th century and its ancient waterways spidering off of the world’s largest manmade canal, China’s Grand Canal. Suzhou’s other signatures include a delicate cuisine of seafood and widely beloved soup dumplings, a futuristic industrial district funded by Singapore, a crooked hilltop pagoda known as the “Leaning Tower of China,” and its long-held status as the largest silk producer in the world. All just an hour from bustling Shanghai.
If America’s idea of romance is Paris or Venice, then China’s is Suzhou. The 2,500-year-old city was the cultural epicenter and largest non-capital city of China’s Ming (1300s to 1600s) and Qing (1600s to 1900s) dynasties. Everywhere you look today, relics of the past commingle with the present: the 1,000-year-old water towns’ ancient canals; the skyscraping Suzhou Industrial Park district’s waterfront fountain shows; a new, sprawling shopping mall that’s one of the world’s largest. Frozen in time and simultaneously thrust into a smartphone-based future of its own making (read: DiDi in place of Uber, WeChat in place of Facebook, Instagram, and any mobile payment app, in one), Suzhou feels other-worldly.
Most people go to China for its megacities and its Great Wall, but I went for water towns and dumplings. And I was pleasantly surprised to find that by arriving through Shanghai and taking advantage of the region’s bullet trains I’d get to experience much more in the spirit of both history and modernity: Shanghai’s glittering skyline, the former Chinese capital of Nanjing for Ming tombs and other dynastic relics, and the grand finale that is Suzhou.
It’s not just its status as a “Venice,” or even that it’s home to a landmark nicknamed the “Leaning Tower of China” (a la Pisa) that makes Suzhou home to incredible “pasta.” The same way that some seek out Italy for spaghetti, more travelers should be heading to Suzhou for noodles and dumplings. If you don’t believe me, take it from Marco Polo: The famed explorer is said to have introduced pasta—essentially noodles and the dough used to make dumplings—to Italy after a 13th-century trip to this area, the Jiangsu province of China. And he had lots to say about Suzhou (more on that below).
Shanghai and Suzhou’s dumplings are still worth traveling for. The types are endless. Wonton soup in a light seafood broth is a Suzhou staple, while the heartier pork-based soup dumplings (xialong bao) that explode in your mouth and have become famous the world over originated in nearby Shanghai, and thus are popular throughout Jiangsu province. Steamed vegetable buns are commonly eaten for breakfast—but pan-fried varieties or smaller shumai are popular, too, simply labeled “dim sum.”
If you want to elevate your dumpling game then seek out sheng xian bao, or pan-fried pork buns—a combination of soup dumpling and bao that are pan fried for extra decadence.
Dumplings are far from the only thing in Jiangsu province that impressed Marco Polo, however. “In this city there are 6,000 bridges, all of stone, and so lofty that two ships together could pass underneath them,” Polo wrote of Suzhou. “It contains merchants of great wealth and an incalculable number of people. Indeed, if the men of this city and of the rest of the country had the spirit of soldiers, they would conquer the world; but they are not soldiers at all, only accomplished traders and most skilled craftsmen.”
Everywhere you go in Suzhou are humble handmade wonders, from animal-shaped dumplings to embroidered silk, stone bridges, and cultivated gardens. Start at 1,200-year-old Shangtang Street to peruse the old town’s canals by boat before taking to the artisan stalls of dumpling baskets and rows of restaurants serving piping-hot seafood delicacies. Eat at famed Song He Lou and order the local special of sweet-and-sour Mandarin fish, served whole yet boneless and deep-fried to the point of looking like a Bloomin’ Onion slathered in orange sauce.
Pingjiang Road is a slightly more modern shopping and arts districts (at just 800 years old) where old meets new: sample tea and flower wines in trendy shops, or head to a traditional Kun Opera performance at the historic Fuxi Tea House to experience the same traditional singing and costumes that developed here during the Ming Dynasty.
Suzhou’s classical gardens date back to the 11th century and are meticulously maintained UNESCO-designated wonders. Classical Chinese gardens are an art form that has been cultivated over centuries and combines four elements: architecture, stone, water, and plants. Today these gardens are best visited early to avoid the crowds, and some are better known for certain elements over others: The Humble Administrator’s Garden is the most famous for its sheer size, while Lion Grove Garden is known for its maze-like rock formations, Cangland Pavilion is Suzhou’s oldest, and Master of the Nets is a smaller option that hosts nighttime musical performances.
Gardens are an ideal morning warm up for longer and more adventurous walks like Tiger Hill, a scenic area where visitors flock to see Suzhou’s seven-story “Leaning Tower of China,” and still more gardens. The climb is an easy but long one with plenty of stops like the Bonsai garden’s centuries-old trees, colorful koi ponds, and bridged pathways perched high above the trees. Bonsai pruning is a Chinese art form that requires an art degree, and visitors can witness pruners hard at work on Tiger Hill’s many potted varieties. The reward at the top is a 10th-century Buddhist temple that’s taller than Pisa’s leaning tower, and similarly began leaning thanks to softening ground, during the Ming Dynasty.
Where to Stay: Affordable hotel rates make an upgraded stay in Suzhou’s Old Town a must for the best access to (and views of) history: The Pan Pacific Suzhou Hotel shares grounds with the city’s famous Pan Men Gate and gardens, and admission to the historic landmark is included in your stay so you can explore the ponds and pagodas on early mornings before the inevitable crowds arrive. Upgrade to a Pan Pacific Club room for a luxe experience that still starts around $100 per night, and includes sweeping views of the Pan Men gardens’ towering pagodas, plus an upgraded breakfast buffet that’s rife with dumplings and Suzhou’s world-renowned fine teas.
10 Crazy Las Vegas Tours Everyone Should Experience at Least Once
You know about the celebrity chef restaurants, world-class residencies, and high-limit tables in Las Vegas. But there’s another side of Sin City just begging to be explored. On your next trip to this neon-draped desert city, check out these unique Las Vegas tours that’ll have you rethinking what a weekend in Vegas really means.
The Wine Yoga Experience
Center yourself with a winning combination of fire breathing and Cabernet. TheWine Yoga Experience lets you get your namaste on while sharing a glass of wine and a ton of fun with like-minded yogis. Glasses are typically outdoors, and your wine is served in a souvenir cup so you can pour yourself a refill back at home and relive the magic of your tipsy vacation shavasana all over again.
Las Vegas Hot Air Balloon Ride
See the more scenic side of Sin City with this Las Vegas tour in a hot-air balloon that takes you on a 3.5-hour trip over the painted mountains of Red Rock Canyon, the iconic Las Vegas Strip, and more. There’s even a picnic and Champagne toast, or you can sign up in the winter months to take off at sunset and get the full impact of the neon skyline.
Trapeze Lessons in Las Vegas
Fulfill your big-top dreams via a 90-minute trapeze lesson that brings you up close and personal with a unique peek at the zany activities offered in hidden Las Vegas. Instruction comes courtesy of a circus arts professional, and you’ll learn enough to attempt a fancy release-and-catch move before you go.
Downtown Las Vegas Food Tour
Las Vegas may be known for gambling, but it’s also home to some of the most delectable, diverse cuisine in the entire country. The unique 2.5-hour Las Vegas Food Tour includes edibles and beverages from some of the city’s most popular spots, as well as tidbits about Vegas architecture, culture, and history.
The Weird, Wacky and Wonderful Bar Crawl of Fremont Street
Bar hop the length of Fremont Street, a pedestrian thoroughfare that cuts through the heart of historic downtown Vegas. Weave between kiosks, take in the endless amounts of kitsch, look up for the art installations and light show, and try everything from scorpion tequila shots to craft beers along the way.
Cocktails? Check. Sky-high observation wheel? Check. Put them together and you’ve got happy hour on The High Roller, a sort of enclosed Ferris wheel with swanky air-conditioned pods, each equipped with a full bar. You get thirty minutes to make your loop-de-loop, with audio commentary so you know what you’re looking at, and plenty of frosty adult beverages, too.
Area 51 Extraterrestrial Tour
We are not alone—or at least that’s what this full-day, private tour of spooktastic Area 51 will have you thinking. Whether you’re into UFO sightings or hoping to stumble across a hidden treasure trove of evidence at this hush-hush military site, you’ll have a chance to find it during this exclusive, extraterrestrial-themed outing complete with an alien-themed lunch.
Las Vegas Reality Show VIP Tour
Sometimes it seems like Vegas is one giant reality show and we’re all on candid camera, but there are actual TV shows set in the Valley, too. This fully narrated Las Vegas tour takes ticket holders around filming locations used for shows likeUltimate Sports Cards and Memorabilia, Tanked, Pawns Stars, and American Restoration. You also get VIP access which allows you to skip the lines, a major bonus as some sites can get pretty congested.
Signature Smash Rage Room Experience
Rage against the machine (or just let your failings at the blackjack table loose somewhere safe) at Sin City Smash. You’ll have access to a huge array of breakables, ranging from dishes to printers to lamps. Once you put on your safety gear, you’ll get choose your weapons and enter the Rage Room for 15 minutes of no-holds-barred amusement. You even get to pick your own playlist, so your soundtrack matches your mood at this unique Las Vegas experience. Perhaps best of all, all the broken bits are cleaned up by staff who then take it to the recycling bin to ensure everyone’s fun is suitably eco-friendly.
Las Vegas Helicopter Night Flight
No matter how many times you’ve been to Vegas, the city is a different sight altogether once the sun sinks behind the mountains and the Strip lights up. This 15-minute flight delivers a unique bird’s-eye view of legendary landmarks such as the historic downtown area, the Bellagio fountains, and the Mirage. Sparkling wine and snacks are included, but you may be too busy gawking to fully appreciate your treats.
6 Essential Tips for Solo Female Travel in the Middle East
Solo female travel is more popular than ever. Women aren’t waiting around for someone to join them in their pursuit of adventure, they’re going on their own. It’s becoming increasingly easy to join an all-women tour group of like-minded people to explore complex destinations. But many women still opt to truly go it alone, to see what it’s like to see and do whatever you, and only you, want.
I didn’t think twice when I recently had the opportunity to spend some time solo in Amman before meeting up with a tour group to hike the rest of Jordan. But I was surprised at how many of my fellow female travelers were concerned to hear I’d be exploring a Middle Eastern locale alone.
Tips for Solo Female Travel in the Middle East
While every destination is, of course, different, I found out some surprising truths about taking on solo female travel during my time in Amman. And in comparing the journey to a subsequent trip to Cairo, during which I spent the majority of my time exploring with Egyptian friends, I discovered some general tips that tourists and locals seem to agree travelers should keep in mind.
Bring Your Awareness, But Also Your Self-Confidence
While it’s important to know that the Middle East is culturally different than other destinations when it comes to gender dynamics, it’s just as important to be yourself and have fun. Respect the culture by dressing the part (more on that below) and following social norms, but don’t spend the entire time worrying about a misstep. You’ll enjoy the ride more if you bring your sense of humor: having your guard up too high can at best result in missed opportunities and learning experiences, and at worst offend others. Many countries in the Middle East, Jordan and Egypt among them, are known for their generous hospitality and sense of humor—two things you don’t want to miss out on by shutting yourself off.
Take Note of Gendered Seating Sections
The biggest social norm I learned about in Amman is one I thankfully didn’t transgress despite my ignorance to it: gendered seating sections. Some restaurants have “family” sections, which are designated for any party that has women and/or children in it. There are different sections for men-only groups and solo men, and sitting in the opposite section (either as a man or as a woman) is a no-no; if you accidentally end up in the wrong section you’ll be asked to move. Restaurants that are popular with tourists typically don’t use these seating arrangements anymore, but if you get off the beaten path, it’s a good idea to survey the tables and wait for an employee to seat you, rather than pick a table yourself.
Public transit in some Middle Eastern cities like Cairo also employ gendered seating, for safety reasons. If you do decide to take public transit on your own, take note of which car you’re getting on. It’s worth noting that Uber and taxis are very affordable and still relied upon in most places in the Middle East—so you might not need to take public transit as a solo female traveler at all.
While some might think of solo female travel as a challenge, it’s actually a surprisingly underrated way to meet people—especially local women. When in doubt, a good rule is to seek out other women. Need directions? Ask a group of women. Taking public transit? Sit with or stand near other women.
In my experience, friendly local men seemed to be more likely to go out of their way to ask me if I needed directions, to suggest things to do, or just to chat about where I’d been. But I made sure to seek out women when I felt like I needed help, and I got a lot in return. For example, I asked a woman near me in line at Amman’s Roman amphitheater (pictured above) about the entry fee and, unprompted, she bought me my ticket to save me money. (Tourist rates are typically much higher than the locals’ ticket rates.) The gesture made me feel welcomed and comfortable at a time in my trip when I had been feeling vulnerable.
The best way to deal with moments of doubt or discouragement in solo female travel is to see if a local might be able to help. Some might even go out of their way to help you, as both women and men did for me in Amman.
Because it’s not common for women to be out and about on their own in many places in the Middle East, you’re likely to get more attention than you probably do in other destinations. Groups of schoolgirls in Jordan, for example, quickly became my biggest fans—asking for selfies and giddily practicing their English. But that attention can, of course, manifest in less welcome ways: Unwanted staring, photo-taking, comments, and other advances can happen. The best way to deal with such situations is to ignore them, or simply say “no” and move on. If that doesn’t work, or if someone seems to be following you, head to a place like a hotel lobby or a shop where an owner or employees are present. If anything more happens, seek out local tourist police, who can be found in most city centers and at most tourist attractions, and who take crimes and threats against tourists very seriously.
Dress the Part
An obvious way to avoid unwanted attention is to blend in. Dressing in Middle Eastern cities is different than in many other destinations, and what you pack should reflect that: Even when it’s extremely hot out, women are expected to cover up. The general rule is to wear modest clothing that will cover you from your neck to your knees, and to carry something like a pashmina for times when you need to cover up your shoulders or hair to enter sites like mosques—which are beautiful historic sites you won’t want to miss. Most mosques that are popular among tourists allow uncovered hair, but it’s a good idea to have a back-up scarf just in case you’re not as covered as you might need to be.
Keep in Mind a Simple Reality Check
To me, the incredulity about why I wanted to explore Amman alone was a symptom of a larger problem: People love to project other countries’ problems onto themselves, when in reality, it’s locals—not visitors—who are most often affected. Prejudice against women in Middle Eastern countries is largely not directed at tourists, but rather toward the women who live there. It’s often a privilege to be a visitor in the Middle East; most destinations cater to Western visitors because the region depends on tourism, which has greatly diminished for the Middle East in recent years. Of course, it’s always wise to be careful as a tourist in any destination, but it’s also important to remember that people sometimes overestimate the ways in which a problem will actually affect them as a visitor.
Visiting the Middle East as a solo female traveler is a unique learning experience that has both challenges and advantages. There was certainly some must-know advice I didn’t know before I went, but that I thankfully found out from locals before making any faux pas. But that’s the value of travel, and I look forward to exploring another Middle Eastern city on my own one day.
Top Travel Destinations for 2019
With 365 potential vacation days to choose from in 2019, it’s time to start planning your big adventures for the year. We’ve been hard at work helping you narrow down the choices. Whether you are ready for a bucket-list vacation, are looking to take your first solo trip, or want to plan a trip to the next big destination, we’ve got you covered. Here’s a roundup of our top travel destinations for 2019. Click through on a story to find out more.
The 12 Best Places to Travel in 2019: Inspired by seasonality, weather, crowds, and festivals, these are best places to travel in each month of 2019.
19 Trips of a Lifetime to Take in 2019: Ready for something special in 2019? These 19 trips of a lifetime are brand-new tours or offer something special in the year ahead.
7 Destinations Worth Adding to Your Travel Bucket List in 2019: Fueled by big celebrations, new air routes, and more, here are seven great destinations to check off your travel bucket list this year.
9 Trending Travel Destinations for 2019: Discover up-and-coming hot spots as well as classics making a comeback. These are the trending travel destinations that have seen a sizable jump in bookings and visitors over the past year.
The 10 Best Solo Vacations for 2019: Solo travel is on the rise, and tour operators, hotels, and cruise lines are expanding their offerings to meet the increasing demand.
The 10 Best Bucket List Cruises for 2019: These bucket list cruises sail to places most people only dream of visiting, from the Arctic Circle to the Galapagos Islands.
10 Best Adventure Vacations to Take in 2019: Break out of your comfort zone this year with one of these unique adventure vacations that are sure to shake up your routine.
10 New Women Only Travel Escapes to Take in 2019: Make 2019 the year you finally embark on an all-women adventure that inspires you. Your entire group could be women—down to the guides.
The 9 Best European Cities to Visit in 2019: These cities are worth visiting for affordability, special events, or what’s new and trending there.
10 Incredible European Tours for 2019: Whether you’re into history, hiking, or Harry Potter, this list of the best European tours offers unique adventures across the continent.
10 Cheap Tropical Destinations for 2019: Sunny getaways are more affordable than ever in warm-weather locales like India, Mexico, and the Caribbean islands. Here are 10 tropical vacations that are a lot cheaper than you think.
8 Trips You Didn’t Know You Could Afford in 2019: These surprisingly cheap places to travel offer reasonable rates for lodging, activities, and dining. Bonus: more hidden gems that are actually affordable.
9 Affordable Dream Vacations to Take in 2019: Thanks to new tour options and changing travel trends, these dreamy destinations and expensive-sounding vacations just became more affordable.
12 New Airline Routes for Cheap Flights in 2019: Airlines are boosting service at their hubs and offering better connecting flights with codeshare partners. Here are some of the most exciting new flight routes for 2019.
9 Countries Where the U.S. Dollar Is Strongest in 2019: Get more for your money by traveling to these destinations where your greenbacks go further.
10 Insanely Affordable Spring Vacations for 2019: Don’t spend a fortune on your spring break this year.
The 10 Best U.S. Cities to Visit in 2019: With so many American cities reinventing themselves, travelers can discover something fun right around the corner. And in more established cities, there are plenty of new gems for repeat travelers to find.
The 11 Best Amusement Parks in Florida, 2019 Edition: Florida’s amusement park options can be overwhelming. Here’s a breakdown of the top theme parks in the Sunshine State.
The 12 Best All-Inclusive Resorts in the United States for 2019: Mexico and the Caribbean are known for their all-inclusive resort options, but some of the best all-inclusive hotels are actually in the United States.
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