*Updated to include a range of prices*
Choosing where to lay your head at night is, of course, one of the most important decisions you can make in life. Whether it’s the right neighborhood to fit your lifestyle or the question of who wake up next to, being in the right place with the right people can have a profound effect on your quality of life.
The question of who warms your bed (if anyone) is entirely your business. But Zhou is here today to try to give a basic outline of what each major neighborhood in Suzhou has to offer, focusing on what expats can expect to find in each unique area of Suzhou. If you’re planning to move to Suzhou, hopefully this guide will help you pull off a soft(er) landing into the kind of place you’re looking for in our fair city. If you’re an established expat, this guide may help you plot your next move when the rent starts to creep out of your price range. And trust me, the way the housing market is blowing up at the moment – it’s only a matter of time until your rent starts to reflect the new reality of housing prices in our city. In my doom and gloom post a few months back, I predicted a rent increase in the range of 10–15%. If things keep going the way they are going, we might be looking at a 25% increase in certain neighborhoods. Ouch. The days of cheap Suzhou may be coming to an end.
Let’s start out with a completely arbitrary ranking for the major neighborhoods most expats call home. Your own personal rankings may be different (mine are!) based what you’re looking for but these rankings reflect what I think the “average” expat desires:
1) Xinghai Square and Central Park (SIP)
2) Times Square and the North end of Jinji Lake – including the Bayside area (Linglongwan and neighboring communities) and Zhongtian Hupan (SIP)
3) Western Jinji Lake- from Jinji Lake Street to Jinji Lake Avenue, including the Ligongdi area (SIP)
4) Eastern Jinji Lake to the Zhongnan Jie area (the neighborhoods around the end of line 1) (SIP)
5) Dushu Lake Science, Education and Innovation District (SIP)
6) SND near the subway stations only* (SND – Suzhou New District)
7) Gusu/Guangchen Jie (the historic downtown area and walking street, including the Donghuan Lu subway area in SIP) (Gusu)
8) Moon Bay (Dushu Lake, SIP) (still under construction but the future looks bright. Might move up to #5 in 2017)
9) Wuzhong District (the southern district of Suzhou)
10) Anywhere in SND away from of the subway lines
11) Live in one of the above district if possible
12) Lake Tai area (nice but you’re at least 45 minutes from the city)
13) Living in a box under a bridge
14) Xiangcheng district (the northern district of Suzhou)
OK, you can switch 13 and 14. But why would you live in Xiangcheng unless you work in the district and hate commuting?
Here’s a map of the future subway lines in Suzhou from TravelChinaGuide.com. Many of these lines will open in 2016 or 2017.
Suzhou Industrial Park (SIP to the locals)
SIP is the home to most of the expats in the city. Located on the east side of the city and containing both Jinji Lake and Dushu Lake, it’s the most modern district and is the place to be if you’re looking for a more Western friendly lifestyle.
Xinghai Square and Central Park
Home to the majority of expats grocery stores, bars, restaurants and in the heart of SIP’s office buildings, Xinghai Square and Central Park are in the center of all the action. Everything is new, the building quality is high and it’s very easy to travel around the city. Guess what, this is also one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the city. You’re either going to need a huge housing allowance from your job, make bank and not care about spending money on rent or get yourself several roommates to bring down your costs. One bedrooms run from 3.500 – 5,000 RMB a month and bigger places with nice views of the lake can run anywhere from 9,000 to 15,000 RMB for a 3 bedroom. Sometimes you can find a cheaper place but don’t expect much in the way of quality – there’s a reason the apartment is cheaper than the average. This district is too rich for my blood.
Times Square area – Including Linglongwan and the surrounding northern Jinji lake communities.
This area is a mix of the quiet life, access to the lake and proximity to everything in SIP. The housing stock is new, the quality is high and there are many (but not as good) western places nearby. The Times Square area is probably a better place place to live than Xinghai Square if you’ve got a family because the living communities are very private and free from traffic. The only downside is the cost. It will cost you to live in this neck of the woods. One bedrooms go for between 3,200 to 4,000 RMB a month with a normal 3 bedroom creeping up to 12,000 RMB. (9,000-12,000/m) Cheaper places can be had but it requires a little looking around.
Western Jinji Lake Area – Running from Jinji Lake Street to Jinji Lake Avenue, including Ligongdi.
This part of town has a lot going for it. Easy access to the parks on Jinji Lake, a new Euro Mart, quality housing, a few decent restaurants and a quiet, low key vibe. The only real issue is the lack of public transportation excluding buses – but even those are limited in this part of town. To make matter worse, it’s hard to get a taxi here. In a few years when subway lines 3 and 5 open, it will be a much needed transportation upgrade to the area. Running at about the same rental rates as Times Square (3,000 – 4,000 RMB 1B & 9,000 – 12,000 RMB 3B), this is a very nice neighborhood to live in – especially if you have children and own a car.
Eastern Jinji Lake and Zhongnan Jie area
Running from the giant Ferris wheel to the eastern end of line 1, this is an up and coming part of town. The whole neighborhood is coming on line, plenty of new housing being build and the western restaurants and services are starting to move in. All of the housing is brand new, there is a large Korean expat community forming in the area (always a good sign) and rents are not as high as they could be – considering that this is the most expensive part of Suzhou not directly on the water. Most apartments here are large with rents running from 3,500 – 4,500 RMB 1B to 10,000 – 15,000 4B. I’ve heard Chinese rumors that there are plans to connect the Suzhou subway system to the Shanghai subway system with a new line running from the Zhongnan Jie station through Kunshan and connecting to Hongqiao. This is an up and coming part of town that only looks to get better and better in the near future.
Dushu Lake Science, Education and Innovation District –
This is my neck of the woods! A quiet, beautiful and overlooked part of Suzhou, this district is a mix of good and bad. It’s clean, cheap (1Br from 2,500 RMB, 3 Br from 4,500 RMB) and quiet. It also is very close to the wonderful parks on the eastern shores of Dushu Lake and is home to my favorite (and always empty) small hospital in the city. Sadly, it’s not all flowers and rainbows in this district. It’s a 30 minute trip to get into the city, the traffic is getting worse and the mass transit is limited to buses (Subway Line 2 will open in the district sometime in 2016 – which will help a great deal). There is also limited access to western restaurants and supplies. I like living here but it’s not my favorite place in the city. It is cheap though.
Moon Bay (Dushu Lake)
Not to be confused with Moon Harbor down by the Cultural and Expo Center, Moon Bay is in the Dushu Lake SEID but has been designated as a new CBD on Dushu Lake. This is a brand new neighborhood located on the eastern banks of Dushu Lake. Unlike most of the housing on Jinji Lake, these apartments have easy access to the lakes and parks that line Dushu Lake’s eastern bank. This district is just starting to come online so rents are cheap (2,500 RMB 1B – 4,500 RMB 4B). This area will be linked to the downtown by the extension to line 2 but is otherwise out of the way and inconvenient. When the district really comes online in a few years, it will likely move much higher up the list.
Gusu (historic downtown Suzhou)
Gusu is much higher on my personal list than on the “standard issue” expat list above. Filled with history, gardens, Chinese markets and a more hectic, busy feel, Gusu is the district for you if you’re looking for the more “authentic” Chinese experience while living in Suzhou. Transportation in the district is hit and miss and it’s better to live near the subway lines (line 1, line 4 will be opening soon, running north, south down Renmen Rd – a major upgrade to the whole downtown) or on the edge of the city. It’s loud, it’s tight, it’s a little crazy and it’s a little dirty. It’s great for walking around and exploring the alleys and canals that run every which way in the old city. You have no idea what is around the next corner and I like that kind of adventure. All in all, a great place to live if you’re a more pro-Chinese style of living expat. That said, there is major downgrade in housing stock quality when compared to the newer parts of town. If you’re looking for a place downtown, make sure to inspect the building for mold and other major issues. It’s probably best to do your apartment searching in the winter so you know what you’re getting into with an older Chinese apartment. I recommend the areas around Guangchen Jie/Pingjiang Lu and the southern part of the district near the moat. Rents run from 1,800 – 2,200 RMB 1B to 3,000 – 4,500 RMB 3B.
Suzhou New District:
I don’t spend a lot of time in SND but the time I have spent there always leaves me unimpressed. It’s not a bad place and a few neighborhoods are high quality but I just don’t like it as much as SIP. Not Chinese enough to be cool like Gusu but not Western enough to feel more modern like SIP. It’s just OK.
White Horse Park area, SND
SND near the Subway Line 1
Easy access to transportation, pretty decent housing stock, lower prices than SIP and access to some western goods and supplies, SND near the subway line 1 is a nice place to live. But, like I said, it’s just OK. If you work in the district, I think it is better to live in SND than having to commute across town. If you don’t work in the district, it might be better to plant your flag somewhere else unless you are trying to save the money associated with the centrally located areas of SIP. Rents run from 2,000 – 3,000 RMB 1B to 4,500 – 6,000+ RMB 3B – there are a few expensive areas too)
SND off of the Subway Line 1
Boring. So Boring. Unless you’re a Chinese national, I’m not recommending living here. None of the benefits of living in Gusu, none of the perks of living near the modern parts of town. If you work out here in the sticks, I think you’d be better off commuting 20 minutes to your job than having the convenience of walking to work. You’ve been warned. Rents run from 2,000 RMB 1B – 5,000 RMB 3B.
Lake Tai Area
This area is nice, it’s new (unless you live in a village/the countryside), plenty of golfing and it’s cheap—ish. The real problem is that it’s not really in Suzhou. You’re looking at an hour train and subway ride just to get into the center of the city, let alone SIP. It would be closer to live in Kunshan (which is also, technically, part of Suzhou). Don’t let a job recruiter fool you (and they will try to fool you), living near Lake Tai is BFE as far as you’re concerned.
This is a very Chinese part of the city. Many of the local Suzhou people that you meet will come from Wuzhong. If you don’t speak some Chinese, you probably don’t want to live here because life will not be easy. I like Wuzhong but it is not a convenient place to live. The commute into the city is difficult, everything is for the local Chinese residents, and there is a lot of the Suzhou local language being spoken – and good luck understanding that no matter how good your Chinese is. Again, this is not a bad part of town, just very, very Chinese. If you want the Chinese experience, I still think you’d be better off in Gusu. Same Chinese fun, easier time getting around the city. Rents run from 1,800 – 2,500 RMB 1B to 3,500 – 4,500 RMB 3B.
I’ve saved the worst for last. Are you Chinese? Yes –then Xiangcheng is fine. No – then don’t live in Xiangcheng. Keep moving, nothing to see here. Maybe…maybe you could live next to the train station just north of Gusu. Maybe. Rent: I’m not telling you because you really shouldn’t live here. Just trust me on this one, OK. You can do better.
That’s all she wrote, folks. Feel free to add your two cents below.