Whist staying in Shanghai, we took a day trip to Suzhou. Due to China’s, ever growing, high speed train network this is really fast and cheap journey, making it a great option for a day trip. However, there is quite a bit to see in Suzhou, so you may want to book a hotel and stay longer. Whist being a large (by Western standards at least) and modern city, you can still find niches of tranquillity in the historic gardens. It’s classical gardens, and canals are the reason Suzhou is dubbed “Venice of the East”. Whilst this description is wholly inaccurate there is still plenty of the historic charm to be found – usually accompanied by rather hipster cafes.
If ancient buildings and canals are all you are after you may be more interested in visiting one of the smaller water towns such as Zhujiajiao, which offer these in a much more concentrated format. However, these are very much a tourist attraction/ living museums which can make them feel a bit like a show set. Suzhou however offers a more real experience of a historic Chinese city which has undergone much modernisation. I personally would recommend doing both, as each have something to offer.