When you’re engaged and in China, thoughts of fancy might turn to, well, Suzhou. Not for the traditional Chinese gardens or homes. And not even for photo ops at the pagoda or Tiger Hill. You want Suzhou, because Suzhou is home to a fantastic wedding gown street (苏州婚纱一条街) — where you can get a tailor-made dream for less.
Located on a sprawling block within walking distance of Tiger Hill, Suzhou’s Wedding Gown street has none of the grace of its more famous neighboring attraction. It’s a depressing conglomeration of one- and two-story concrete stores with photoshopped signs and dresses that look dull under cheap fluorescent lighting — almost as if it were the wedding village for jilted fiancees. Yet, there are treasures behind those doors for the patient and persistent bride-to-be — with bargains that’ll have you saying a resounding “I do.”
So, what are your options?
The easiest is to buy what’s on display — and most stores have so many ways to do flowing chiffon, silk, taffeta and more that even the fussiest foreign woman will eventually find a gown she loves. But if you have a design in mind, have them do a tailor-made dress — just be sure to bring a photo or drawing of what you want, and choose a store with a basic design similar to your dream gown. Prices range from around 200 RMB for simple dresses up to 400 or 500 RMB for tailor made designs (such as my own bridal gown). And, since many stores also sell qipaos and evening gowns (most brides in China wear three dresses at their wedding), you can do all of your wedding dress shopping in one place.
Whatever your choice, begin by browsing the stores, with an eye for styles you love. You don’t need to bargain right away, and you shouldn’t. Give yourself time to know the stores, and know what’s available. Then, when you come upon something gossamer and gorgeous, make a note to come back.
Sometimes, though, it takes a seemingly exhaustive “tour” of the wedding gown street before you’ve found the perfect match. That’s what happened to me — it was the last store that had styles similar to the dream gown I had in mind (and thank goodness, because I almost though my “dream” was dashed forever in a pile of boring gowns).
Once you find the perfect one, bargain, bargain, bargain. The asking price is often twice what you should pay, as one of the posts in this forum thread reveals (Chinese) — so never accept the first offer. And remember — the price should include a bridal veil and gloves.
After walking down the aisles of Suzhou’s wedding gown street, you might consider taking in some of the city’s more traditional delights, such as nearby Tiger Hill, or even one of the famed gardens (Master of the Nets is a personal favorite).
You can relax and take a moment to ponder the next step — how to make your friends at home jealous over such a great deal on a wedding dress. 😉
When to visit
Suzhou’s wedding gown street (江苏省苏州市金阊区虎丘风景区正大门) is best visited in Spring or Fall, when the city enjoys the mildest weather of the year. Winters would be a second choice — Suzhou gets more rain than snow this time of year, but there are only a few below-freezing days. If you absolutely must come in the summer, don’t ever leave home without your UV-protective umbrella (available for purchase at any major supermarket in China, and highly advised for a city that, last summer, had temperatures topping 42 degrees Celsius).
By plane. Suzhou has no airport, so your best option is in Shanghai. Hopefully, you’ll fly through Hongqiao Airport, the closest airport located in the West of Shanghai — because the other choice, Pudong Airport, leaves you 45 minutes East of downtown Shanghai alone. Either way, you’ll need to catch a train to Suzhou (see “By train” below for details). Shanghai’s subway system now serves both airports, and has links to major train stations, but taxis (at least 100 to 120 RMB) might be the choice for the weary, overburdened traveler.
By train. Go to Shanghai Station (that’s the main station — not to be confused with Shanghai South Station), where you can purchase train tickets to Suzhou. Buy yours at one of the automated kiosks there, especially for the high-speed trains. Don’t worry about tickets being sold out — there are so many trains going to Suzhou every day, it’s impossible not to get a seat. The trip from Shanghai to Suzhou takes a little under one hour.
Once you arrive in Suzhou, the most comfortable way to the Suzhou Wedding Gown Street is by taxi (~20 to 25 RMB) — but you can also get there by taking a bus to Tiger Hill (tourist buses Y1 and Y2 from the train station).
Where to stay
Stay in Suzhou if you want to explore the city, or simply need a break from catching trains. Shanghai is a great option if you’d like to make dress-shopping a day trip.
Find and book a great hotel for your budget — online, as I did — at Ctrip.com (no deposit needed, and you can cancel easily, if necessary).
This is the Travel China with the Yangxifu series, which appears every 2nd Wednesday of the month. Thanks to Rich for inspiring me to launch this series.