The city of Suzhou (苏州) is located in southern Jiangsu (江苏) Province, about two hours or less from Shanghai (depending on whether you’re driving or taking the train, traffic, and where exactly you’re going). Suzhou has over 2,500 years of history, and is home to about 6 million people. The city has jurisdiction over the famous Taihu Lake (太湖) as well as the city of Kunshan (昆山), the birthplace of Chinese Kunqu Opera (昆曲). Summers in Suzhou are hot and humid, with the city on roughly the same latitude as Tallahassee, Florida; Houston, Texas; and Tombstone, Arizona. Most people in the city speak Standard Mandarin, but Suzhou also has its own dialect, which is related to (but not the same as) the Shanghai dialect.
Suzhou has seven districts: The Suzhou High and New Technology Development Zone, Suzhou Industrial Park (SIP, 苏州工业园区，or 园区), Canglang District (沧浪区), Pingjiang District (平江区), Jinchang District (金阊区), Wuzhong District (吴中区), and Xiangcheng District (相城区).
The SIP is a roughly 20-year-old joint business venture between China and Singapore. It includes Jinji Lake (金鸡湖), around which are many expensive high-rise apartment buildings. Also near Jinji Lake is the Suzhou Science and Cultural Arts Center, designed similarly to Beijing’s Olympic Stadium. Housed in the Science and Culture Center are a performance hall and cinema, among other things. Near the Science and Culture Center, one can find Suzhou’s Times Square (时代广场), where there is a KTV and many stores and restaurants, including a department store called Jiu Guang (久光 ). Also nearby is one of Asia’s largest Ferris wheels, which lights up at night.
The older parts of the city have many of Suzhou’s shopping opportunities and cultural sites. There is the Suzhou Museum (苏州博物馆), Shantang Street (山塘街), Tiger Hill (虎丘), and some of Suzhou’s famous gardens (园林 – not 公园 or 花园!). There is also Guanqian Street (观前街), one of Suzhou’s most famous (and most crowded) shopping areas, where People’s Mall (Renmin Shangchang 人民商场) and a Xinhua bookstore (新华书店) are located. Guanqian Street can be accessed from either the Lindun Lu (临顿路) or Leqiao (乐桥) subway stations on Line 1.
Suzhou is famous for its gardens, its canals, its silk, its embroidery, and its food. Suzhou has many gardens because during the dynastic system, many governmental scholars would come from Suzhou, then retire back to their hometown and build a garden in which to live and relax. Some famous gardens are the Humble Administrator’s Garden (拙政园), the Master of Nets Garden (网师园), the Lingering Garden (留园), and the Lion’s Forest (狮子林). Suzhou’s canals can still be seen throughout the city, and the city’s original moat still exists, as well. Some of the best places to see the canals are Pingjiang Street and Shantang Street. The Grand Canal, built during the Sui Dynasty, also runs through Suzhou on its way to Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province. Suzhou cuisine tends to be sweet; native Suzhou food isn’t spicy. One of Suzhou’s signature dishes is song shu gui yu (松鼠桂鱼), or “sweet and sour squirrel-shaped Mandarin fish”. Song shu gui yu is not an everyday dish but a food for special occasions, usually ordered at restaurants. Like most other Chinese dishes, song shu gui yu is made to be served on a lazy susan and shared with the entire dinner party.
Transportation in Suzhou is cheap and easily accessible. Taxis can be hailed throughout the city. In areas of Suzhou with few taxis, people can use their cell phones to call 67776777 and give their location so a taxi can come get them. Public buses also run through all the city’s districts. Some of the buses have air conditioning while others do not. A bus ride is usually 2 yuan for as many stops as necessary. Many of the bus stops in the SIP have electronic signs that indicate how many stops each bus has left before it reaches that stop. The SIP also has a public bike system. After applying and paying for a bike card, a person can rent a public bike for 90 minutes at a time. Finally, Suzhou has a subway. Line 1 runs from Zhongnan Jie (Zhongnan Street 中南街) to Mudu (木渎), with stations including Suzhou’s Science and Culture Center and Times Square. Line 2 runs from Suzhou’s North Train Station to Baodai Bridge South and is being extended in both directions. Line 3 is under construction and will run from Weiting to the Suzhou New District Train Station. Line 4 is under construction and will run from Sili Road to Tongjin Avenue.