Central Eastern China or the area around Shanghai has a unique landscape that’s flat and littered with waterways, lakes and canals. Throw in a fascinating ancient past and rich culture and you get some of the most unique water towns in China. Try and picture smaller, Chinese Venice and you might begin to imagine what these might look like. While there are many cute water towns to visit, here are some of the best ancient water towns near Shanghai. They make the perfect day trip from Shanghai, allowing you to truly relax and rest from the hustle and bustle of the big city.
If you’re looking for a lovely, charming ancient water town within close proximity to Shanghai then Zhuajiao is your best bet. Here you’ll find the classic water town features all these villages have in common- quaint, ancient Chinese buildings with their distinctive roofs all dispersed by several green/brown canals and waterways.
Stroll around the village as you please admiring the centuries-old stone buildings and their gorgeous details – hanging, bright-red lanterns, intricately carved wooden shutters and the local delicacies on sale. Zhujiajiao is easily reached by metro from the centre of Shanghai, but due to the ease of accessibility and proximity to Shanghai, it is one of the busiest and most touristic water towns on this list.
Xitang is another wonderful little water town located a little north-east of the city of Jiaxing.
Upon arrival head straight to the ancient city centre of this town where you’ll find those magical waterways, flanked by ancient stone, Chinese buildings all dispersed by steep, stone bridges.
In Xitang you’ll also find many curious places to eat and street food to try such as fried tofu and boiled corn on the cob. One of the things you can’t miss both here and in any other water town are the tea houses and cafes. Choose a tea house (either traditional or modern) right by the water’s edge, order a cup of steaming green tea and watch the boats go by. Some tea houses might also have little, pretty terraces overlooking the water.
Nanxun is my favourite water town in China and one that I’d recommend visiting if you only have time to visit one. It’s the most authentic and least touristy town I visited in the year that I lived in this area of China.
Nanxun is also one of the best and largest of the preserved water towns too and due to its distance from Shanghai is one of the least popular. Arrive during the week and you’ll share the town with just the locals. Some of the highlights of this town include the Spanish style Liu’s Former Home and the Former Residence of Zhang Jingjiang.
In fact, you’ll find a lot of European influence, particularly Spanish in the architecture here. Spend the rest of your time just strolling around and admiring the gardens, courtyards and beautifully preserved architecture. Start early and a trip here makes for a wonderful day trip from Shanghai or Hangzhou.
JINXI ANCIENT TOWN (锦溪古镇)
Jinxi is another water town, worth visiting on a day trip from Shanghai. It’s located almost halfway between Shanghai and Suzhou and its a curious place to see.
Jinxi has a striking, western-looking clock tower located in its centre and many waterways on which you can find lovely, ancient Chinese, stone houses with red lanterns filling their interiors, cute cafes and modern restaurants serving delicious local Chinese food.
Jinxi and Zhouzhuang (below) are located fairly close together so these two can be combined together for a wonderful water town day trip.
While not being a town at all but instead a sprawling city, there are parts of the centre of the Old Town of Suzhou that still have that small water town atmosphere. If you’d like to see the characteristics of a water town while maybe doing some shopping or other big city activity Suzhou might be a great option for you, plus it’s also easier to get to.
After arriving at Suzhou Central Station ( 苏州火车站) cross the waterway and start making your way south. From here simply walk the gorgeous, tree-lined, city streets, occasionally crossed by a canal. Some of the highlights of this area include Taipingtianguo Zhongwang Mansion and Mountain Villa with Embracing Beauty– a Qing Dynasty villa with a classical Chinese garden and stunning rockery.
Suzhou is also famous for its classical Chinese gardens and you’ll find many to choose from in this area. Some that you really can’t miss are the Humble Administrator’s Garden (拙政园), the Lion Grove Garden (狮子林) and The Lingering Garden (留园) which in recent years has come to be recognised by UNESCO.
After you’ve had enough of strolling around gardens, take a break and find a teahouse by a beautiful canal to watch the world go by. If you are based in Shanghai I’d highly recommend coming to Suzhou as a day trip.
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If you’re heading from Shanghai to Hangzhou or vice versa and you have a few hours to spare and want to see a water town without straying too far from your itinerary then the small city of Jiaxing is also a great choice. Jiaxing must have started out as a simple Qing dynasty water town but has since then rapidly grown into a large city, however, the centre of it is still preserved and a great place to experience the water town atmosphere and features.
From the train station take a taxi to Yuehe Antique Street (月河古玩街) and simply wander around this stunning canal- filled area. Here, you’ll find many fantastic teahouses and shops, street food, curious Chinese buildings and more. Spending an hour or two here is a great way to break up any East China journey.
Zhouzhuang is probably the most difficult water town to get to from Shanghai that appears on this list, however, it’s also one of the most authentic. It hasn’t been restored and commercialised in the same way that others have, but even still you’ll find other tourists around. Things to do in Zhouzhuang include visiting the ancient pagoda which can be seen on arrival in the town, the local museum which shows representations of life in Zhouzhuang throughout the centuries as well as a classical canal boat tour.
TOP TIPS FOR VISITING WATER TOWNS
↠ Most water towns near Shanghai are all quite similar and I wouldn’t recommend you visit them all as you will end up getting bored unless of course you’re fascinated by them. Choose one or maybe even two instead of trying to visit them all.
↠ If you don’t speak any Chinese aim to visit some of the most popular ones or ones located in big cities as people will more likely to speak some English and there’s a higher chance of finding English menus etc. Some popular choices are Zhujiajiao in Shanghai or Suzhou. Some of the others cater more to Chinese tourists.
↠ To avoid the crowds try to visit during the week and arrive as early as possible. If you’ve been in China for a while you’ll notice that Chinese people travel in large groups, which can create massive crowds of people at famous landmarks in a matter of minutes.
↠ Boat tours are available in all the water towns. As you walk around you’ll notice where all the boats stop and around there, there should be a ticket office. If you don’t notice an office ask one of the boat drivers (some basic Chinese will be needed here).
↠ You’ll probably notice that Google Maps isn’t available in China, along with most other social media. I highly recommend subscribing to a VPN service and having it on your phone to be able to access Google Maps as you explore- I use Express VPN. Alternatively, Maps.me is another great mapping app that should work in China.
Do you have any comments of questions on these water towns near Shanghai? I’d love to help, leave your comment below.
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