Just a short drive from the skyscrapers and concrete sprawl of Shanghai you find a contrasting landscape of picturesque water towns and villages in the surrounding area which is entwined with canals, greenery and an easygoing and peaceful air.
As early as the 11th century a network of water towns sprung up along the many waterways of the area. These canals and watercourses have always been historically important means of communication and supplies distribution, by the 13th century these towns were flourishing and becoming important trading centers.
Nowadays, these Chinese traditional water towns are a magnet for visitors who come to admire the architectural beauty of the well-preserved towns, the very old houses lined up along the canals, the bridges criss-crossing them, the courtyards and pavillions brimming with centuries of history, and the uniqueness of the traditional waterfront culture.
You can explore these charming villages on foot through their historical Old Towns over their stone-paved streets and arch bridges, visit some of the large houses with their beautiful courtyards and pavillions, walk along the banks and take a boat through the canals, taking in all the history and tradition of these living ancient towns.
Even though residents strive to maintain their traditional customs and heritage, modernization has not left these little gems behind, evidenced by the Starbucks and familiar golden arches that greet you when you first approach and of course, anywhere there are tourists you will also find the inevitable souvenir shops. Restaurants, pubs, and tea houses line the canals and many of the old-style houses have been converted into small boutique hotels.
Efforts are constantly being made to counteract the pressures from a growing population and changing lifestyles to try and safeguard the traditional essence and cultural heritage of the water towns. It would be a shame if it all disappeared. They are definitely a national treasure worth preserving.
There are a number of popular water towns within a short distance from the center of Shanghai, some within an hour or less.
Read on for more on the most popular and charming canal towns in the outskirts of Shanghai, tips for visiting and what you can expect.
Best Watertowns Near Shanghai Map
Zhouzhuang Xitang Wuzhen Zhujiajiao Tongli
For the easiest and totally stress-free way to get to any of the above watertowns, you can hire your own private transportation, be picked up and dropped off at your hotel in Shanghai and enjoy the perfect visit. Rates vary according to number of travelers which will determine type of vehicle. It's worth considering if you have a small group, Zhouzhuang charter rate for a group of 5 for example is US$187 round trip.
Zhouzhuang lies 90 kilometers west of Shanghai and is probably the most popular watertown specially among Chinese, as the town has been depicted in numerous paintings by famous Chinese contemporary artist Chen Yifei who put this town in the radar in the 1980's.
The town is small and compact and easy to navigate on your own. Worth a stop are the Shen and Zhang Residences for a peek at the rich families' lives. The compounds are well-preserved, original and opulent, with lavish halls, gardens, wharfs and in the case of the Zhang Residence even an opera stage.
Zhouzhuang has 14 stone bridges, the most famous ones are the twin bridges at the intersection of two canals in the heart of the town, Shide with the arch and Yongan, the square bridge.
Tips for visiting Zhouzhuang:
- Avoid holidays and weekends when it gets very crowded.
- Please note that there is an "admission" charge to visit the watertown, Rmb100 which is paid at the town's main entrance.
- Boat rides leave from the youth hostel dock and last about an hour and a half. Cost is approx. Rmb 180 per boat.
- An easy way to get to Zhouzhuang is with the direct buses that leave from Shanghai General Bus Station, Shanghai Hongqiao West or Shanghai South, take one and a half hours directly to Zhouzhuang and cost Rmb 34 each way.
- One-way private transfer to Zhouzhuang costs US$93 per vehicle up to 4 passengers.
Most Popular Zhouzhuang Excursions From Shanghai
Hard to believe this sleepy water village was the backdrop of the action packed opening scene of Tom Cruise's Mission Impossible 3! Xitang is another beautiful water town located about 85 km from Shanghai.
One of the noteworthy features of Xitang are its narrow lanes, of which there are over 120 of them. Another striking feature is the long canopy corridors along the rivers which were developed by the merchant families to provide shelter and facilitate trading along the waterways.
Many of the residences along the canals have been converted into B&B's, bars, restaurants and shops. The canals offer a pleasant stroll in the late afternoon / evening when you can stop by at one of the pubs, grab a drink, watch the sunset...
Tips for visiting Xitang:
- You can easily get to Xitang by bus. Buses leave from Shanghai General Bus Station, Shanghai South, Shanghai Hongqiao West and Shanghai Pudong Airport. The trip takes approximately one hour and 40 minutes from the city, about 2 hours from Pudong Airport and cost Rmb 34 - 39 (Rmb 75 from the airport) each way.
- One-way private transfer to Xitang costs US$118 per vehicle up to 4 passengers.
- Xitang at sunset is a dream when the entire town and the canals are brightly lit and the day crowds are gone. Why not enjoy a nice sunset stroll through the Old Town lanes then sit down for a local meal at one of the town's best restaurants and enjoy the wonderful views.
- To make it a full day of action, consider a combined visit to Zhouzhuang and Xitang. Private transfer service for a group of 5 is US$255. More info and booking.
- Xitang charges an admission fee of Rmb 95, night ticket (after 5:00 pm April-October) Rmb 50
Another highly photogenic water town and one of the most popular, Wuzhen is located about 140 kilometers from Shanghai. It can be done on a day-trip from Shanghai, but to do it justice, an overnight stay is optimal. Wuzhen is beautiful, historical, and claims to be China's best preserved water town.
The Ancient Town is split into two parts. The Western District, Xizha, seems to be the most popular with its narrow lanes and beautifully preserved architecture. In this section you find the Old Post Office, the Matchmaker's Temple and the Zhaoming Academy.
In the Eastern part, Dongzha, you find the Shadow Play Theater, the Dye House or ancient indigo fabric workshop, the Ancient Bed Museum and Maodun's (a famous Chinese writer) residence.
Tips for visiting Wuzhen:
- To get to Wuzhen you can take the 55-minute high-speed train to Tongxiang and then a short 5 minute ride on bus K282 to Wuzhen West entrance. Train and bus fare will be under 10 Rmb.
- There is also a direct bus to Wuzhen from Shanghai. Buses leave from Shanghai South, Shanghai Hongqiao West and Shanghai Pudong Airport. The trip takes approximately two hours from the city, about 1 and a half hours from Pudong Airport and cost Rmb 55 (Rmb 73 from the airport) each way.
- Private car charter (10-hour) to Wuzhen is available, costs run from US$262 per vehicle, can take up to a minibus for 15 people.
- There is a free shuttle running between the two zones, ride takes 5 minutes.
- Admission fees for West Side Rmb 150, East Side Rmb 110, Combo Rmb 190
- To make the most of your day, consider a private tour to Wuzhen, explore the old houses with their beautiful carved wooden doors and windows, wander the network of canals, visit the water market, savor the local cuisine at a traditional restaurant, and of course easy transfers from your hotel and back.
Zhujiajiao ancient town is the closest and most accesible watertown within a 40-minute drive from Shanghai. If time is of the essence, this is your best bet for a half-day tour.
This charming 1,700 year-old town is small and compact, with beautiful stone, marble and wooden bridges and the characteristic houses on the canals. Hard to miss is the five-arched Fang Sheng Bridge which stretches 72 meters long.
There is no admission fee to Zhujiajiao but some of the attractions, museums, etc. do have small fees. Zhujiajiao is great just to stroll around, take a boat ride, check out the food stalls, enjoy a drink along the canal... and just escape the hustle and bustle of the big city for a few hours.
Tips for visiting Zhujiajiao:
- Easiest and fastest way to get to Zhujiajiao is via taxi, the trip takes just over half an hour and fares for taxis are about US$20.
- Direct bus service to Zhujiajiao departs from the Pu'an Road Bus Station, which is centrally located just south of People's Square. Buses leave every half hour and the trip takes about one hour.
- Zhujiajiao can be reached with Metro Line 17, although this may not be the fastest way to get there. Could take about 1 and a half hours or more depending on where in the city you start. Then from Zhujiajiao Metro Station to the town is about a 15 to 20 minute walk.
- One-way private transfer to Zhujiajiao costs US$93 per vehicle up to 4 passengers.
- Want a little action and fabulous landscapes? This Zhujiajiao bycicle adventure is for you! Ride your bikes through the picturesque Jiangnan region as you leave Shanghai behind and on to Zhujiajiao Watertown, you will ride for about 30 kilometers, once there you can explore the town by foot, enjoy a delicious Chinese lunch by the waterfront, hop on a boat and cruise the canals...
- Boat tours depart from the dock by the City God Temple and cost Rmb 80.
Top Zhujiajiao Excursions:
Lovely Tongli is another perfect choice for a watertown visit near Shanghai. It is built on seven islets and boasts many classic gardens, beautiful canal residences with their original traditional facades, 49 ancient bridges, cobblestone alleyways and willow-lined canals.
Worth a visit are the Tuisi Gardens which is a complex consisting of an opulent residential area and the lavish garden area which is dotted with koi ponds, pavillions, bridges and of course blooming trees and bushes.
Tips for visiting Tongli:
- Getting there is easy with the direct bus to Tongli from Shanghai. Buses leave from Shanghai General, Shanghai South and Shanghai Hongqiao West Stations. The trip takes approximately one-and-a-half hours from the city and cost Rmb 37-39 each way.
- You can arrange private transfers to Tongli from Shanghai. Cost depends on group size, for a group of four cost is US$235 round trip.
- Make it a day at Tongli enjoying this fantastic Courtyard Lifestyle Experience where you not only explore the beautiful canals, bridges and gardens, you will also enjoy a home-cooked lunch, tea ceremony, a dumpling making class, and even get to try some Chinese calligraphy!
- Tongli charges an admission fee of Rmb 100
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