Shanghai is a financial hub and China’s biggest city. It’s world-famous for its tall skyscrapers, bustling streets, fashion, food, nightlife, and culture. However, it is also in close proximity to a series of small water towns that rival the canals of Venice and Amsterdam!
With the growth of the local economy and culture, a network of small towns connected by water came into being. They began in the 11th century and thrived in the 13th century. These well-preserved small towns serve as beautiful examples of Shanghai’s long history. For travelers looking for a day-trip, these are a wonderful option.
As choosing where to go can be a bit daunting for new visitors, we’ve prepared a list of our favorite ancient water towns:
Ancient Water Towns You Don’t Want to Miss
Holding a spot in the “world’s most beautiful water towns,” Zhouzhuang is one of the area’s most charming. Its well-preserved dwellings and stone bridges date back over 900 years. Here you will find architecture from the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties. Be sure to set aside a day to explore this town fully.
You can visit one of its many landmarks like Shen’s House (沈厅), Zhang’s House (张厅) or one of the bridges like the Double Bridge (双桥) or Fu’an Bridge (富安桥). Zhouzhuang is said to be particularly beautiful at daybreak. If time permits, spend the night and wake up before the sun to catch those twilight hours. You are guaranteed a spectacular sight.
“The Venice of Shanghai,” Zhujiajiao is undoubtedly a gem along the Dianshan Lake. With hundreds of buildings showcasing Ming and Qing architecture, this town dates back over 1700 years!
Flourishing thanks to its countryside rice and cloth sales, Zhujiajiao remains one of the most well-preserved towns around Shanghai. While you are here you can visit the Kezhi Garden (课植园), Qing-dynasty Post Office (明清邮局), or Yuanjin Buddhist Temple (圆津禅院). Alternatively, you could also cross one of the popular bridges like the Fangsheng Bridge (放生桥) or Tai’an Bridge (泰安桥).
Xitang is not only a stunning town but it also hosts a great history. Dating back almost 1300 years, this water town went through several stages of growth under different rulings. The residents of Xitang built their first homes along the river during the Tang Dynasty.
Then, during the Song Dynasty, its strategic position on the water allowed for its business to grow and for the town to flourish. Finally, during the Ming and Qing dynasties, it established itself as an important center for handicrafts and commerce. While you are here, be sure to visit Wenzun Hall (闻尊堂), Zhongfu Hall (种福堂), and Shipi Lane (石皮弄). As well as the Songzi Laifeng Bridge (送子来凤桥).
Another water town with over 1300 years of history, Wuzhen serves as an example of the Qing Dynasty and early Republican Period (1912-1949). Wuzhen is divided into four sections by its waterways. These are, Dongzha (East), Xizha (West), Nanzha (South), and Beizha (North).
The most frequented are the North and East sections of the town. Nevertheless, they are all quite beautiful and worth exploring. Enjoy the traditional folk customs, beautiful historic sites, and tranquil waters while you are here. For a few ideas of where to go you could try: the Old Opera Stage (古戏台), Folk Customs Museum (民俗馆), Ancient Bed Museum (江南百年床馆), Maodun’s Former Residence (茅盾故居), or the Chinese Foot-binding Culture Museum (三寸金莲馆).
Last on our list, Tongli is another of the area’s most famous towns. A true water town Tongli is built on a network of 15 canals and almost every residence is adjacent to one of these canals. Around the town you can also find over 40 bridges built through the Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties.
This town is a favorite among photographers and artists, trying to capture its mystical beauty. Understandably, it’s such a popular site that it can get quite crowded at times. Try to avoid the crowds and visit some secluded back streets to get a feel for it. For some ideas on places to visit, try: Retreat & Reflection Garden (退思园), Jiayin Hall (嘉荫堂), and the Three Bridges (三桥).
Best Way to Get Around Shanghai
As you prepare your itinerary and choose the water towns you are going to visit, make sure to plan a reliable transport option to get there. Unfortunately, public transport and taxis aren’t always the most reliable.
This is why we recommend hiring a trusted car service that can accommodate your needs and take you where you need to go. With professional local drivers and 24-hour customer assistance, you can guarantee one less thing to worry about.
Best Shanghai Water Towns
China is a country with thousands of years worth of rich history and culture. As you visit these gorgeous, quaint water towns, try to imagine the times in which they were built. Move through the stone dwellings and waterways as though you were walking through those same streets almost a thousand years ago.
With all our modern amenities and giant metropolises, it is easy to forget from where we came. That is likely what gives small towns their “magical” feel. Be sure to delve into that history and make the most of your time in Shanghai.