Surrounded by rivers, lakes, and canals, Shanghai, together with Suzhou and Hangzhou, comprise a geographical triangle of historical towns that mostly run on the water. This area is well known as the “Venice of the East,” filled with thousands of years of history and cities built around complex canal systems. Here, locals and tourists can enjoy getting around by hand-controlled boats—and sometimes, the captain will even serenade you with a traditional Chinese folk song!
Here we list five most recommendable water towns for you to choose from. Pick the one you like the most!
Ps: You may have read about Qibao (七宝), known as “the nearest ancient town in downtown Shanghai.” We do not recommend it as it is not the top choice to visit. Qibao is quite small and touristy, with most buildings rebuilt in the last 20 years. Therefore as long as you have more than 5 hours of free time, we recommend below options for a better experience of authentic water towns.
Features: Easiest to get from downtown Shanghai; Convenient transportation; Cheap local food and snacks
Located in the Qingpu District of Shanghai, Zhujiajiao is the nearest water town in Shanghai. Zhujiajiao features Ming & Qing Dynasty buildings and numerous ancient bridges. Just by walking around, you can feel the leisure and tranquillity, enjoy the river view shaded by willow trees. Among all bridges there, the Fangsheng Bridge, built-in 1812 is one of the most famous attractions, said to be the largest stone arch bridge in Shanghai.
Scenic spot package ticket:
30 RMB for four scenic spots
60 RMB for eight scenic spots
80 RMB for cruise boat and eight scenic spots
Highlights: North Street, Kezhi Garden, Qing Dynasty Post Office, Tongtianhe Medicine Shop
Food: Pigs Feet, Fish
Distance: Around 50km from Shanghai
Keywords: Instagrammable; Touristy but worthwhile; Theater festival; Indigo fabric workshop
Like many of the other famous water towns, Wuzhen was part of the Grand Canal and prospered from the trade and silk production. It’s a major tourist attraction, and with its crowds and rows of souvenir shops, it’s easy to write off Wūzhèn as inauthentic. But then you turn a corner and get a view of an ancient stone bridge curving over a canal or a row of weathered Qing dynasty wooden homes, and realize: this place really is beautiful.
Dongzha (East Zone) and Xizha (West Zone) are the most popular parts. At the East Zone, you can enjoy ancient workshops, stores, and folk performances. While the West Zone is less crowded and has more authentic historic sites. The West Zone is also a great place to find antique-style accommodation. What’s more, Wuzhen has started to hold the annual Wuzhen Theatre Festival since 2013. This festival is held in late October for about 10 days every year.
Ticket: 150 RMB for the package ticket (East and West Zone);
Separately: 100 RMB for East Zone,120 RMB for West Zone
Highlights: Shadow Play Theater, Indigo Fabric Workshop, Wine Distillery Workshop, Folk Customs Museum, Chinese Foot-binding Culture Museum
Food: Braised mutton in brown sauce, Baishui boiled fish, Wonton
Location: Around 130km from Shanghai
Keywords: Authentic & less touristy; Far; A mix of eastern and western style architecture
Located a little bit far compared to other water towns, Nanxun luckily keeps its tranquil ambiance and authentic local lifestyle. Like other towns on the water, Nánxún has arched stone bridges, meandering lanes, and old wooden houses. What sets it apart is its fascinating mix of Chinese and European architecture – and comparatively few visitors.
Ticket: 100 RMB
Highlights: Jiaye Hall, Little Lotus Garden, Bai Jian Lou, Chinese writing brush workshop
Food: Pigs Feet, Pastry, Fish
Location: Around 130km from Shanghai
Keywords: Commercial, Historical sites
The 900-year-old water village of Zhouzhuang is the best-known canal town in Jiangsu. Zhouzhuang is pretty commercialized but still preserves the ancient appearance with houses made of black tiles and white walls, stone bridges, serene rivers, and small boats. Get up early or take an evening stroll, before the crowds arrive or when they begin to thin out, to catch some of Zhouzhuang’s architectural highlights. It is also a great experience to take a boat ride to capture the outlines of its natural beauty.
Ticket: 100 RMB at daytime (08:00-16:00); 80 RMB at night (16:00-21:00)
Highlights: Shen’s House, Double Bridge, Kun Opera, Kesi workshop，“Zhouzhuang in All Seasons” Show
Food：Wansan Pork Shank, Three-flavor Rice Dumpling, Sweet Lotus Root, Apo Tea (Grandmother Tea)
Location: Around 70km from Shanghai
Keywords: Less crowded, Ancient bridges, Tranquil
Xitang Water Town has a history of about 1300 years being an important center for handicrafts and commerce. What attracts visitors most is the easy-going lifestyle that local residents have followed for thousands of years. Unlike the ancient towns of Zhouzhuang and Wuzhen, Xitang is not a bustling village where people live ordinary and peaceful lives. The simple lifestyle may have disappeared in those now commercialized ancient towns, but they fill every lane in Xitang. For travelers from modern metropolises, Xitang is a fantastic place to experience a feeling of simplicity and leisure.
Ticket: 100 RMB / person
Highlights: Shipi Lane, Songzi Laifeng Bridge, Wolong Bridge
Food: Braised Pigs’ Feet, Yellow Rice Wine, Steamed Pork Wrapped in Lotus Leaves
Location: Around 80km from Shanghai