Day trip to water canal towns around Shanghai

For those of you who are spending more than a few days in Shanghai, a day or two out at one of the myriad of water canal towns around Shanghai is a nice choice of excursion.  These water towns have been around for a couple hundred years and in recent years, the local government took care to preserve and restore the old buildings and the quaint, small-town feel. 

The nice thing about these towns is that local residents actually still live in the towns so it’s not like a Disneyland type of setup.  However, the towns have been a lot of commercialized for tourism so you’ll see souvinir/trinket shops throughout these towns.  The best time to visit is during the weekdays when the towns are more quiet and less crowded.  These towns look beautiful at night, with lights along the water canals, so it may be worthwhile to stay overnight.

Some of the popular towns include:

Zhujiajiao 朱家角 - only 45 minutes away, it’s located in the western suburb of Shanghai near QingPu.  The town spent multi-million dollars cleaning up the canals and preserving old buildings, etc.  There’s also a group of young artists and writers who have “immigrated” here to live and work, so you’ll notice some pretty interesting shops and workshops hidden in the alleyways.  It also host an annual world music festival around November time.

A cool place to stay if you’d like to spend a night there:  Uma Hostel

Zhouzhuang 周庄 - Where some scenes from Mission Impossible 3 were shot.  It’s a compact town where you can pretty go through most of sights in a few hours.  It’s also the most developed in terms of restaurants/tourist shops, which turn many tourists off.  Nevertheless, the waterway scene is still very pretty and the boat punters sing lovely local tunes.  Make sure you cross this bridge near the town center three times and your wish will come true.

Tongli 同里 - listed as a world cultural heritage by UNESCO, Tongli has many well preserved buildings and passageways.  It seems to be the most international tourist-ready of all the water towns with its brand new tourist info center and bilingual signs.  Tuisi Garden, or Retreat and Reflection Garden in the center of old town, is a fine example of a classic Chinese garden house of the late Qing dynasty.  If you don’t have time to go to Suzhou, this garden can give you a flavor of such architecture.  Tongli is also the home of the Chinese Sex Museum, which was booted out of the city of Shanghai because it was too controversial.  It has a very interesting collection and definitely worth the additional admission fee.  The museum would do very well if it had a souvinir shop ;-)   Tongli is bigger and has more sights than can be visited in one day, so staying overnight is a good idea.  There are several cute B&Bs run by local residents, one of which we visited was GenHe B&B near the entrance:  The town is also less than 20km from Suzhou so you hop between the two easily by bus.

You can go to these water towns by taking the tour bus at the city-organized tourist bus terminal at the 80,000-People Stadium (Ba Wan Ren Ti Yu Guan) near Xujiahui.  Buses leave mostly between 8-10am and head back to Shanghai around 4pm.  Private car hire will give you more flexibility if you want to stay longer or go to multiple places.