The first time when I visited one of the ancient water towns not far from Shanghai was a decade ago, I was so fascinated by that ancient water town. I walked through the narrow lanes, visited a former resident of a famous person and took a scenic boat trip. Life there was in slow motion and locals were happy with their traditional lifestyle. It was so different from the city of Shanghai. Later I discovered that there were many underrated epic ancient water towns near Shanghai. Since then whenever I was in Shanghai, I tried to arrange a day to visit one of them. I fell in love with those water towns. However, to reach these water towns were not so easy at that time.
But in recent years, Shanghai has upgraded its public transportation network. Metro links Shanghai to several ancient water towns and more public buses are available to the outskirts of Shanghai. Local tourist infrastructure has been improved to cope with both domestic and international tourists. Travel to these destinations become easier and takes less time.
General features of ancient water towns
There is a general name to call them: 江南水乡古镇(Jiangnan Shui Xiang Gu Zhen). The translation in English is Ancient Water Town from South of the Yangtze River or Jiangnan Ancient Water Towns. There are some standard features in these towns. Here is a brief of these features:
- The layout of local residential houses is generally compact with small courtyards to accommodate the high density of the local population and the requirement to occupy less farmland in the past.
- The exterior walls of residential houses are mostly white, which are made to reflect sun lights. The colors of the houses are elegant, especially in the summer, giving people a refreshing and pleasant feeling.
- The neighboring houses are integrated with each other.
- The small rivers or canals flow gently through the front of the houses so local residents can use water for their daily lives conveniently.
- Water transportation is also a unique scene. Although nowadays boats more or less carry only tourists.
- Elegant villas, bridges, pavilions, and temples are the main elements in these ancient water towns.
Other than the common features listed above each ancient water town has its own presence. The history of the Jiangnan ancient water towns can be traced back to the Hemudu era ( 河姆渡) dating back more than 7,000 years. The Chinese ancestors lived on this land and passed local culture onto generations after generations. It is quite common that the architectural layout and local daily life scenes in Jiangnan ancient water towns are seen in some Chinese traditional ink paintings.
Read this book before your visit to the water town
Now, are you curious about these ancient water towns? There is a book Kindle version which describes details about water town: Around Shanghai: The Ultimate Guide to Water Towns and Villages around Shanghai. Even if you are completely foreign to the Chinese language, the book will help you turn uncertainty and potential disasters into exotic and delightful adventures. In this post, I have chosen the following 12 epic ancient water towns near Shanghai for your reference.
Located in the north-western Jiading District of Shanghai, Nanxiang Ancient Water Town is a small town with a history of nearly 1500 years. It is the birthplace of local snack Nanxiang Steam Soup Buns (南翔小笼包). Things to see and to do are:
- Nanxiang Twin Pagodas (南翔双塔)
- Old streets
- The Yunxiang Temple (云翔寺)
- Tan Garden (檀园)
- Guyi Garden (古猗园)
- Tasting Nanxiang Steamed Soup Buns (南翔小笼包)
Read more from my post: Nanxiang, An Ancient Water Town
Address : Nanxiang Town, Jiading District, Shanghai, China
How to get there
You may take Metro Line 11 from Jiangsu Lu (江苏路) to Nanxiang directly (takes around 40 minutes). Then take a 15-minute walk along Huyi Gong Lu (沪宜公路 ) to reach Guyi Garden or carry on walking straight down Minzhu Jie (民主街). The garden is on the left hand of the road. Or you can take Bus 517, 562, 822, and get off at Nanxiang Gu Zhen Station.
Situated 48 kilometers away from Shanghai, Zhujiajiao (朱家角) is a typical ancient water town on the outskirts of Shanghai. Established in the Song dynasty, later in Qing Dynasty, it became a trading center in the area.
The main tourist attractions in Zhujiajiao are:
- 36 stone bridges
- North Street (Bei Da Jie, 北大街)
- Kezhi Garden (Ke Zhi Yuan, 课植园)
- Local tea Houses
- A post office built in Qing dynasty
- Old narrow lanes
Join a half-day tour from Shanghai to explore the water town. You will experience the “Venice of the Orient” up close with the help of your personal driver/guide. Climb aboard a boat to ride the waterways much like the residents would have done in years gone by.
Then, take a walk along the old alleyways for even closer looks at the buildings and bridges. Continue your journey after lunch to visit of the local shops in the afternoon. Bargain for good deals if you want to find souvenirs, experience everyday life or just have some fun! Then, journey back to Shanghai and get dropped off at your hotel or at the port. To book this tour please click here.
Address : No.36 Meizhou Road, Zhujiajiao Town, Qingpu District, Shanghai 201713, China.
How to get there
- From Shanghai Stadium: The buses from Shanghai to Zhujiajiao start from Gate 5 of Shanghai Stadium. The address of Shanghai Travel Bus Center is under the No 5 Escalator at Gate 12 of Shanghai Stadium (666 Tianyueqiao Road, Xuhui District, Shanghai)
- From Shanghai People’ Square: At Pu’an Road near Shanghai People’s Square, at the west of the Concert Hall, there are Shanghai-Zhujiajiao Express Line Bus departing from here every half an hour every day. It takes about 1 hour to get to the town. After getting off the bus, you still need to walk for 10 minutes.
- From Shanghai West Bus Station: Located at 555 Wuzhongdong Road, Xuhui District, Shanghai, travelers can take Shanghai-Zhujiajiao Special Line Bus from Shanghai West Bus Station to get to Zhujiajiao Water Town.
Zhouzhuang has a history of more than 900 years old with many houses built in the Ming and Qing Dynasties. It is located between Shanghai and Suzhou and circled by rivers and lakes. There are about 100 dwellings, each with courtyards. Among them, 60 houses have arch gateways made of carved bricks. It is nominated by CNN’s as one of world’s most beautiful towns.
- The Double Bridge (双桥)
- The Shen’s House (沈厅)
- The Zhang’s House (张厅)
- The former residence of Chen Yifei (逸飞之家)
- Taking a boat trip
- Watch a show “Zhouzhuang in All Seasons” (四季周庄) (only in summer time)
You can combine the visit of Suzhou by joining a tour called “Suzhou & Zhouzhuang Water Town with Boat Ride“. It starts from Shanghai. You will explore the beauty and history of the ancient towns of Suzhou and Zhouzhuang, visit the Master of Nets Garden, the Grand Canal and more while in Suzhou. Then, cruise along the waterways of Zhouzhuang on a Chinese style boat. To book this tour please click here.
Address : Qing Ping Shanghai Highway, Kunshan 215300, Jiangsu Province, China
How to get there
- From Suzhou (38 km): Buses start (every 20-30 min) from Suzhou North Station and Suzhou Railway Station to Zhouzhuang, which need about 1 hour. Also, you can take a high-speed train (many times a day) to Kunshan for less than 15 min and take a taxi to get to Zhouzhuang for about 50 min (36 km).
- From Shanghai (70 km): You can take a bus (Starting every 30 min) from Shanghai Long-Distance Bus Terminal or other bus stations to reach Zhouzhuang in about 1.5 hours. High-speed trains run very frequently every day from Shanghai to Kunshan, and it takes about 20 minutes and another 50 minutes (36 km) to the tourist attraction by taxi.
Xitang is an ancient scenic town in Jiashan County, Zhejiang Province, China. It is a water town divided into nine rivers. The town stretches across eight sections which are linked by many old stone bridges. Every family lives near water.
- A covered long walkways (烟雨长廊)
- 122 Ancient Lanes
- Xitang’s narrowest alley Shipi Lane
- Ancient Bridges
- Button Museum
- Enjoy the movie Scene of Mission Impossible III
- The architectural showcase of West Garden (西园)
- Taste the Qianshigao (芡实糕), a thinly sliced perfumed cake
- Eat a traditional dish made from pork with sweet vegetables (霉干菜扣肉meigan cai kou rou)
Read more from my post: Xitang, its night scenes and sunrise views
You can join this tour to enjoy the sunset with a riverside dining experience. The tour starts from Shanghai. You will enjoy a romantic night including dinner and see the sights illuminated at night. It includes free hotel pickup and drop-off included. To book this tour please click here.
Address : No.258 Nanyuan Road, Jiashan County, Jiaxing City, Zhejiang Province
How to get there
From Shanghai Long-Distance Passenger Transport South Station (长途客运南站) or Shanghai Long-Distance Bus Station (长途汽车客运总站) there are many scheduled buses to go there. The ride is about 1 hour.
Tongli is one of the many ancient water towns in the south of the Yangtze River Delta. It is separated by 15 rivers into seven islets, which are connected through 49 ancient stone bridges in variety of styles. Tongli ancient water town is 80 kilometers from Shanghai. It is also an UNESCO Heritage and Historical Town .
- Mingqing Street (明清街), houses in Ming and Qing architectural style
- Jiayin Mansion (嘉荫堂), known for its fine carvings structure
- Congben Mansion (崇本堂), known for its fine carvings structure
- Tuisiyuan Garden (退思园)
- Three Bridges, Taiping Bridge (太平桥), Jili Bridge (吉利桥) and Changqing Bridges (长庆桥),
Since Tongli is also not far from Suzhou, you can combine the visit to Suzhou by joining the Suzhou Garden & Tongli Water Village Day-Tour. You will explore the ancient water village Tongli, walk the cobbled streets and stone bridges, and visit the traditional houses. You will also cruise down Suzhou’s pretty canals, admire the scenery of China’s Garden City and learn how silk is made during your visit to the Silk Museum. Please click here to book a tour.
Address : Tongli Town, Wujiang City, Sushou, Jiangsu 215217, China
How to get there
- From Shanghai: around 80 km to Tongli. Take a bus from Shanghai Hongqiao Airport or Shanghai Bus Station. Or take a train to Suzhou first, then transfer to Tongli from there.
- From Suzhou: 18 km to Tongli. Take a bus from Suzhou North Gate Long Distance Bus Station or directly from Suzhou Train Station. Or you can take subway line 4 from Suzhou Railway Station and get off at the last station of Tongli. The subway ride takes about 50 minutes.
The ancient town looks like a cross when viewed from above. Two waterways intersect at the town, the Shihe River from north to south and the ancient Grand Canal from east to west. The architecture in Nanxun Ancient Water Town exhibits a mix of Chinese and Western styles.
- Hundred Residential Houses (百间楼), one or two-story dwellings for locals
- Former Residence of Zhang Shiming (张石铭故居), a combination of traditional Chinese and western architectural styles.
- Little Lotus Garden (小莲庄), the former private garden of Nanxun’s richest man Liu Yong
- The Spanish-Style Former Residence of the Liu Family (刘氏梯号)
- Take a boat ride along the canal to appreciate the beauty of the ancient water town
- Wedding Show on Water
You can join a private day tour To Nanxun Water Town from Shanghai. Your sightseeing begins at the Little Lotus Garden, the former residence of the Liu’s family, the Jiaye Library. Next, you move on to stroll along the main canal on the way to the Hundred Residential Houses. During the walk, you will see old dwelling houses, shops selling various local specialty products and crafts. Please click here to book a tour.
Address : No.38 Shiyuan Road, Nanxun Town, Nanxun District, Huzhou 313009, China
How to get there
- From Shanghai : Take a bus from Shanghai Long-Distance Bus Station, Shanghai South Long-Distance Bus Station or Pudong East Bus Station.
- From Suzhou: Take a bus from Suzhou South Bus Station or Suzhou West Bus Station.
The town has numerous bridges, old wooden houses and waterside pavilions. The main tourist area is split in two – a West Scenic Area (西栅, Xizha) and an East Scenic Area (东栅, Dongzha) about a kilometer apart. The following highlights are the selections of many sites. They represent the main interests of this ancient water town.
East Scenic Zone
- Ancient Bed Museum (江南百床馆), devoted to the collection and display of antique beds
- Indigo Fabric Workshop (宏源泰染坊), an environmentally-friendly, print and dye workshop
- Watch Shadow Play, the cartoon of traditional Chinese culture
- Wine Distillery Workshop (三白酒坊), a distillery to display wine-brewing culture in Wuzhen
West Scenic Zone
- Wuzhen Grand Theater
- Water Market
- Chinese Foot-binding Culture Museum (三寸金莲馆)
- Yadi Silk Workshop (益大丝号作坊), learn the history of Chinese silk culture as well as the entire silk production process
The tour “Wuzhen Private Full-Day Tour from Shanghai” starts in Shanghai. You will stroll through a network of canals built more than 1,300 years ago, go to the water market and learn about traditional fabric dyes at the Indigo Fabric Workshop, see old houses with beautiful carved wooden doors and windows, and taste the local cuisine at a traditional restaurant. To book this tour, please click here.
Address : No.18 South Shifo Road, Wuzhen Town, Tongxiang 314501, China
How to get there
- Take bus From Shanghai South Bus Station to get to Wuzhen Bus Station first. Then take local Bus K350 to arrive at Wuzhen West Scenic Area.
- Take a High-speed train from Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Statio to Tongxiang Railway Station. After getting out of the railway station, take Bus K282 to Wuzhen Bus Station.
Xinchang (新场古镇), Nanhui District, Shanghai 201314, China
The Xinchang ancient water town used to salt production place and thus attracted many merchants and salt traders gathering there during its heydays.
There aren’t as many waterways as in other water towns. Narrow old street, several water lanes, and small alleys are basically all of the ancient water towns. However, it is much more authentic since it is less commercialized and has no hoards of tourists. The main sites are:
- A-Hundred-Year-Old Tea house (第一楼茶园)
- Many Ming and Qing Dynasty houses
- Saddle-shaped water bridges (马鞍水桥)
- Stinky Toufu
This tour is perfect for your stopover in Shanghai. It is an all-inclusive private half-day tour. The tour guide will pick you up at Pudong International Airport. You will enjoy a relaxing boat ride and a tasty local lunch in this hidden gem where is less touristy. Don’t miss out this great chance to see the real water village of China even you just have a short stopover in Shanghai. To book this tour, please click here.
Address : China, Shanghai Shi, Pudong Xinqu, 201314
How to get there
Take metro line 16 to XinChang station. Go out exit #2 to catch bus number 1108 to to 仁义路沪商公路 (Rényì lù hù shāng gōnglù). The town is about 3 1/2 km from metro station.
Qibao (七宝) Ancient Water Town is the closest water town to Shanghai. Situated in southwest Shanghai at the center of Minhang District, Qibao Ancient Water Town is a town within the city of Shanghai. Other than the Qibao Temple, the main activities are tasting the local food.
Read more from my post: Qibao, an Ancient Water Town near Shanghai
Address : Minhang District, Shanghai 201101, China
This private day tour takes you to explore both Qibao Town and Shanghai city top attractions, other than enjoying the beautiful scenery of small alleyways, picturesque canals, and historical architectures of Qibao. You will enjoy a tasty Shanghai style lunch before starting your freestyle Shanghai city tour. If you are interested in the tour, please click here for the further information.
How to get there
- By metro: Take Shanghai metro line 9 and get off at Qibao (七宝) station. The station is in a very big shopping mall. Take the exit 2 to get out of the mall it takes about 5 to 10 minutes to walk to Qibao Ancient Water Town.
- By bus: Take Bus 87, 91, 92, 186, 189, 196, 198, 709, 735, 748, 803, Hongqiao Hub Line 4(虹桥枢纽4路), Husong Line (沪松线) or Minhang Line 33 (闵行线33) and get off at Qibao Station.
Fengjing ancient town has a very long history of 1500 years. It is located at Jinshan District in the southwest of Shanghai. Being a typical water town in the southern Yangtze, it is mainly famous for many bridges and rivers. The houses are quite old. The balconies are simple and primitive. You could have a glimpse of how the locals live. The highlights are.
- Peasant’s Painting Village (Nóngmín Huàcūn; 农民画村)
- Steamed dumplings and Zongzi (rice and pork mashed together and served in bamboo leaves)
Fengjing can also be a great place if you have a short stopover in Shanghai. By joining this Fengjing Ancient Water Town private tour, you can learn the south China history and see locals’ real life and to relax your body after a long journey. The tour duration is flexible, and it will last about 4-6 hours depending on your schedule. The departure point can be either at your city hotel or at the airport (see related tour options upon booking). To book this tour, please click here.
Address : Fengjing Ancient Water Town, Jinshan, Shanghai
How to get there
Subway & Bus: Take Subway Line 1 to Jinjiang Park Station (锦江乐园站) and walk south for 20 m to the New Southwest Bus Station (新西南汽车站). Take the Fengmei Line (枫梅线) directly to Fengjing. The bus journey should take about 45 minutes.
Jinxi ancient water town (锦溪古镇)
Between Shanghai and Suzhou, there is a beautiful Jinxi ancient water town. Compared to other ancient water towns Jinxi has much less tourists. The town is named after the Jinxi River which meanders through the town from north to south. The water town is less crowded and offers more of a scenic atmosphere for tourists compared to Zhouzhuang. Highlights are as:
- An ancient town with a history of over 2,000 years
- A water town surrounded by rivers and lakes
- A town with 36 bridges built during various dynasties in different styles
- A few museums displaying private art galleries, handcrafts, furniture, calligraphy
Address : Jinxi Town, Kunshan 215324, China
How to get there
Several daily buses go directly to Jinxi from the Shanghai Long-Distance Bus Station. On weekends and during the holidays, there are tourist buses to Jinxi from the Shanghai Hongkou Football Stadium and Shanghai Stadium.
This is a simple and tranquil ancient water town. It impresses visitors with clear water, peaceful environment, idyllic scenery and the historical sites that are spread all over the town. Luzhi is also called the Venice of the East for its beautiful waterways and ancient bridges, some of the bridges dated back to the Song Dynasty.
- The old town, its lanes and its canals
- 9 main street all paved with cobble and granite
- Baosheng Temple with a history of over 1500 years
- 41 arched stone bridges
- A museum of ancient bridges
- 7 Ancient Ginkgoes, a symbol of Luzhi Ancient Water Town
- The former residence of Shen Bohan (沈柏寒), a famous Chinese educator
- Wansheng Rice Shop
- Local women’s traditional clothes
- The memorial hall of the first reformer Wang Tao (王韬)
- Taste local food Puli trotters (甫里蹄), Puli duck (甫里鸭) and Luzhi Radish (甪直萝卜) a pickled radish prepared according to a Qing Dynasty recipe
Address : Luzhi Ancient Town Scenic Area, Wuzhong District, Suzhou
How to get there
- From Shanghai: Bus 806 leaves for Luzhi Ancient Town from Shanghai Zhongshan Bus Station every half an hour, and it takes about two and a half hours to complete the journey.
- From Suzhou to Luzhi Ancient Town: Take bus 18, 52, 518, 521, 525, 526, or 563
Where to stay in these ancient water towns
To make a deep visit of these ancient water towns I would suggest you spend two days for a trip to the towns outside of Shanghai. The night view from some towns, for example in Wuzhen, Tongli, Xitang, is also the highlight. It is suggested to stay one overnight to experience the night life. There are less tourists in the evening as well. You can find some local offers at Booking.com. Give the name of the towns above you will get many reasonable accommodations.
If you stay in one water town you can also combine a trip to the other town as well. there are some local bus connections as well. Ask the local tourist office for the updated information.