The towns of Hangzhou and Suzhou are famous for their lakes and canals. Lying just a couple of hours from Shanghai, they are a firm favourite for tourists, and city dwellers eager for some peace and quiet. But what if you’ve already seen Hangzhou and Suzhou, and want something a bit different but equally beautiful? Before you look too far afield, think about visiting one of the four water villages that surround Shanghai. Often nicknamed the Venices of the East, these towns were built using local water sources to fashion canal systems, and feature quaint stone bridges and narrow lanes.
The water village closest to Shanghai is Zhujiajiao (朱家角), in Qingpu District. The ancient part of the town dates back 1,700 years, and flourished during the Ming and Qing Dynasties as a centre for rice and spice growing. Zhujiajiao is the quintessential water town with its bridges and canals and, despite its proximity to Shanghai, is not as touristy as the others. (However, we predict that it’s only a matter of time before it becomes popular, so get there while it’s still relatively peaceful).
Once you pass from the newer part of town onto the old streets, Zhujiajiao really comes alive. The huge span of the Fangsheng Bridge fords the river, affording great views of both sides. Bei Lu and Caohe Lu are the main thoroughfares, each flanked with shops and bazaars selling trinkets and souvenirs. At number 44 Caohe Lu is the uniquely named and very modern Bum Café which serves coffee and snacks with river views. Further down the street is the old Qing Dynasty post office which has been turned into a museum. Zhujiajiao has some lovely gardens as well as pretty bridges and buildings. The Ke Zhi Yuan is the largest, and features an impressive pagoda – the tallest building in town. A boat tour (starting at 60 RMB) is a good way to enjoy the sights and sounds of Zhujiajiao.
Getting there: Take Huzhu High-speed bus Line at Renin Square Pu’an Lu to Zhujiajiao directly. Buses leave every 30 minutes and the trip takes about 1 hour.
The water town of Wuzhen (乌镇) is located in the north of the Zhejiang Province, equidistant from Shanghai, Suzhou and Hangzhou. Its name means ‘town of the crow’ in Mandarin. Wuzhen is famous for being the birthplace of modern revolutionary writer Mao Dun. His former residence is the town’s main tourist attraction - a huge 19th century house which was opened to the public in 1985. Wuzhen’s layout is another selling point. It stretches for two kilometres and is split into six separate districts: the Traditional Workshops District, Traditional Local-Styled Houses District, Traditional Culture District, Traditional Food and Beverage District, Traditional Shops and Stores District, and Water Township Customs and Life District.
Another hot spot in Wuzhen is the Fanglu Pavilion – reported to be the best tea shop in town. It’s located to the south of Ying Bridge backing onto the river, looking onto Guanqian Street. Likewise worth a look are the Tongji and Renji Bridges. Tongji crosses the river from east to west, while Renji spans south to north, and each can be seen through the arch of the other.
Price: 100 RMB for Dongzha Scenic Area; 120 RMB for Xizha Scenic Area
Getting there: Take direct tourist bus from Shanghai Hongkou Stadium, No 2 Gate; Bus leaves from 8:45 am to 9:45 am every day and ticket price is RMB 148 from round-trip.
Tongli (同里) lies on the eastern shore of Taihu Lake in Jiangsu Province, about 40 minutes outside of Suzhou by bus. It’s one of the most picturesque of the water villages, making it extremely popular with tourists; expect to share the narrow streets and bridges with hoards of other visitors. An 80 RMB ticket will allow you entry into the main attractions, which include a culture museum, and the famous sex museum. Not included in the 80 RMB is the ferry to Luo Xing, a nearby island, but it’s worth paying the 10 RMB ferry fee. Tongli has 49 bridges, the oldest of which is the Song Dynasty Siben Bridge. Look out for the smallest – the Dubu (Single Step) which is just five feet long and three feet wide.
Price: Entry to Tongli: 80 RMB per person
Getting there: Take direct bus to Tongli at 1:30 pm from Shanghai Hutai Road Long Distance Bus Station to Tongli. Trip time takes around 2 hours.
Also in Jiangsu is Zhouzhuang (周庄), lying 30 kilometres away from Suzhou. A lot of the original, historic buildings in Suzhou were demolished, so Zhouzhuang is one of the few places where true regional architecture can still be seen. It is probably the most famous and popular of the four water towns, welcoming tourists since the 1980s. The story behind its rise to national attention is quite interesting. In 1984, Chinese painter Chen Yifei held an exhibition in New York, including a painting of the Twin Bridges in Zhouzhuang. A wealthy art patron bought it and gave it as a gift to Deng Xiaoping on a visit to China the following month. It wasn’t just Chen Yifei who took inspiration from the Twin Bridges. It, and the 13 other stone bridges, have been the subject of countless artists’ work over the years. The Twin Bridges are the collective name for Shide and Yongan – two Ming era bridges positioned at right angles over the water.
The Fu'an Bridge is the oldest in Zhouzhuang, built in 1355, and now houses tea houses and shops within its towers. Other attractions in the town include two stately homes (Zhang and Shen) built and inhabited by local medieval lords, and the Milou Tower. Don’t miss the Chengxu Taoist Temple on Zhongshi Jie, opposite Puqing Bridge. It was built in the Song Dynasty between 1086 and 1093, and is one of the most famous Taoist temples in the area.
Price: Entry to Zhouzhuang is 100 RMB per person
Getting there: Take tourist direct buses (RMB 145 for round-up ticket) from Hongkou Stadium at 8：00, 9：00 and 10：00 and trip takes about 2 hours.
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Keywords: Venices of the East Shanghai backyard waterways water villages Shanghai
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