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Exploring the Hidden Gems: Best Water Towns between Shanghai to Suzhou

Find out the best water towns, ancient canals, and traditional architecture, and immerse yourself in the charm of old China.

zhouzhuang water town 2

Nestled between Shanghai and Suzhou lies a region with a rich history, where ancient canals wind their way through beautiful villages. This place, known for its tranquil water towns, offers a glimpse into the rich cultural heritage of old China.

Crossed by the famous Grand Canal, this area has been an important part of Chinese civilization for centuries. This canal, stretching over 1,700 kilometers, was a vital artery for transportation and trade during the imperial era, connecting Beijing north to Hangzhou south. Along its route, a series of beautiful water towns emerged.

Finding information about these places can be challenging, especially if it’s your first time in China and your time is limited. Which one is the best? When is the best time to visit? Which one is the easiest to visit? I’ll try to answer these and many other questions in this article.

When is the best time to visit the Water Towns?

The weather in the region is subtropical, meaning it has hot and humid summers and cool to mild winters.

  • Spring (March to May): Spring is one of the best seasons, as the weather is mild and comfortable. Temperatures range from 10°C to 20°C, and the landscape is dotted by blooming flowers.
  • Summer (June to August): Summer is hot and humid, with temperatures often reaching above 30°C. It can rain quite a lot.
  • Autumn (September to November): Autumn brings cooler temperatures and less humidity, making it another excellent time to visit. Temperatures range from 15°C to 25°C, and the foliage begins to change, creating a beautiful background.
  • Winter (December to February): Winter is the coldest time of year in the region, with temperatures dropping to around 0°C to 10°C. What makes winters particularly challenging is that there is no heating system in this part of China, so even inside restaurants and hotels, it can be quite cold.

As I always recommend in my articles, you should use Trip.com to book hotels and trains when traveling in China.

Zhouzhuang (周庄): the Venice of the East

zhouzhuang water town

With over 900 years of history, Zhouzhuang is one of China’s most famous water towns. Located in Jiangsu Province, Zhouzhuang is often referred to as the “Venice of the East” due to its picturesque canals, stone bridges, and well-preserved ancient architecture.

The town is renowned for its beautifully preserved Ming and Qing Dynasty homes, many of which have been turned into museums, shops, and restaurants. One of the town’s highlights is the Twin Bridges (Shide Bridge and Yongan Bridge), the symbols of Zhouzhuang.

Of all the ancient towns I visited in the area, this is the one I liked the most. Be mindful that the streets are narrow and can get overcrowded quickly.

How to Get to Zhouzhuang

  • By Train from Shanghai or Suzhou: Take a high-speed train to Kunshan South Railway Station, then take a taxi or a local bus to Zhouzhuang from Kunshan South Railway Station.
  • By Taxi from Suzhou or Shanghai: If train tickets are sold out, this is the fastest option, but it can be expensive.

Useful Information

  • Entrance Fee: This is rated as an AAAAA area (the highest possible in China), meaning you’d have to pay an entrance fee of about 100RMB.
  • Local Cuisine: Wansan pork knuckle and Zhouzhuang tofu are the most famous local dishes.

Jinxi (锦溪): the Hidden Gem

Jinxi is a historic water town in the Kunshan District of Suzhou, about 8 Km from Zhouzhuang, famous for its well-preserved ancient architecture, traditional stone bridges (36 in total), and tranquil waterways.

One of the main highlights of Jinxi is its ancient canal system, which dates back to the Spring and Autumn Period (770–476 BC), and the covered bridge (锦溪廊桥). Since it’s way smaller than Zhouzhuang, it doesn’t get the attention it deserves (in my opinion). This is also good because it means you’ll find fewer tourists.

How to get to Jinxi

  • By Train from Shanghai or Suzhou: Take a high-speed train to Kunshan South Railway Station, then take a taxi or a local bus to Jinxi.
  • By Taxi from Suzhou or Shanghai: If train tickets are sold out, this is the fastest option, but it can be expensive.

Useful Information

All the info online seems to point to the fact that you must pay a ticket to get into the town. But this is not the case. The ticket is for the museum and the covered bridge only.

You should try traditional Suzhou dishes such as “Biluochun Tea” and “Squirrel-shaped Mandarin Fish.”

It’s worth visiting Jinxi if you plan to visit Zhouzhuang since they are also quite close.

Luzhi (甪直): the Water Town you’ve never heard of

Luzhi is a well-preserved ancient water town in Suzhou’s Wuzhong District. With a history of over 1,400 years, Luzhi is known in Chinese as the “Museum of Ancient Bridges,” and you can guess why. The bridges (72 in total) date back to the Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing Dynasties. The town is quite small, and it covers about 1 square Km.

In the past, Luzhi was called Liuzhi, meaning “six straight rivers.” Over time, the pronunciation of Liuzhi shifted to Luzhi, and eventually, the town’s name was officially changed to reflect this common usage. The real soul of Luzhi lies in its residents, who keep the town’s history, culture, and picturesque landscape alive, which makes the area interesting.

How to get to Luzhi

  • By Train from Shanghai or Suzhou: Take a high-speed train to Kunshan South Railway Station, then take a taxi or a local bus to Jinxi.
  • By Taxi from Suzhou or Shanghai: If train tickets are sold out, this is the fastest option, but it can be expensive.

Useful Information

Similarly to Jinxi, there is no entrance fee to pay unless you want to visit the local museums. This Watertown is off-the-beaten-path, and you will not find many tourists, especially compared to the other towns in the area. I recommend visiting this area only if you have some spare time and plan to visit Zhouzhuang and Jinxi.

Tongli (同里): one of the most beautiful Water Towns

Tongli is a beautiful water town located in the Wujiang District of Suzhou. With a history of over 1,000 years, Tongli is known for its well-preserved ancient architecture, tranquil canals, and beautiful gardens.

Unlike Luzhi and Jinxi, this water town is very popular and often overcrowded mainly because it’s categorized as an AAAAA Tourist Attraction, and the Tuisi Garden (退思园) is part of the Unesco World Heritage sites, so be prepared to be surrounded by many tourists.

How to get to Tongli

  • By Subway from Suzhou: You can take line 4 to Tonli and then take a taxi.
  • By Bus from Suzhou: There are frequent buses from Suzhou Beiguangchang Bus Station (苏州北广场站), Suzhou North Bus Station (苏州汽车客运北站) and Suzhou South Bus Station (苏州南门汽车客运站).

Useful Information

Don’t miss the Three Bridges (三桥) in Tongli. This iconic landmark consists of Taiping, Jili, and Changqing Bridge, arranged like the Chinese character “品.” Other landmarks include Jiayin Hall (嘉荫堂), Chongben Hall (崇本堂), Mingqing Street (明清街), and Luoxing Island (罗星洲).

Qili Shantang (七里山塘): a must-see in Suzhou

Qili Shantang, also known as the Seven-Li Shantang, is a historic area in the Gusu District of Suzhou. Qili Shantang is one of Suzhou’s most well-preserved ancient streets, known for its traditional architecture and long canal.

You can easily get there by subway. Take line 2 and get off at the Shantang Street (山塘街) subway stop. The landmarks of this area are the canal (3.5 km long and from which the area gets its name) and the traditional Chinese houses along it.

Be mindful of the crowds: due to its narrow roads, this Watertown is often overcrowded even during the week.

Guzhao Qingsi (古昭庆寺) AKA Suzhou Old Town

Guzhen Qingsi, also called Suzhou Old Town, is a historic water town in Suzhou’s Wujiang District. The Old Town covers an area of 14.2 square kilometers, and with its 168 bridges, it’s allegedly China’s water town with the longest river channel and the most bridges.

The main highlight of Guzhen Qingsi is its ancient canal system, which is still in use today. Eight city gates, the oldest of which dates back to the Spring and Autumn Period (722-481 BC). 

Guzhao is, in my opinion, not as beautiful as the other Ancient Towns, but if you are in Suzhou and have a couple of hours, it might be worth it, especially because it’s easy to get there.

How to Get to Suzhou Old Town

  • By subway in Suzhou: take metro line 1 to Xiangmen City Gate Station.
  • By train from Shanghai: you can easily get to Suzhou by high-speed train from Shanghai.

Zhujiajiao (朱家角): the most touristic Water Town

Zhujiajiao is a historic water town located in the Qingpu District of Shanghai. With a history of over 1,700 years, Zhujiajiao is one of the oldest water towns in Shanghai, but it’s also the best preserved.

Due to its location within the urban area, it’s often overcrowded, but ff you have time and are already in the city, it might be worth spending a few hours there.

The main highlight of Zhujiajiao is its ancient canal system, which is still used today. You can spend a few hours exploring the town’s narrow cobblestone streets, ancient alleyways, and traditional Ming and Qing Dynasty homes. The town is also famous for its unique local culture, including traditional Chinese opera performances and folk art.

How to Get to Zhujiajiao

  • By subway in Shanghai: Take Metro Line 17 and get off at Zhujiajiao Station.

Useful Information

Visitors are exempted from the entrance fees. However, they are required to buy tickets for some of the attractions inside the water town.

Try some of the traditional Shanghai dishes such as “Xiaolongbao” (soup dumplings) and “Shengjianbao” (pan-fried buns) at one of the many local restaurants in Zhujiajiao.

Tips for First-Time Visitors

These are some of the things you should keep in mind.

  1. Wear Comfortable Shoes: Many of the streets in the water towns are cobblestone or uneven, so wearing comfortable walking shoes is essential for exploring the towns comfortably.
  2. Stay Hydrated: The weather in the region can be hot and humid, especially during the summer months. Be sure to carry water to stay hydrated while exploring the water towns.
  3. Watch Out for Crowds: The water towns are popular tourist destinations, especially during weekends and holidays. To avoid the crowds, consider visiting in the early morning. Please avoid the national holidays at all costs.
  4. Check out my FAQ and China Travel Guide: Traveling in China can be challenging, even if you are a seasoned traveler. I recommend reading my first-hand tips to avoid a lot of stress.

Let me know in the comment section if you have discovered other interesting water towns in the area. Here you can find more pictures.

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