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Each year tens of millions of tourists visit Venice 威尼斯 and Amsterdam 阿姆斯特丹 to see their canals in the flesh. Did you know there are cities and towns in China 中国 that are full of canals?

Canal boat in Zhujiajiao
Canal boat floating past homes in Wuzhen with laundry hanging outside.

Many of these beautiful canals reside in towns and cities located in the Yangtze River Delta 长江三角洲, an area full of small rivers, lakes, and wetlands. Shanghai 上海 sits at the mouth of the delta which also includes major cities such as Hangzhou 杭州 and Wuxi 无锡 as well as Suzhou 苏州. All of these are full of history and though they are all water villages, they are unique in their own way.

These 20 photos of travel inspiration for day tripping to a few of the ancient water towns or “shui xiang” (水乡) near Shanghai 上海.

Canal by Pan Men Scenic Area in Suzhou

Suzhou 苏州

Well this water town isn’t really a “town” at all, it’s actually the 2nd largest city in the Jiangsu Province 江苏省 after its capital, Nanjing 南京. But it’s also one of the most famous water villages in China, gaining the distinction of “The Venice of China” 中国的威尼斯.

In 495 BC, The Grand Canal 大运河, the oldest parts of the world’s longest man-made waterway stretching from Beijing 北京 to Hangzhou 杭州 was built right through Suzhou 苏州. The city also has tons of small canals leading to the main canal, as the primary method of transportation through the city depended upon water routes rather than roads via land.

Canal with crowds at Tiger Hill
A canal in the Tiger Hill Scenic Area.

Fun Fact: An old Cantonese idiom used to encourage younger generations to take chances and prevent missed opportunities aka FOMO has also mentioned Suzhou 苏州. “蘇州(苏州)過後無艇搭” this literally means “after Suzhou 苏州 there aren’t any more boats to take.” It is similar to the English saying “the ship has sailed.”

weichang river near pan men scenic area
Weichang River by the entrance to the Pan Men Scenic Area.

Suzhou 苏州, is also known for its silk production, and is usually one of the touristy destinations around the Yangtze River Delta 长江三角洲, including Shanghai 上海, Hangzhou 杭州, and Wuxi 无锡. Aside from canals, you can also visit Tiger Hill Scenic Area 虎丘景区 and the Panmen Scenic Area 盘门景区, consisting of the southern gate of the old Suzhou 苏州.

Canal inside Pan Men Scenic Area
Canal within the Pan Men Scenic Area

Getting There

You can take the train (either the bullet or regular train) to Suzhou 苏州 from either of the Shanghai 上海 train stations. Trains leave from both Shanghai Train Station 上海火车站 and Hongqiao Train Station 虹桥火车站 and will take at most an hour one way if you’re taking the regular train. Otherwise the bullet train will get you there in about 25-45 minutes depending on the train.

There are also tours to Suzhou 苏州:

Canal boats drifting down the canal in Wuzhen

Wuzhen 乌镇水乡

This water town is just outside of the city of Hangzhou 杭州, and like Suzhou 苏州 portions of the Grand Canal 大运河 flow through its limits. The town was founded in 872 AD, making it almost 1,300 years old, and is located at the center of the golden triangle made up by Shanghai 上海, Hangzhou 杭州, and Suzhou 苏州.

Crowds of people in Wuzhen
Crowded alleys of Wuzhen.

Aside from its boats and canals, the town is also known for its delicious fermented stinky tofu and its chrysanthemum tea. Over the years the town has become quite touristy with its various museums and restaurants built into the Ming and Qing Dynasty buildings.

Homes in Wuzhen by the canal

Fun Fact: Mao Dun (茅盾), a renowned 20th century Chinese writer was born in Wuzhen 乌镇. One of his most famous works, “The Lin’s Shop” 《林家铺子》was written in 1932 and was based on life in the water town. Today, his 19th century residence is now a museum.  

Indigo fabric at the Indigo Fabric Wokrshop in Wuzhen.
Giant tapestries of freshly dyed indigo laid to dry at the Indigo Fabric Workshop.
Opera stage in Wuzhen
There are even opera performances going on!

Getting There

From Shanghai 上海, you can get to Wuzhen 乌镇 in a couple ways.  

If you’re leaving from take the intercity bus from the Shanghai South Bus Station 上海南站 to the Wuzhen Bus Station 乌镇客运站. Then take the local bus K350 to Wuzhen West Scenic Area 乌镇风景西区.

From the Shanghai Hongqiao Train Station 虹桥火车站, take the high speed train to the Tongxiang Train Station, then take the K282 bus to the Wuzhen Bus Station 乌镇客运站 to switch to K350 to the Wuzhen West Scenic Area 乌镇风景西区.

Also consider an easier route and take a tour of Wuzhen 乌镇 from Shanghai上海

Canal from the top of the Fangsheng Bridge in Zhujiajiao.

Zhujiajiao 朱家角古镇

Since you’ve already heard Suzhou’s 苏州 claim to fame, I’ll tell you Zhujiajiao’s 朱家角! Located in the Qingpu district 青浦区 of Shanghai 上海, it is known as “The Venice of Shanghai” 上海的威尼斯.

Parked canal boats in ZhujiajiaoCanal boat ride on the canal in Zhujiajiao

In my opinion, this town is the cutest and most scenic of the three. It’s smaller and a bit less touristy though with the recent opening of the metro station this is bound to change. With that said, this one was definitely my favorite, like all places in China, Zhujiajiao 朱家角 is crowded, but it’s less crowded than most. 

Canal boats along a canal in Zhujiajiao

The town was settled during the Yuan Dynasty when it became an important marketplace in the area, since it is located at the mouth of two rivers, merchants easily transported goods directly to their homes. The town is also known for its fried fermented stinky tofu shop called “Thousand Mile Fragrance” (千里香) and you can definitely smell it as it wafts through the city.

Fangsheng bridge in Zhujiajiao
The Fangsheng Bridge.

It is also known for its “Freedom/Fangsheng Bridge” (放生桥) where people purchase small fishes to set free to live their “wild” lives. The bridge is 70 meters (~230ft) long and was originally built by a monk from a nearby temple in 1571.

Qing Dynasty post office in Zhujiajiao
Front facade of the Qing Dynasty post office in Zhujiajiao.

Fun Fact: A Qing Dynasty post office, built in 1875, is also located within the town, it is one of the best preserved post offices from the era.

More parked canal boats in ZhujiajiaoCanal boat ride under a bridge

Getting There

This water town is the smallest of the three, but also the most easily accessible from Shanghai 上海. You can reach Zhujiajiao 朱家角 by taking the Line 17 metro to the Zhujiajiao station 朱家角站 and walking to the town.  

You can also tour Zhujiajiao 朱家角 in half a day with a boat tour.

Map of the Sights

Hope I’ve thoroughly inspired you to visit a beautiful ancient water town as a day trip while vacationing in Shanghai 上海!  

Wanna visit some of these water towns near Shanghai? Pin it for later!

These amazing water towns are great day trips from Shanghai! You can visit Suzhou, Wuzhen, or Zhujiajiao with a quick bus or train ride. Some of these water villages date back over a thousand years and are full of history and culture. Make sure you take one of the boats! You can drift in the canals between Ming and Qing dynasty buildings. #shanghai #daytrip #wuzhen #watertowns #zhujiajiao #suzhou These amazing water towns are great day trips from Shanghai! You can visit Suzhou, Wuzhen, or Zhujiajiao with a quick bus or train ride. Some of these water villages date back over a thousand years and are full of history and culture. Make sure you take one of the boats! You can drift in the canals between Ming and Qing dynasty buildings. #shanghai #daytrip #wuzhen #watertowns #zhujiajiao #suzhou

29 Comments

  1. Haven’t made it to China yet – besides a layover – but I am bookmarking this post for a trip I am planning next year! thanks!

    • Constance Panda Reply

      Yay I’m happy this post will be useful to you! Definitely visit Shanghai and these water towns, you’ll love it!

  2. Thanks for sharing this! I don’t know much about the China nor I have ever visited it. Those canals look quite pretty!

    • Constance Panda Reply

      Thank you for stopping by, China is definitely a unique country. These towns are quaint, the canals definitely picturesque and well worth a visit!

  3. I had no idea that there were water towns in China. These are so accessible too and easily done as a day trip. Not a huge fan of stinky tofu and usually have to hold my nose to walk past the stalls. What does it taste like? Zhujiajiao is a cute charming town and doesn’t seem crowded at all. Amazing that a monk built the 70m bridge! I hope to return to China one day and visit these picturesque towns : )

    • Constance Panda Reply

      These are definitely some of the best day trips from Shanghai, and well worth planning it into an itinerary! Stinky tofu actually doesn’t really have a stinky taste haha it’s kind of like eating cheese, you smell it and it might smell a bit funky, but there’s no “stinky” taste or anything like that. Zhujiajiao is my favorite of the 3 and also the easiest to visit from Shanghai. Hope you get to see it these towns soon IRL!

  4. We lived in China for a year, about 90 minutes south of Bejing, in Baoding. Not a tourist area at all. Maybe the exact opposite. Our sponsor took us on a couple of trips while we were there and the Shanghai area was one of them. One of our stops was to Zhujiajiao. I was quite surprised. It’s so beautiful. We went in December, so it wasn’t full of tourists. I really loved that visit. Honestly, more than Shanghai.

    • Constance Panda Reply

      Thank you for sharing your story! We went during the spring so it was pretty busy but since it was one of the less touristy towns it wasn’t as bad. I’d say it was my favorite out of the 3.

  5. Stunning photos. I went to Shanghai when I was 15 with my family but hardly remember it. Will have to go back and check out these nearby towns.

    • Constance Panda Reply

      Thank you for the compliment! These towns are definitely worth a detour if you’re planning on heading to Shanghai 🙂

  6. That’s so cool! I would have never known about these water towns near Shanghai! I’ve always wanted to visit Shanghai actually so we’ll need to check these out when we finally make it there!
    Thanks for sharing 🙂

    • Constance Panda Reply

      I’m happy this post is helpful to you! They’re definitely one of the more unique sights in China and definitely worth the detour. Hope you’ll get to see them soon 🙂

  7. Beautiful photos! I actually had no idea you can find cities with canals in China. If I am ever in Shanghai I will make sure to visit also some of this towns 🙂

    • Constance Panda Reply

      I hope you’ll get to visit these someday, they’re all fairly close to Shanghai 🙂

  8. I had no idea those towns existed, but they look absolutely stunning. First I thought those were pictures of Venice or something. Great post. Really enjoyed reading through it and the pictures are beautiful.

  9. Amazing photos guys! I was in Shanghai two months ago but I chose to spend more time in Hangzhou (I loved it!) so I didn’t have time for these water cities! I may regret it now haha! Seriously thanks for the great post!

    • Constance Panda Reply

      Hangzhou is super nice as well so I’m sure it was still worth it!

  10. Wow! I had no idea these canals even existed in China, they’re so cool! I would love to visit them one day 🙂

  11. Jen at The Places We Live Reply

    Excellent post! I like all of these with Chinese in it as well. The haiku was really interesting too!

    • Constance Panda Reply

      Glad you liked this one, it’s actually a saying rather than a haiku as a haiku is a type of poetry.

  12. A really useful and comprehensive list. All these places are worth visiting. I’m really very keen to travel those places in next one year.

  13. Pingback: 10 Off the Beaten Path Destinations in China • Travel with Mei and Kerstin

  14. all the places are amazing , will surely visit these all someday .

    • Constance Panda Reply

      Hope you’ll get to visit sometime soon!

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