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?
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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:
- Suzhou 苏州 Highlights with Tiger Hill Scenic Area 盘门景区and a boat ride
- Tour Suzhou 苏州 along with another water town, Zhou Zhuang 周庄 & boat ride
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.