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The Top 10 Ancient Water Towns Near Shanghai

The Top 10 Ancient Water Towns Near Shanghai

Written by Candice SongUpdated Nov. 29, 2023

Want a day trip from Shanghai? These ancient water towns are a nice choice. Here we introduce the best ten ancient water towns near Shanghai to help you find one you'd like.

The Locations of the 10 Ancient Water Towns

Shanghai water towns

Top 10 Ancient Towns Near Shanghai Summary Table

Ancient Town Distance Features Crowds Recommended Stay Rating
Nanxun Shanghai 2h
Suzhou 1½h
Hangzhou 1½h
Traditional Chinese and Western architecture, full of cultural experiences Least commercial
2 days 5
Tongli Shanghai 1½h
Suzhou ½h
Small water town with typical traditional architecture and bridges, local people still living there Less commercial
1 day 5
Xitang Shanghai 1½h
Suzhou 1h
Most bridges and lanes; covered waterside walks Less commercial
1 day 4
Wuzhen Shanghai 2h
Hangzhou 1h
A restored old town with very good hotels Commercial
2 days 4
Zhujiajiao Shanghai 1h Near to Shanghai, suitable for a half day tour Very commercial
3 hours 3
Qibao Shanghai ½h Very small, ancient buildings, no canals Over-crowded 3 hours 3
Luzhi Shanghai 1½h Less commercialized, singing boat women Less commercial
Very quiet
1 day 3
Zhouzhuang Shanghai 2h
Suzhou 1h
Most popular, water is not clear in the summer time Very commercial
1 day 2
Fengjing Shanghai 1h a thriving working town close to Shanghai, quieter than Zhujiajiao Less commercial
3 hours 2
Jinxi Shanghai 2h
Suzhou 1h
a small town with many museums Less sophisticated, and quieter 3 hours 2

1. Nanxun Ancient Town - a highly recommended water town

Nanxun Water TownNanxun Water Town
  • Location: 1½ hours from Hangzhou, 2 hours from Shanghai
  • Recommended stay: 2 days
  • Activities: seeing ancient buildings, boating, walking, photography
  • Suitable for: travelers looking for a really classic water town, photographers
  • Features: a quiet and rustic town, rich cultural heritage

Nanxun Ancient Town does not enjoy the same level of fame compared to other water towns near Shanghai, like Zhouzhuang and Tongli. It is thanks to this, that Nanxun is the most original and picturesque town, filled with tranquil ambiance.

Nanxun is a mix of canals, bridges, ancient buildings, and narrow lanes. Different from other water towns, the buildings here are a great combination of traditional Chinese and Western architecture.

Walking along the canals of the old town, you will feel like you are walking into the past of China. You will not see enormous crowds of tourists, but, instead, local people washing clothes, sipping tea, or playing cards beside the water.

Take our private Nanxun tour and immerse yourself in Nanxun Water Town, and you'll have the opportunity to see the traditional procedure for making Chinese writing brushes, and to enjoy a wedding performance on the water.

2. Tongli Water Town - a quiet and classic Chinese town

Tongli Water Town Tongli Water Town is quite similar to Zhouzhuang, but it is quieter
  • Location: close to Suzhou, 1½ hours from Shanghai
  • Recommended stay: at least a day
  • Activities: walking, seeing ancient buildings along canals, and taking photos
  • Suitable for: travelers who want something to go with the classical gardens in Suzhou
  • Features:similar to Zhouzhuang, but quieter with less travelers

Tongli Water Town is a classic Yangtze River Delta ancient water town. About 30 minutes drive from Suzhou, it is best combined with a Suzhou tour. Almost every residence in Tongli is built by a canal.

It is a 'mini oriental Venice', with a network of 15 footpathed canals dividing the town into 7 islets. More than 40 bridges link the islets together! You can appreciate the canal scenery from all angles. The 33-hectare (82-acre) ancient town is surrounded by five lakes - a water town in the true sense of the word.

3. Xitang Ancient Town - a living ancient town

Xitang Water Town Xitang water town
  • Location: 1½ hours from Shanghai, Suzhou, and Hangzhou
  • Recommended stay: at least a day
  • Suitable for: (Shanghai, Suzhou, or Hangzhou) travelers who like shade covered paths and quiet; photographers
  • Features: particularly beautiful night scenery; a great number of bridges, lanes, and covered corridors; a set for Mission Impossible III

Xitang Ancient Town is in the middle of Shanghai, Hangzhou, and Suzhou, and is well-known for its numerous bridges, lanes, and langpeng (廊棚 /lungpnng/ sheltered waterside streets) - Xitang is the only water town with this unique architecture. 

Quiet with a less commercial atmosphere, it is a nice place for photographs. Attractions include Xue Family House (the Fastener Museum), the Root Carving Art Gallery, West Garden, fishing on a boat with the locals, and having a meal on a boat at night.

4. Wuzhen Water Town - enjoyable for an overnight stay

WuzhenBeautiful night scenery of Wuzhen Town
  • Location: 1 hour from Hangzhou, 2 hours from Shanghai
  • Recommended stay: at least two days
  • Suitable for: (Hangzhou) travelers who want to stay overnight at an ancient town
  • Features: a restored ancient town, like a traditional Chinese painting, a very enjoyable place for overnight stay

Wuzhen Water Town, one of the most famous ancient water towns in China, has a history of more than 1,000 years. Embraced by the Beijing–Hangzhou Grand Canal, canals crisscross the two town areas.

Ancient residential houses, workshops and stores stand on the banks of the East Area canals, and attractions include folk performances. The West Area has been restored for antique-style accommodation, but authentic ancient elements are also easily found.

Though some complain about its commercial atmosphere, restored buildings, and the crowds; Wuzhen's charm and elegance are undeniable.

5. Zhujiajiao Ancient Town - the busiest water town

Zhujiajiao Zhujiajiao Water Town
  • Location: in Qingpu District, one hour from central Shanghai
  • Recommended stay: half a day
  • Activities: boating, walking, and photography
  • Suitable for: travelers who have limited time
  • Features: canals, bridges, and ancient buildings, very busy (especially at weekends) and very commercial

Zhujiajiao Ancient Town is a nice destination to contrast with high-rise modern Shanghai, only an hour from downtown Shanghai. It's quite large at 1.3 km2 (half a square mile), and well endowed with waterways, 36 ancient bridges, and traditional Chinese-style residences. 

Dianshan Lake is a large natural lake popular for boating, only 3 km (2 miles) away. Well-developed for tourism, some of the ancient style and peace are erased by commercialization.

6. Qibao Ancient Town - closest to Shanghai, but smallest

Qibao Water Town A canal in Qibao 
  • Location: In the suburbs of Shanghai, half an hour from central Shanghai
  • Recommended stay: half a day
  • Activities: seeing ancient architecture and eating local snacks
  • Suitable for: travelers who only have limited time
  • Features: very small, only 2 canals, rather like a bazaar, very crowded at weekends

Qibao Ancient Town is a mini ancient town containing two pedestrian streets. There are shops selling various souvenirs along the streets, and various snacks sold on Qibao Old Street. Travelers can learn about the process of brewing Qibao's famous distilled liquor in Qibao Winery. 

Thousands of miniature engravings (made by a father and daughter of the Zhou family) are exhibited in Zhou Family Miniature Engravings.

7. Luzhi Ancient Town - virtually undiscovered

Luzhi Ancient TownLuzhi Ancient Town
  • Location: close to Suzhou, 1½ hours from Shanghai
  • Recommended stay: at least a day
  • Suitable for: (Suzhou) travelers who particularly dislike crowds
  • Features: a peaceful water town, canal rides with singing boat women, less-commercialized

Luzhi Ancient Town is much nearer to Suzhou (only about half an hour away) than Shanghai. Surrounded by five lakes, Luzhi is an elegant water town.

There are 41 quaint ancient bridges, built in the Song (960–1279), Yuan (1271–1368), Ming, and Qing dynasties. So Luzhi Ancient Town is known as the "Museum of Chinese bridges".

There are many ancient residences built in the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties, not reconstructed as in some other ancient towns. It's quite big at 1 km2 (0.4 square miles) or about the size of 100 city blocks.

The old maidenhair trees, with a history of more than one thousand years are another highlight in this ancient town.

8. Zhouzhuang Water Town - most popular and commercial

Zhouzhuang Water TownZhouzhuang Water Town
  • Location: close to Suzhou, 1½ hours from Shanghai
  • Recommended stay: at least a day
  • Activities: walking, seeing ancient architecture, taking photos, taking a ferry boat
  • Suitable for: travelers who want something to go with the classical gardens in Suzhou
  • Features: the most popular water town in China, and also the most developed and commercialized; very busy at weekends

The most famous ancient water town in China, it has a profound cultural background and well-preserved ancient residences, and is also famous for its folk art and crafts.

Though many people say the water town is very commercialized, the elegant water views are undisputed. 1,000 households live in old dwellings built during the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368–1911) and the Republic of China era (1911 – 1949).

Taking a ferry boat around the town is the classic way to take it all in. Photographers prefer the peaceful early mornings, and so stay at least one night.

9. Fengjing Ancient Town - an authentic old town near Shanghai

Fengjing Ancient TownFengjing Ancient Town
  • Location: 60 km (1 hour) southeast of Shanghai
  • Recommended stay: half a day
  • Suitable for: travelers who have limited time
  • Features: close to Shanghai, quieter than Zhujiajiao

With a history of more than 1,500 years, Fengjing Ancient Town is a well-preserved water town with many old bridges, ancient architecture, and rambling streets throughout this old town.

It is still a thriving working town, not just a preserved area for tourists. Some historic houses and sites require a ticket, but walking around is totally free. You can walk or take the boat around the old town in a few hours. A colorful range of dozens of small shops along stone pathways offer a very interesting look into the local market place.

Besides, this ancient town is known for its "peasant art" as Chinese peasant farmers and artists paint pictures and sell them there. The famous cartoonist Ding Cong's Exhibition Hall is worthy of a visit.

10. Jinxi Water Town - very small but nice and quite

  • Location: Kunshan Prefecture, 50 km from Suzhou, 100 km from Shanghai
  • Recommended stay: half a day
  • Suitable for: travelers who want to get away from the usual touristy spots
  • Features: a small town with many museums, less sophisticated, and quieter
Jinxi Water TownJinxi Water Town

Jinxi Ancient Town is a small town (only one square kilometer in area). Compared with other "ancient towns" in China, Jinxi Ancient Town is genuinely ancient, simpler, and quieter.

Known as the "Hometown of Chinese Folk Museums", it has many museums, such as the first museum of antique tiles and bricks in China, the 'Red Porcelain Products Museum'and the 'Root Carving Museum of China'.

With a history of more than 2,000 years, the town is blessed with many cultural relics, historic sites and countless buildings with unique characteristics. Famous attractions include the Tongshen Royal Court, Lotus Buddhist Temple, and Shuitian Bridge.

Recommended tour:1-day Zhouzhuang and Jinxi Water Town Tour, a group tour from USD 125 P/P.

Traveling with China Highlights

The most beautiful seasons at these towns are spring and autumn, and the morning and the nightfall are the most charming times of the day. This tour is very flexible. You can alter the itinerary and extend or shorten it to suit your schedule.

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