Ever wondered which water town is really the best? Wonder no more. Time Out has been to seven of them, and rated them from worst to best. The winner is a leafy town with pretty canals and more locals than tourists and you've probably never heard of it. If this isn't enough to satisfy your wanderlust, check out the best day trips and weekend getaways from Shanghai such as to Qiandaohu, or further afield through Time Out's ultimate China travel guide.
Number 7 – Wuzhen
What’s it like? Split into two sections – east and west – Wuzhen is undeniably pretty, but it’s also one of the most commercial and tourist-filled towns on this list. The west area is supposedly best at night when the lights come on, though in the day time it’s just as picturesque. The east part, meanwhile, features a smallish park and regular kung fu performances from several retired gentlemen atop a boat. Both areas are based around one long stretch of canal, each with narrow lanes either side. The town is most famous for being the former home of Chinese literary great Mao Dun.
Crowds Manageable on weekdays, Wuzhen is incredibly claustrophobic at peak times. Limited to the two sections, tourists are funneled down into the same main streets with few chances of escape. A free open air cinema screening old black-and-white Chinese films on a wall in the west area (9-11pm, daily) provides some rare respite, but generally, it’s hellish at weekends.
The weekend crowds at Wuzhen
Commercialism The most expensive of all the water towns, Wuzhen can feel like a rip-off, despite its pretty setting. Tickets are 100RMB for the east section, 120RMB (7.30am-5pm) and 80RMB (5-10pm) for the west, and 150RMB for both sections. Restaurants are average at best and largely overpriced. Wuzhen also features some of the most expensive boat trips: 120RMB/person in the day time, 180RMB at night in the west.
Travel time 120 minutes.
Verdict Wuzhen’s beauty is also its downfall, causing steep entrance prices and overwhelming tourist crowds. Although it’s bearable on weekdays, at weekends the frustration of fighting through the tourists makes it hard to justify a trip.
Get there A direct bus runs from Shanghai South Long Distance Bus Station to Wuzhen at 9.45am for 37RMB one way. You’ll be mobbed by pedicab drivers upon exiting the bus station and if you plan to stay the night, they also double as accommodation guides. Otherwise, the east area is a ten minute walk away. If you miss the last bus back (4.25pm), there are also regular services to Jiashan railway station.
Number 6 – Qibao
What’s it like? When it comes to water towns, it’s hard to beat Qibao for convenience, located as it is on metro line 9, though this is probably its only real advantage. With just a couple of small old streets left and a serviceable canal area that runs for a mere block, Qibao doesn’t boast as many photo opportunities as places such as Zhouzhuang or Wuzhen, but there is a pleasant temple and a tiny shadow puppet theatre that are worth visiting.
Crowds Given the lack of options for wandering, avoiding the crowds at Qibao is tricky (aside from at the aforementioned temple and the Tianzhu Church at 50 Nan Jie). Come on a weekday, though, and you’ll find it manageable. Commercialism There’s no fee for Qibao itself, though specific attractions charge entrance. The old streets are rammed with tacky gift sellers and snack stores.
Travel time 20 minutes from Xujiahui metro station. Verdict Qibao is fine for an hour or two, but it’s not the most authentic water town experience around.
Get there Qibao is located on metro line 9. From the station, take exit 2, turn right and you’ll see a sign for Qibao Old Street.
Number 5 – Zhouzhuang
What’s it like? Zhouzhuang is one of the country’s oldest water towns and, according to posters plastered throughout the streets, sees itself as ‘China’s number one water town’. Unfortunately, so do the tourist groups, meaning it’s one of the busiest water towns in the region. It’s a shame, as Zhouzhuang is certainly one of the prettier sites in the area, and one of the larger ones too, though there’s little to see off the main T-junction of waterways at the town’s centre. Various Qing and Ming dynasty residences are dotted around the town, though the real beauty of Zhouzhuang is in the dozen or so stone bridges that cross the w ater (provided they’re not packed with tourists).
Crowds Even on weekdays, Zhouzhuang gets busy, with few places to escape the hordes herded down the main streets by flag and megaphone-wielding guides. The 900-year-old Taoist Chengxu Temple provides one of the few spots for respite, though even this can become crowded at peak times. Commercialism In addition to the 100RMB entrance fee, Zhouzhuang contains the standard range of tourist tat shops and short boat trips starting from 80RMB. More unique is the ‘first water town show’, 'Four Seasons Zhouzhuang’ (150RMB), an acrobatic spectacular based on, but not officially related to, the popular Zhang Yimou-created ‘Impressions’ shows seen across China.
Travel time 90 minutes. Verdict It’s pretty, but the tourist crowds and commercialism are relentless, even on a weekday.
Get there Direct buses to Zhouzhuang leave the tourist bus centre at Shanghai Stadium regularly from 7am, costing 140RMB return including the entrance ticket. The last returning bus is at 5pm. The tourist buses should drop you at the ticket office, otherwise it’s a ten-minute walk from Zhouzhuang’s main bus station.
Number 4 – Xitang
What’s it like? Xitang is one of the more attractive water towns in the region, presumably the reason Tom Cruise and co chose to film the roof-hopping scene toward the end of Mission Impossible III here, but that also means tourists flock to it. Other than photos of Cruise with smiling locals dotted in various restaurants, and a big picture of him looking all action hero-like beside a stone bridge, there are thankfully few references to the film. Nine rivers criss-cross the town, with regular stone arch bridges and narrow lanes either side of the waterways, which are prettier than most.
Crowds Busy on weekdays, Xitang is overrun at weekends – megaphones and matching caps abound. Commercialism Entry is 100RMB, though if you speak to a pedicab driver outside the bus station they’ll take you in round the back for half that price. Inside, there’s the standard mix of crap souvenirs and over-priced mediocre Chinese food, and few signs of normal residents, particularly on the town’s main streets.
Travel time 100 minutes. Verdict Undeniably picturesque in terms of its layout and architecture, Xitang is another water town that has become a tourist trap, meaning that taking in the beautiful scenery is usually punctured by someone elbowing you out the way to get to the stinky tofu stand.
Get there Direct buses leave Shanghai South Long Distance Bus Station from 9.25am, costing 32RMB one way, with the last bus returning to the city at 4.55pm. Unless you want a pedicab to sneak you in cut price, the main entrance is a two-minute walk from the bus station.
Number 3 – Tongli
Update: Please note that Tongli's China Sex Museum is currently closed for 'refurbishment'. It is not clear when, or if, it will reopen.
What’s it like? Tongli is one of the smaller water towns, centering on a main junction of canals and arched bridges, but it has some unique attractions that make it worth a visit. Waterside cafes, tree-lined streets and a boat of cormorants kept for the tourists mean that it’s a photogenic place – but one of the main motivations for visiting Tongli, and what makes it stand out from the myriad water towns surrounding Shanghai, is the China Sex Museum (entry 20RMB). Set in beautiful grounds, that appropriately enough are also home to two rabbits, the museum features a range of exhibits which are by turns fascinating and hilarious. Highlights include photos of phallic rock formations; the various karma sutra-esque statues that dot the tranquil gardens; and a display of dildos through the ages, the most recent of which features the caption ‘the artificial penis use by modern lesbians [sic]’.
Crowds On weekdays, Tongli is pleasantly empty. Weekends naturally see larger crowds, but generally the pace is slower here than in other water towns. Commercialism There’s the standard 100RMB entrance fee and plenty of over-priced, average Chinese restaurants. However, there are alternatives such as the pleasant Tongli Youth Hostel, which has two branches: one is in a tiny courtyard on the edge of the town centre (210 Xintian Jie); the other is a canal-side space with a decent cafe (234 Yuhang Jie, near Taiping Bridge, call 189 1305 0199 for details).
Travel time 90 minutes. Verdict The traditional scenic part of Tongli is relatively small, yet it doesn’t feel as bustling as other water towns. That said, the real reason you’d come here is to visit the China Sex Museum.
Get there The Tourist Bus Centre coach leaves Shanghai Stadium at 8.30am, returns at 4pm and costs 130RMB including entrance to the old town.
Number 2 – Zhujiajiao
What’s it like? Zhujiajiao’s mix of bridges, canals, wood-panelled buildings and narrow lanes is fairly standard, but it’s nonetheless attractive. The Qingpu town has an appealing combination of accessibility and places to escape the crowds. The town is centred on a large main canal where you’ll find the longest of its numerous bridges, Fangsheng Bridge, which is also known as ‘setting fish free bridge’ – for a few kuai you can buy a goldfish to release into the water (they’re fished out again a little way downstream and resold).
Crowds Zhujiajiao’s accessibility from Shanghai means that it’s a tourist favourite, but in its favour the town offers more escapes from the crowds than the average water town. The whole town is worth exploring, with numerous side streets to avoid the tourists, and a number of kooky cafes to hide in. Don’t miss Caotang (85 Dongjing Jie, 152 2136 1365), a laidback hipster bar and hostel with sofas, a foosball table and occasional live music. If you decide to stay for the evening, open air Kunqu opera performances and classical music shows taking place every summer. Commercialism Although signs for it still remain, Zhujiajiao hasn’t imposed an entry ticket system since 2008. While there are plenty of tacky souvenir shops and over-priced restaurants, this allows you to wander the streets freely and escape the more tourist trap-y areas.
Travel time 50 minutes. Verdict It may not be as spectacular as some neighbouring water towns, but the mix of accessibility, no entrance ticket and cool cafes to escape the hordes mean that Zhujiajiao is still a worthy day trip.
Get there A tourist bus heads to Zhujiajiao from the Tourist Bus Station at Shanghai Stadium at 9am, costing 12RMB one way and returning at 3.45pm. Alternatively, regular buses run from Lao Chengdu Bei Lu station, near Dagu Lu from 5.30am-6.30pm with return buses running from 5.50am-9pm, for 9RMB one way.
Number 1 Winner – Nanxun
What’s it like? Although much of Nanxun itself is a grimy industrial town, and some of the water town area has succumbed to the tourist tat virus, large parts of it are green, peaceful and filled with locals relaxing (and not trying to sell you anything). The best part of the water town area is the south-west, where you can escape the crowds on even the busiest days and find trees arching over the peaceful water – we like the tranquil Little Lotus Garden, a grand former residential house with a small lake at the back, and the Jiayetang Library, home to a large collection of ancient tomes and tree-covered grounds, where locals sip tea and play cards beside the water.
Crowds Nanxun is absent from the main tourist trails, making it pleasantly light on megaphones and matching baseball caps. You’ll still see the odd tourist group, particularly in the southern part of town and at weekends, but it’s a far cry from tourist traps such as Wuzhen (see above). Commercialism Nanxun has a 100RMB entrance fee, but this covers all the attractions in the town except for boat rides, which start from 100RMB/eight-person boat. Food options aren’t great, with a cluster of rustic noodle houses between Hongji and Tongjin bridges your cheapest choice. Water-side restaurants closer to the main tourist area offer a broader range of dishes at slightly higher prices, but don’t expect any English menus.
Travel time 90 minutes. Verdict With charmingly rustic residential streets and relatively few tourist trappings, Nanxun is our new favourite water town. Just get there before everyone else does.
Get there The main Shanghai Long Distance Bus Station (from 6.50am) and the South Station (from 10am) have regular services to Nanxun, costing 46RMB one way. The buses continue to Huzhou, so make sure your driver knows you want off at Nanxun. To get to the old town, cross the bridge directly next to the shabby bus station and turn left immediately at the bridge’s end as you hit the first sign of water. Follow the path into the water town area and you’ll be in the northern section, at the opposite end to the Little Lotus Garden and Jiayetang Library, but in a pleasant residential part with plenty to see on your way south.