Water towns are dime a dozen around Shanghai, each billing itself as the “Venice of China.” Zhouzhuang ups this ante with a huge sign proclaiming itself the country’s “number one water town,” and for the most part, we’d have to agree.
Bigger than Qibao, further off the tourist trail than showy Zhujiajiao and older than everything else (it recently celebrated its 926th birthday), you’ll be able to recapture a certain tranquility in Zhouzhuang that’s slowly being bred out of its brethren.
You’ll need to buy an entry ticket (RMB100), and the added value here is that it’ll get you access to a few different sites within the city, including an odd Communist museum and the former residence of Shen Wansan, the area’s first millionaire. They’re mostly standard fare, but a highlight is the Quanfu Si, a temple that unexpectedly opens into a sprawling lattice of water bridges and pagodas in its backyard.
Mostly, though, the town’s charms are found simply by walking the lanes and getting lost between canals and the lakes they feed. The bridge of note in Zhouzhuang is the Twin Bridge, a set of perpendicular archways crossing two canals constructed to resemble an old-style key—it came to fame in 1985 when it appeared on a United Nations postage stamp. It’s the main attraction in a town small enough that you can cover it in an hour or less if you know your way around.
And luckily, it’s still largely untouched by big corporations—there aren’t any banks within, and you’ll still come across myriad locals doing their laundry in the canals and selling fresh-caught seafood. At times, the only visible sign of tourists will be a boat floating by with a snap-happy couple on board. Join them—at RMB100 for a boat (for up to six passengers), you’ll get to sit back and enjoy the town from another level.
For foodies, the must-try here is the Wansan pig hock, named after the town’s aforementioned patron and a delicacy often served to guests. You’ll see the bright red shanks piled up in streetside stalls, but every local restaurant will have them too, so for hygiene’s sake we recommend dropping into one of those instead.
The crowds still pervade in the weekends, so to avoid them, simply stay a night. The tourist crush tends to subside around 5pm, leaving you an hour or more to lose yourself in the lanes before night falls and, assuming you rise at a reasonable hour, allowing you a couple hours in the morning as well. Zhouzhuang sleeps early, so plan your dinner accordingly, but eating early is for the best anyway—walking the bridges at night under the glow of red lanterns is a quieting experience tour groups won’t get.
The newly opened, 20-suite Blossom Hill Boutique Hotel is our pick to spend the night—it’s housed in three tastefully renovated Ming dynasty-style buildings that show off the building’s heritage while pairing it with top-notch Western amenities. A yoga studio is even slated to come online later this summer.
To get to Zhouzhuang, take a 1.5 hour bus ride (RMB29) from either the Shanghai or Shanghai South train stations.