There’s no reason, really, to go to more than one of these “Venice of the East”s. While quaint and a lovely break from big-city China, they are not so different from each other. Located in the Yangtze River Delta, many villages and towns (Suzhou and Shanghai included) used the abundant water for irrigation and transportation. Thus many villages are built around a canal system. While modern architecture and infrastructure have all but made canals obsolete, these villages have centers that haven’t changed for hundreds of years.
Historic Water Towns
Visiting one of these towns lets you have a look back in time. The houses, usually not more than three stories, butt up against each other in an ancient jumble. Stone bridges, each with a story making it “the most famous stone bridge” in that particular village, link the streets that are divided by canals. And old ladies will hound you for a donation after serenading you with traditional songs. One of the most pleasant things to do is to take a boat ride, offered to every tourist by a number of touts, down through the canals or have lunch at one of the restaurants that open out onto the river.
Zhujiajiao, pronounced "joo jia jow" is one of the easiest to visit from Shanghai. Read a full profile about it here: Zhujiajiao Visitor's Guide.
Here are more water towns to consider:
Zhouzhuang Water Town Scenic Area
Pronounced “joh joo-ahng”, this little village is easy to spend an hour or two in.
Tourists are let off in a main visitor parking lot and you make your way by foot into the old town. There is a charge to get into the old town but this ticket lets you in various attractions. Happily, only pedestrians are allowed in so you won’t be dodging cars (just touts and souvenir salesmen).
Tourist buses go to Zhouzhuang from both cities multiple times daily. It takes about 1.5 hours from Shanghai, less from Suzhou.
Mudu Historic Town Scenic Area
Mudu (“moo doo”) is a water town located in Suzhou’s eastern suburbs. It is noted for its gardens and, similar to Suzhou, many have been restored, maintained and open to the public.
Getting there: Visit Mudu as part of a trip to Suzhou. Go by bus or taxi.
Tong Li Historic Scenic Area
Tong Li (“tong lee”) is a well-preserved town with Ming and Qing architecture. Its most famous sight is the Tuisi Garden.
Getting there: Tong Li is located just southeast of Suzhou and can be reached from Shanghai and Suzhou by tourist bus.
Lu Zhi Historic Town Scenic Area
Lu Zhi (“loo jeh”) is also the well-preserved town with Ming and Qing architecture. Its most famous sight is the Bao Shen Buddhist temple.
Getting there: Lu Zhi is located just east of Suzhou and can be reached from Shanghai and Suzhou by tourist bus.
Tips on Visiting the Water Towns
Weekends and Holidays mean crowds. If you can, visit during the week and arrive around lunchtime (noon) when the crowds of tour groups will be eating lunch in big tour group restaurants and you’ll be able to see the town in relative peace for an hour.