Shanghai on the Side
Few cities in the world are as dynamic as Shanghai, an eyepopping union of neon-clad skyscrapers and French-colonial shophouses, haute couture and street art, hole-in-the-wall dumpling houses and Michelin-starred restaurants. There’s history and glamour in spades, and a dizzying number of attractions to keep you entertained. Thanks to a stellar network of high-speed trains, Shanghai is also the perfect base to explore smaller cities and towns that surround.
To the west and southwest you’ll find a number of small water towns, each easy to visit on a day trip from the metropolis. If Xitang looks familiar, that’s because you’ve probably seen it before. The petite town of historic whitewashed homes and classical Chinese gardens has made an appearance in dozens of local and international films, including Mission Impossible III. Nine rivers crisscross the town, with stone arch bridges and narrow willow-lined lanes aplenty. Nearby is Zhouzhuang, one of the oldest and largest water towns in the country. There are cobbled streets to get lost in, with Mingand Qing-dynasty residences, restaurants and teahouses, and arched stone bridges along the way. Also in the neighborhood is Zhujiajiao, established 1,700 years ago as a trade hub. Today, gracious buildings line canals and rivers overhung by 36 bridges. Stroll along North Street, with its historic homes turned into handicraft stores, jump on a longboat and take in the town by water, visit the Kezhi Gardens, known for its five-story pavilion, and gaze at the detailed carvings on the town’s Qing-dynasty post office.
Centuries ago, Chinese scholars created exquisite gardens in which to spend their days painting, writing poetry, and escaping the world. These moments of calm are closer than you think, with Suzhou a brisk 22-minute high-speed train ride northwest of Shanghai. Once the center of Wu culture, the leafy city is home to dozens of parks and gardens, a symphonic combination of rocks, water, trees, and pavilions that reflects the Chinese appreciation of balance and harmony. Among these are the Classical Gardens of Suzhou, a collection of nine green spaces so beautiful they were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List 10 years ago. Outside the gardens there are plenty of other reasons to linger, from Tang-dynasty temples ringed by gingko trees to historic city gates built 2,500 years ago.
The capital of Zhejiang province, Hangzhou is often referred to as Shanghai’s backyard thanks to its location, 180 kilometers southwest of the country’s largest city (that’s just 45 minutes on a high-speed train). The former capital of the southern Song dynasty, Hangzhou is justifiably famous for its beautiful scenery, specifically West Lake and the surrounding pagoda-dotted hills (Marco Polo called it “the finest and most splendid city in the world”). The lake covers some 4,900 hectares, ringed by willowlined walkways and backdropped by mist-covered mountains. It’s easy to hire a bike and explore the perimeter on two wheels, or jump on a boat or gondola and take in some of the lake’s small islands. Away from the water there are spectacular tea fields, classical gardens, wetlands, and parks, not to mention the charismatic city itself, which is an attraction in its own right.
A canal in Zhujiajiao. Right: Tea gardens in the hills around Hangzhou. Bottom: A scene from the Classical Gardens of Suzhou.