Built on China’s ancient system of canals, Water towns have almost a thousand years of history. With buildings, streets and waterways unchanged for centuries, China’s water towns are beautiful to see and a fascinating mirror into China’s past.
Surrounded by network of laneways and canals, Zhouzhuang near Suzhou is China’s most popular and charming water town. Zhouzhuang is a must see travel destination for anyone travelling to Suzhou.
Zhouzhuang was first established during the Spring and Autumn period (771BCE to 403BCE) when it was called Yaocheng and a part of the Wu Kingdom. Yaocheng was later called Zhouzhuang after the Qianfu Temple was established in 1086. Zhouzhuang has over 900 years of history in its present form and its strategic location on the ancient canal system enabled it to develop as a center of trade and distribution for goods such as silk, food and arts and crafts. A number of very rich trading houses where established and grew to prosperity in Zhouzhuang.
Grounds and Attractions
The part of Zhouzhuang with canals, bridges and ancient historical sites is called the old town which is to the south of Zhouzhuang city and accessible by zhouzhuang bridge. Apart from canals and waterways, the old town has a large number of great attractions and I have listed the best or most well known below.
Bridges – Zhouzhuang is divided by lakes and canals and crossed by 14 stone bridges. Some of these bridges are famous in their own right.
Twin Bridges – Twin bridges is the most famous of Zhouzhuang’s bridges and a symbol of Zhouzhuang. It is composed of two connected bridges, the Shide bridge and the Yongan bridge. Twin Bridges was constructed during the reign of Emperor Wanli between 1572 and 1620. Twin Bridges biggest claims to fame is a painting of it was presented to Deng Xiaoping by a visiting American in 1984 and it was used as a design for the United Nations postage stamp in 1985.
Quanfu Bridge – the longest and most modern of Zhouzhuang’s bridges and is located at the most southern end of Zhouzhuang.
Fuan Bridge – Was originally built in 1355 and is characterized by its single arch and the four “towers” at each corner of the bridge.
Qianfu Temple – Quanfu Temple is a Buddhist temple built in 1086 during the Song Dynasty(960-1279) and was expanded many times over the centuries. Set on the waters Nanhu lake in the south west of Zhouzhuang, the temple is very peaceful, tranquil and permeated with the sweet smell of incence. The temple is amazing and very in character with Zhouzhuang’s water town character. Walking around the temple is a delight and a refreshing change after hustle and crowds in the main part of old town. After the canals and laneways in the center of old town, the temple is Zhouzhuang’s best attraction.
The temple host a very active group of monks who can be seen in prayer, studying scriptures, listening to Buddhist chants and music, manning tourist stations and (gasp) discretely smoking the odd cigarette.
Ruyi Pagoda – Ruyi pagoda is a small charming pagoda on the most south eastern part of Zhouzhuang. The path to the pagoda is overgrown with weeds and the grouds very worn out with very few visitors if any coming to that part of Zhouzhuang. A shame because the pagoda has an attractive design and structure and the walk there provides great views of Zhouzhuang.
Chengxu Taoist Temple – Built in 1086, the same year as the Qianfu temple, the Chengxu Taoist temple has also been expanded a number of times over the centuries and now covers 1,500 square meters. The temple holds several halls and pavilions that are considered as master pieces of Taoist architecture.
Hall of Shen’s Residence – Shen was one of China’s richest entrepreneurs in the 17th century and built an enormous house in 1742 with over one hundred rooms and over 2,000 square meters in size. His home was said to be so impressive that it was envied by the King. Definitely impressive and worth seeing but I did not find it one of Zhouzhuangs top attractions.
Boating on the canals
Apart from visiting Zhouzhuang’s great attractions, walking through the laneways and wandering along centuries old canals, the other great activity is taking a boat ride. You can hire a boat holding six people for 100rmb that will give you 20-30 minutes on the water or you hire the same sized boat for 150rmb with every extra hour costing 60rnb.
A good way to get a boat ride is to find a few people to share the boat with you and split the 100rmb. Cheaper and you have more company for the ride.
Zhouzhuang is only 30 kilometers from Suzhou so the best way to get there is to take a bus from Suzhou’s north bus stop. The trip from Suzhou to Zhouzhuang takes around an hour and buses run every 30 minutes. The last bus leaves Suzhou at around 5:30pm.
Shanghai is just over 60 kilometers from Zhouzhuang so you can also get to Zhouzhuang from Shanghai. Buses depart from Shanghai Stadium and Hongkou Football court. The bus times are irregular so if possible, travel to Zhouzhuang from Suzhou.
The buses from both Suzhou and Shanghai will drop you off at the Zhouzhuang bus stop. Despite what the hordes of taxi drivers and motor bike riders at the entrance of the bus stop will tell you, the old town is close and can easily be reached in 10 to 15 minutes by walking.
Tickets and Times
The entry ticket to Zhouzhuang old town is 100rmb and can be bought with bus tickets when you buy a bus ticket from Suzhou to Zhouzhuang. You’ll actually get the bus ticket for free. You can also buy tickets at the old city entrance. The ticket booths shut down at around 8pm and entry is free after that point.
Zhouzhuang’s old town does get very crowded during the day with gridlocks forming on the bridges and more popular laneways after around 10am. The best way to see Zhouzhuang is to catch one of the last buses from Suzhou and arrive Zhouzhuang after dark and stay over night. That way you can see Zhouzhuang by night, wake up early the next morning and see the best of Zhouzhuang before the crowds start to arrive.