Incredible improvements in transport infrastructure, particularly trains, have made the area around Shanghai quick and easy to get to, making a range of day trips extremely feasible. If you have a driver or your own car, even easier. So while this great city has a lot to offer, it’s always good to get out for the day, particularly when spring comes and you could use a respite from the city.
Fortunately, surrounding Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces are rich in history and culture, and the area has long been considered one of China’s most civilized – Hangzhou and Suzhou in particular are holiday destinations for tourists from all over the country. These two definitely reward a longer stay if a day doesn’t satisfy your curiosity, and have a range of decent hotels as well as plenty of places to eat and drink, including Western fare.
Less than 200 km from Shanghai, Hangzhou is a booming, prosperous city full of international businesses and ambitious locals. However, you’re going there for Xihu (West Lake), which has been celebrated in China for over a thousand years. Marco Polo marveled at its beauty back in 1290, and a leisurely day walking around it, pausing for lunch and snacks or getting rowed out to one of the small islands in the middle, is a must. Despite being smack in the middle of the city, they’ve done a good job of keeping the environment peaceful and pleasant, with the mild exception of beeping tourist vehicles.
There are pavilions, pagodas, causeways and islands, and if you stay a bit later, a night-time cruise is a great way to rest your tired legs. It’s considered a very romantic destination, and crowds can be huge during holidays. Also popular, two kilometres away and up the Wulin Mountain range, is Lingyin Temple, with a huge range of truly impressive Buddha statues. It’s worth taking a taxi there if you’ve got the time.
Take the high-speed train from Hongqiao Station, which covers the 200 km in 45 minutes, then take a taxi to West Lake – about 15 minutes.
Suzhou and Hangzhou are usually spoken of in tandem – the lake in Hangzhou, the classical gardens in Suzhou. Highlights include the Humble Administrator’s Garden, the Lingering Garden and the Lion Grove Garden. People have been visiting them for hundreds of years, and they’re impressive and soothing (if crowds aren’t too big) – with rockeries, traditional landscaping and pavilions arranged according to an ancient artistry. You pay a fee to enter each garden. The wealth that led to their creation came from the silk trade, and the Suzhou Silk Museum is also worth a visit if you’re interested in a bit of history.
Tiger Hill and its pagoda is also a key stop, and of course there are Buddhist and Taoist temples galore – Xuanmiao Temple is right in the middle of the Old City. The Old City in general is extremely pleasant to walk around, known for its canals and teahouses, and you should take a break from traipsing from garden to garden to enjoy a break and some peaceful contemplation.
Incredibly, the plan is that the Shanghai Metro will extend to Suzhou; for now, take the high-speed train from Hongqiao Station. It’s about 45 minutes, 25 with the very fastest trains.
Source of our favorite loaded statistic (“Chongming is China’s third biggest island,” you’ll be firmly told more than once – just agree, the point is that the biggest is Taiwan), you’re not even leaving Shanghai municipality for this trip. Conceived as an ecological model region for the nation as a whole, the highlight is Dongtan Wetland Park, with migratory birds (in season) and reed- surrounded boardwalks. Stroll or rent a bike, and you can also take boat trips. The other key destination is Dongping National Forest Park, where you can really feel you’ve escaped the city. Bring a picnic and enjoy the peace and clean air – a rarity in Shanghai. The island is big, so you’ll probably need to take a taxi from place to place, and often you can find yourself feeling somewhat stranded. Ideally, rent a bike at the start and cycle everywhere; if you can make a deal with a driver to take you around for the day, that will make your life a lot easier too.
Now that the Shanghai Yangtze River Tunnel and Bridge are both open, you can simply take a taxi (in fact many of Shanghai’s taxi drivers hail from Chongming). Otherwise, take a bus outside the Science and Technology Museum Metro station (Exit 6) to Chenjiazhen. It will take about an hour and there are great views from the bridge. There are also special round-trip buses from Shanghai Stadium that take about an hour depending on how bad the traffic is.
There are lots of traditional water towns around Shanghai – Xitang, Zhujiajiao, Zhouzhuang – most of them pretty similar, and very tourist-oriented. While people live there, you’re visiting a destination, not a living town. However, they’re attractive and interesting, and worth the visit. They can all get extremely crowded, but the advantage of dealing with Chinese tourism culture is that everybody wants to walk the same route and eat at the same traditional snack shop. Go left when the crowd goes right and you might find yourself in a much more peaceful but equally pretty environment. It’s also worth getting there early in the morning if you can, when locals are getting on with their daily life, markets are opening up and so on.
We’re singling out Tongli because along with stone bridges, canals, lakes and evocative narrow streets, it also offers the Museum of Ancient Chinese Sex Culture, which was moved out of Shanghai by chaste-minded authorities a few years back. There are exhibits from thousands of years ago, and some impressive ingenuity on display. It’s definitely an eye-opener. But even if this isn’t your thing, the town still doesn’t disappoint. Take a gondola tour, walk across stone bridges and try the local snacks, and you can take a bus to nearby Luzhi to see another water town if you’re in the mood for more of the same.
Take a special bus from Shanghai Stadium (leaving in the morning and returning in the afternoon, it takes about 90 minutes each way), or take the train to Suzhou and from there a taxi to Tongji, about 20 km away. In the latter case, you might want to ask the driver to return for you at an agreed time. He will likely do so as large fares are rare in the countryside.