China’s water towns prove there are still a few places left in China that retain dreamy, rustic charm — a welcome sight in a country that often feels like a giant construction site.
Unlike Venice, which draws travelers seeking Bolognese with a side of heavy tourism, the Chinese equivalents offer crowd-free trips back in time.
With Mount Huangshan as head, the lake-filled town as body and ancient bridges as legs, this is one distinctive beast. Even the waterways crossing the village are included as the circulatory system.
The most significant structure in the thousand-person village is Chengzhi Hall, a country palace built in 1855 with exquisite wood carvings and gold gilding from the Qing dynasty.
Testament to its authenticity, 2000’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” shot several scenes in the village.
Admission: RMB 104 (US$16)
Getting there: Hongcun Village is roughly 70 kilometers northwest of Huangshan in Anhui Province. Major cities connected to Huangshan Airport by direct flights include Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Xi’an.
Tai’erzhuang, Shandong Province
The former trading hub was the site of the Tai’erzhuang battle between China and Japan in April 1938.
Despite the small size, Tai’erzhuang has a number of traditional temples, waterways and museums. Traditional shadow puppetry shows and bonfire parties take place on Friday and Saturday nights.
Located on the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal, the two-square-kilometer town makes for a nice day trip from the Chinese capital.
Admission: Free (RMB 160/US$2.50 on holidays)
Getting there: Taierzhuang is located in Zaozhuang, Shandong Province, about 60 kilometers from Xuzhou Airport. The airport accommodates flights to 11 major cities including Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.
Zhouzhuang, Jiangsu Province
Dubiously billing itself as the “oldest water town in China,” this village, built in 1086, is crisscrossed with lantern-lined canals, a romantic reminder of China’s past.
Despite its population of 138,000 people — tiny by Chinese standards — the town’s location near Shanghai and Suzhou makes it easily accessible for short visits.
Visitors pass through shops selling woven bamboo and local pearls on the way to the town’s two main religious sites, the Buddhist Quanfu Temple and the Taoist Chengxu Temple.
A boat ride through town costs around RMB 100 (US$16) per vessel. Traditional Chinese folk tunes sung by gondoliers come free.
June is a popular time to visit, with the annual Dragon Boat Festival taking place on the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar, when locals race dragon boats along the canals.
Admission: RMB 100 (US$16)
Getting there: Zhouzhuang is accessible by bus or car from Shanghai, 60 kilometers away, or Suzhou, 38 kilometers away.
Fenghuang, Hunan Province
With a name that directly translates to “phoenix,” Fenghuang is as spectacular as its moniker suggests.
The integration of the town’s stilted architecture to surrounding mountains and the Tuojiang River make it a prime photo op.
“Phoenix town is my favorite water town in China,” says Shanghai resident Josie-Dee Seagren, 21, who comes from Chicago. “There’s a certain mysterious and simple charm preserved in the architecture and the people that has not been tainted by commercialism and tourism.”
To Seagren, the stepping stones on Tuojiang form a unique experience because “you can adventure across the wide river and the town’s ancient ruins of a fortification wall.”
The southern portion of the Great Wall is only 10 kilometers away.
A comprehensive tour ticket for accessing both the Wall and sites in town costs RMB 168 (US$27).
Fenghuang is also home to rice terraces, ginger candy and traditional Miao and Tujia cultures.
Admission: RMB 148 (for Fenghuang town only)
Getting there: Fenghuang is 430 kilometers west of Changsha, provincial capital of Hunan.
Long-distance buses are available four times a day from West Changsha Bus Terminal to Fenghuang Bus Terminal for RMB 130 (US$21). The journey takes nearly four hours.
Huangyao Ancient Town, Guangxi
Praised for its natural feng shui, Huangyao Ancient Town lies in a river bend, supposedly preventing the locals’ good fortune from flowing away.
While historically prosperous, the town’s secluded location in southern China led to its unique development and preservation over a thousand-year history. Today, it’s home to only 600 families.
Located in Guangxi Province, which claims to have the best water in China, Huangyao covers 360,000 square meters surrounded by steep karst mountains, which have plenty of large caves open for exploration.
A stroll down the flagstone-paved streets lined with ancestral temples provides a light and local experience.
Travelers can borrow one of the free bamboo rafts and float on the Zhou Reservoir.
Admission: RMB 68 (US$10)
Getting there: Huangyao is 118 kilometers from Guilin in Guangxi Province. Visitors can take the bus from Guilin Bus Station to Huangyao, which runs twice a day at around 9 a.m. and 1 p.m.