Shanghai: a crossroads of east and west, the intersection of old and new China. It’s a destination exciting enough to keep you occupied for weeks, but it’s worth saving a day or two for quieter towns, fresh air and deeper cultural exploration. Luckily, travelling from Shanghai is simple, with four major railway stations and a highly developed intercity bus system. With many day-trip destinations within hours of the city, you can experience another side of China all in one day.
“Above there is heaven; below there are Suzhou and Hangzhou,” so the famous Chinese saying goes. Like Hangzhou, Suzhou is famous for silk but it’s the canals that set it apart. The old town, built around a series of canals, earned the city its nickname, the “Venice of the East”, and taking to the water is a great way to see it. Spend a few hours walking along the canals and across the traditional bridges that connect their banks, then head to Suzhou’s other iconic attraction: the traditional Chinese gardens. You could spend days exploring them all but good starters are The Humble Administrator’s Garden and The Garden of the Master of the Nets. Top the visit off on Tiger Hill with cultural relics and views over the city. Getting There: 23 minutes by high-speed rail from Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station.
Lush greenery, paths winding their way through bamboo forests and a chance to reconnect with nature are the big draws here. Located 60 kilometers (37 miles) from Hangzhou in Shanghai’s neighbouring Zhejiang Province, Moganshan (Mount Mogan) first attracted foreigners in the 1880s thanks to its cooler summers. By 1910, approximately 300 foreigners had set up summer homes on the lush hills. Many of those colonial-style villas are there to this day and serve as inns and resorts for those who can afford to stay in them. Hiking and biking trails abound through picturesque tea fields and bamboo forests. Getting There: 2.5 hours by car.
Don’t have time to see the Great Wall of China? Head to little Linhai in Zhejiang province to get a taste, where there is a wall reputedly designed by the same architect as Beijing’s Badaling section. Sure, Linhai’s wall – built during the Eastern Jin dynasty (AD 265-420) – isn’t as famous, but in certain spots it bears an uncanny resemblance to the one up north. The city also features an ancient street running from its centre to Longxing Temple. If you have more than one day to explore, take a taxi to the bus station and go to Xianju, where you’ll find the charming and somewhat secluded mountain Gongyu Bei. Getting There: Three hours by high-speed rail from Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station.
Still ringed by its city wall, this modern metropolis served as the capital city of many dynasties throughout China’s existence. Home to several notable temples, the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall and the former Presidential Palace, this is a city of history. Head to Purple Mountain where you’ll find the tomb of the first Ming Emperor and Sun Yat-Sen’s Mausoleum. Once home to a porcelain tower built in the 15th century, today a modern style replica stands in its places symbolising the intersection of old and new in Nanjing. Getting There: One hour by high-speed rail from Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station.
Changshu flies very much under the tourist radar but has many of the best features of Hangzhou and Suzhou combined: canals, ancient houses, a lake and mountains, albeit on a smaller scale. Go to the Shanghu Scenic Area and take a gondola ride through bamboo-lined waterways or hike to the top of Yushan (Mount Yu) which is full of traditional tea plantations and has a mini Great Wall plus views over Xingfu Temple and the neighbouring forest. Explore the old-style buildings and waterways of Shajiabang or go to the Square Pagoda in the city centre. Getting There: One and a half hours by bus from Shanghai South Long Distance Bus Station.
Despite being one of Zhejiang’s largest cities, Ningbo is still relatively unknown among tourists. But the old city, which is home to one of the world’s busiest ports, has plenty of attractions including beautiful old buildings around the central Moon Lake Park and great museums. Explore China’s oldest library at Tianyi Pavilion or wander through the city’s unmissable collection of temples. The city has strong Buddhist connections which are best experienced at the 1,700 year-old Asoka Temple, which houses the rare Buddhist relics of Sakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism; 1,600 year-old Tiantong Temple, known for its scenery and subtle architectural style; and Baoguo Temple, which boasts one of the best-preserved wooden structures of its type in China. Getting There: Two hours by high-speed rail from Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station.
Dongqian Lake is located around 15km (9.3mi) from Ningbo city and is the largest freshwater lake in Zhejiang Province. Given its proximity to both Ningbo and Shanghai, the lake is surprisingly free from the crowds that plague Hangzhou’s West Lake, making it a relaxing getaway. It actually consists of three lakes, with North Lake being the one to see. Between the lake’s shores and the surrounding mountains you’ll find small villages, temples and even a Song dynasty (AD 960-1279) sculpture park. Getting There: Two hours by train from Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station.
Best known for its Chinese rice wine, Shaoxing is fondly known as the “museum without walls” thanks to the city’s long history and preservation of ancient culture. It’s renowned for its canals and old buildings, among which are the birthplaces of influential writer Lu Xun and the ancestral home of former premier Zhou Enlai – both of which you can visit. Other attractions include Anchang Ancient Town, East Lake, Kuaiji Mountain, Baicao Garden and Orchid Pavilion. Getting There: One hour 13 minutes by high-speed train from Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station.
A far less-touristy alternative to Suzhou, this city was built on the wealth of its salt merchants. The Ge Yuan Garden is considered to be one of the four best in China and the south entrance backs on to Dongguan Street, which dates back 1,200 years and is dotted with Ming and Qing dynasty buildings. For an interesting juxtaposition between Chinese and Islamic architecture, visit the Tomb of Puhaddin, who is said to be a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, and its surrounding gardens. Equally worth your time are peaceful Slender West Lake, and the wooden burial chamber of the first king of Guangling at The Mausoleum of the Western Han. Getting There: One hour high-speed train from Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station to Zhenjiang South Station, and a 40-minute bus from the long-distance bus station next to Zhenjiang South Station.
This small ancient water town in Zhejiang Province dates back 1,300 years, and most buildings are from the Ming Dynasty or later. Visit the former home of Mao Dun, a revolutionary writer, or relax in legendary tea house Fanglu Pavilion. Watch out, too, for scheduled performances such as acrobats on poles above the water. The town is famed for its indigo fabric dyeing, and the resulting products make for beautiful souvenirs, as does the local Sanbai rice wine. Getting there: One hour 40 minutes by bus from the bus station at Shanghai South Railway Station.
If you’re a Tom Cruise fan this water town in Zhejiang is a must visit – the closing scenes of Mission Impossible 3 were filmed here. The town dates back more than 2,000 years, crisscrossed by nine rivers and divided into eight sections that are linked by stone bridges. Setting it apart from other water towns is its covered “corridor” which stretches about a kilometre (0.6 miles) along the bank of the river. Look out also for the alleyway so narrow that only one person can walk down it at a time. Getting there: One hour 10 minutes by bus from Shanghai South Station’s bus terminal.
What the Lingshan Grand Buddha lacks in history, it makes up for in size. Constructed in 1996, it is the tallest bronze Buddha statue in the world, sitting at a lofty 88 metres (289 feet). The scenic surrounding area covers 75 acres (30 hectares) and also contains other Buddhist attractions such as the Five Mudra Mandala and Xiangfu Temple. The northern part of Taihu, China’s third largest freshwater lake, also stretches into Wuxi; the Star of Lake Tai Ferris wheel and Three Kingdoms Park (a TV studio set) are both great ways to experience it. Getting there: 40 minutes by high-speed train from Hongqiao station.
Blue and white dyed cloth, traditionally, was once widely used to make clothing, being much cheaper than silk. These days, the indigo-hued fabric (usually referred to as blue nankeen or blue calico) is staging a comeback. Nantong is famed for it, and known in particular for the elaborate patterns adorning the fabrics, made by blocking the dye with soybean paste and lime. A museum in the city celebrates the industry. Wolf Mountain is also worth visiting – the scenic area is famed for its importance in Buddhism and is nestled among several other peaks. Getting there: Two hours by bus from the bus station near Shanghai Railway Station. One and a half hours by car.
Although it is part of Shanghai, many of the city’s residents come here to escape the city. Home to theme parks such as Happy Valley, it also boasts Shanghai’s biggest green space, the Chenshan Botanical Garden. Partially built into an old quarry, which has been flooded to create a huge lake, it is truly an impressive sight. Other attractions include the film studio which recreates 1930s Shanghai and the British Thames Town – a recreation of a traditional English town. You’ll also find some of Shanghai’s oldest religious buildings in Songjiang, including the Zhenjiao Mosque, Xilin Pagoda and Sheshan Cathedral. Getting there: Roughly one hour from central Shanghai on subway Line 9. Alternatively, there are high-speed trains to Songjiang South Station from Hongqiao Station which take 14 minutes.
Mark Andrews contributed additional reporting to this article.