The 17 Best Day Trips From Shanghai

The enchanting ancient water town of Wuzhen dates back 1,300 years
The enchanting ancient water town of Wuzhen dates back 1,300 years | ©DuKai photographer / Getty Images
Rachel Deason

On the central coast of China, sprawling Shanghai is the country’s biggest city and is teeming with things to do, ancient sites to see and restaurants to try. But if the bustle gets overwhelming, escape the intensity and head outside the city limits on one of these day trips.

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.

1. Hangzhou

Natural Feature

Tea house in Hangzhou, China
David Veksler / Unsplash
Hangzhou, often referred to as heaven on earth, has one major drawcard: West Lake, one of the most famous natural attractions in all of China. The subject of legends, poems and artwork, this is the China of your imagination. Rent a boat and watch the sunset over the surrounding hills or grab a bicycle and follow the perimeter of the lake, crossing traditional bridges and pavilions along the way. If Hangzhou enraptures you as it does so many and you decide to stay longer, take a bus or car to the outskirts of the city to see Longjing’s tea terraces and miles and miles of untouched landscapes including moody bamboo groves. Getting There: Between 45 minutes and one hour by high-speed rail from Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station. Book a guided tour of the region, setting off from Shanghai, to avoid the trouble of planning local transport.

2. Suzhou

Natural Feature, Historical Landmark

Lanterns hanging along the canal in Suzhou, China
周 小苏 / Unsplash

“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, or let a local expert be your guide when you book a private day tour.

3. Moganshan

Natural Feature, Historical Landmark

Incredible night sky in Moganshan National Park, Huzhou, China
Han Tu / Unsplash

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.

4. Nanjing

Historical Landmark, Natural Feature

The Jiming Temple standing in the sunshine after the snow in Nanjing, China
Kenneth Yang / Unsplash

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 place symbolising the intersection of old and new in Nanjing. Getting There: One hour by high-speed rail from Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station, or book a guided tour with pickup in Shanghai.

5. Linhai

Natural Feature, Historical Landmark

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.

6. Ningbo

Natural Feature, Historical Landmark

Ningbo, Zhejiang, China
Yilei (Jerry) Bao / Unsplash

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.

7. Changshu

Natural Feature, Historical Landmark

China, Jiangsu, Suzhou, Changshu,
Mo Lio / Unsplash

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.

8. Shaoxing

Natural Feature, Historical Landmark

Shaoxing, China
Seele An / Unsplash

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.

9. Dongqian Lake

Natural Feature

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.

10. Yangzhou

Historical Landmark, Natural Feature

Gardens in Yangzhou, China
Yusong He / Unsplash

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.

11. Wuzhen

Natural Feature, Historical Landmark

Boats on the water in Wuzhen, China
Charles Snow / Unsplash

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, or book a full day trip from Shanghai, with lunch and dinner included.

12. Chongming Island and Dongtan Wetland Park

Natural Feature

Technically still part of Shanghai, this island feels a world away. Here, nature and farming hold sway. On the eastern end of the island, Dongtan Wetland Park is home to 150 species – including cranes and white spoonbills, making it a dream for birders. There are a number of farms with child-friendly hands-on experiences such as fruit picking. You can also wander through plentiful areas of greenery such as Pearl (Mingzhu) Lake, or the traditional buildings such as at Sanmin Village. Getting there: By far the best way is by car – about two hours. Alternatively, there are various subway and bus combinations, with buses leaving from Shanghai Science and Technology Station or from Wuzhou Avenue station. You can also book private transfers to take you there and back to Shanghai within one day.

13. Zhouzhuang and Jinxi

Natural Feature, Historical Landmark

Ancient waterways of Zhouzhuang, China
Alyssa li / Unsplash
This water town has become famous around the world thanks to the work of artists Chen Yifei which features Zhouzhuang’s double bridge. Most of the town’s buildings date back to either the Ming or Qing dynasties (the 100-room Shen House, built in 1742, is a brilliant example of architecture from the period), and there is a bridge from the Yuan dynasty. Only eight kilometres (five miles) away, Jinxi gets far fewer visitors and has far more trees than most other water towns. It’s also a town of folk museums – the one of red porcelain being particularly worth visiting. Getting there: An hour and a half by bus from the Shanghai Stadium tourist hub, or choose from the many day trip tours departing from Shanghai.

14. Xitang

Natural Feature, Historical Landmark

The waterways of Xitang, a traditional town 60 miles from Shanghai
Carol Jeng / Unsplash

If you’re a Tom Cruise fan this water town in Zhejiang is a must visit – the closing scenes of Mission Impossible 3 (2006) 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, or join a private tour from Shanghai.

15. Wuxi

Natural Feature, Historical Landmark

Wuxi, JiangSu, China
Jerry Wang / Unsplash

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. You can also book private transfers from the station to Lingshan Grand Buddha.

16. Nantong

Natural Feature, Historical Landmark

Langshan Mountain, Chongchuan District, Nantong, China
Letian Zhang / Unsplash

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.

17. Songjiang

Historical Landmark, Natural Feature, Botanical Garden

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.

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