Shanghai Shi (Shanghai Municipality) covers approximately two thousand square kilometres, comprising ten counties and extending far beyond the limits of the city itself. Surprisingly, very little of this huge area is ever visited by foreign tourists, though there are a couple of interesting sights.
An extensive canal system once transported goods all around imperial China, and the attractive water towns that grew up around them – notably Zhouzhuang, Xitang and Tongli – present some of eastern China’s most distinctive urban environments. Whitewashed Ming and Qing timber buildings back onto the narrow waterways, which are crossed by charming humpback stone bridges; travel is by foot or punt as the alleys are too narrow for cars.
Today, these sleepy towns are a popular escape from the city, and each has become a nostalgia theme park for the urban sophisticate. They’re fine as day-trips but don’t expect much authenticity – there are far more comb shops than dwellings – and don’t come on weekends, when they’re overrun. All charge an entrance fee, which also gets you into the historical buildings, mostly the grand old houses of wealthy merchants.