What I Learned Visiting Tongli Water Town

When I started researching things to do in Shanghai, I kept hearing about these ancient water towns. After seeing a few photos, I immediately knew I wanted to go.

It’s not often I visit a place where I feel like I can’t recommend it to others, but after my experience today, I am hesitant to encourage anyone to put in the effort to get here.

What you’re about to read is an honest, transparent account of my experience visiting the ancient water town of Tongli, Suzhou, China.

A Little History

This town is nicknamed the “Oriental Venice” or the “Venice of the East” because of its many water canals and bridges connecting the tiny streets. It was established over 1,000 years ago during the Song Dynasty, and has always been known as a tranquil spot in the country.

How to Get Here & Costs

This is what frustrated me. It is not easy to get here. There is no direct route from Shanghai, it’s a long trip, and the prices fluctuate based on when you purchase the tickets.

From Shanghai there are basically two routes:

  • Metro, $5 CNY | Tourist Bus, $120 CNY | Shuttle Bus, $9 CNY – Take the subway to the bus station, then a 2-hour bus ride will take you to the Suzhou bus station, where you’ll hop on a shuttle bus that takes another 35-50 minutes.
    • Total Time: At least 3 hours (one-way)
    • Total Cost: $25 USD (one-way)
  • Metro, $5 | Bullet Train, $40 CNY | Metro, $7 CNY | Taxi, $17 CNY – Take a 30 minute train ride to the Suzhou train station, hop on the metro for an hour, then take a 15-minute taxi to the town.
    • Total Time: About 2 hours 30 minutes (one-way)
    • Total Cost: $11.00 USD (one-way)

Once you arrive, it costs $100 CNY ($15) to even enter the town.

You’re looking at 6 hours of travel in one day and at least $40 USD just to travel back and forth and enter the town. It will cost more if you decided to stay overnight and book accommodations, and pay for food, tea or souvenirs.

The Ancient Town

I was drawn into this by the beautiful photographs visitors have produced after exploring the ancient town. The water, bridges, colors and buildings attracted me.

Maybe my expectations were too high.

Walking through the town, you notice a few souvenir stands. There are a few food vendors, a Häagen-Dazs, and people crowding every bridge in sight.

The big thing to do in this ancient water town is to simply be there and walk around, admiring the canals and remembering how old the town is. Unfortunately, the actual streets are just lined with souvenir shops. It’s all commercialized for tourists and I felt it was lacking any true authenticity to the beautiful culture that once lived here.

Even the tea house, which is something I had been looking forward to, was expensive and the workers were inattentive. I stood inside for a few minutes and no one helped me, so I walked upstairs to the seating area and still no one came around. I think it’s for the best because it was $168 CNY ($25) for one cup of tea.

Truthfully, the saving grace of this destination is how photogenic it is. If you can avoid angling the souvenir stalls, you can capture the canals and plants pretty well. The trees lining the canals, the old buildings and how remote it is. I was travelling in the off-season, but there were very few western tourists. It was nice to be in a quiet, serene place. I imagine bringing a book or a journal and sitting by the canal sipping coffee would be a nice way to spend an afternoon here.

My favorite part of the day was that I visited on a Friday and there were huge school groups touring the city. The students would pass by us in small groups and one brave student would say “Hello!” When I responded and smiled, more would speak up, saying “Nice to meet you!” and asking “Where are you from?” These inquiries made me feel like a celebrity, and they were all so genuinely happy to practice their English.

They even let me take a picture with them.

Here are my final thoughts. This is not to discourage everyone from traveling to Tongli, it’s to make sure you’re informed.

What to do here: Walk around, take pictures in front of the bridge, buy souvenirs, eat lunch. It’s not a place I feel you could spend all day. There are places where you can find accommodation inside the water town, if you really wanted to. I felt like two hours was enough time for me to see everything.

My recommendation is, visit a water town if you have extra time. Don’t prioritize it or sacrifice other activities to go here. This would be a good option for someone spending an entire week in Shanghai, not just three days like me.

If you’ve been here, what did you think? Is it worth the long commute and expensive entrance fee?

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