I’ve spent the last two Easters in China visiting these 古镇 “ancient towns”. In 2016 I went to Tongli near Suzhou, and this time last year I was in Anchang. It would be bad to break with tradition so this Easter weekend I visited 乌镇 Wuzhen, which is about halfway between Shanghai and where I’m living currently in Hangzhou. Wuzhen is one of the more well known of these towns, possibly because of its proximity to Shanghai which makes it a bit of a tourist hotspot. The other nearby one being 西塘 Xitang which I guess I’ll visit too at some point.
In contrast to some other places I’ve been, the “scenic area” in Wuzhen is very well preserved, almost like a historical theme park. It’s not bad, but it doesn’t feel like a town where people actually live (although, in fact, I think some do). Most of the buildings date from the late Qing dynasty, so a little over a hundred years old.
A more specific name for this type of town is 水乡 “water town”: the classical style of this area is these white-washed buildings and every other street is a canal. Wuzhen is a bit special though in that it’s situated on the Grand Canal which links Beijing and Hangzhou, and despite being dug nearly 1500 years ago is still the longest man-made waterway. On the edge of the scenic area is a pagoda you can climb up and watch the modern day water traffic.
Wuzhen actually has two scenic areas, a larger “west” area and a smaller “east” area. I only visited the west area which is more than large enough to spend a day in unless you’re going to race around. I felt the day ticket price – 150元 – was a bit steep, definitely more than I’ve paid in similar towns. I believe the “east” area ticket is a bit cheaper and you can buy a combined ticket for both areas. I also felt that Wuzhen was a bit lacking in attractions compared to similar towns, beyond just looking at the scenery. E.g. in Anchang the day ticket gets you admission to several small museums, a large temple, etc. but in Wuzhen the buildings mostly just house shops, hotels, and restaurants. Though there was a small exhibit on the traditional local textile printing industry, which I rather enjoyed, and from the official website it looks like there are more museums in the eastern area. But if you’re in Zhejiang, and you just want to visit one of these towns, I think you’re better off going to Anchang. It’ll be much less crowded too.
If you are also planning to travel there from Hangzhou I suggest you ignore the travel advice on the official website (which is also the route Baidu maps suggests). This involves taking the Hangzhou subway to the long-distance bus station, then taking a coach to a town called 桐乡 Tongxiang, and then transferring to the local bus to Wuzhen. This takes basically forever (3+ hours) and if you travel out the night before like I did, the direct bus 282 from Tongxiang to Wuzhen stops alarmingly early (like 5pm). The smart choice is to take the unofficial tourist coach which runs between central Hangzhou and the car park outside the scenic area in Wuzhen. I used this on the way back and it only took an hour and a half. Just pay the driver 30元 when you get on the coach. You can actually find schedules for these coaches in the Ctrip app or website (but you need the local version, not the international one).