There are a surprising number of places to visit by train, boat, or car for nice weekend journeys from Shanghai. Children and adults alike should find something enjoyable at each of these interesting locations.
To the south, in Zhejiang Province, a famous refuge for Shanghai urbanites is the mountain resort of Moganshan, built by 19th-century missionaries as a sanatorium, which later became one of the key retreats of the early Chinese leaders. Today, Moganshan is a sleepy mountain town that offers excellent hiking, mountain biking, and other outdoor sports, just a two-and-a-half to three hours’ drive from Shanghai.
Moganshan has always been a respite for Shanghai families eager to escape the Shanghai summer furnace. Even Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek took his new bride Soong Mei-ling to Moganshan for their honeymoon in 1927. The Nationalists established their own resort called Wuling on the northeast side of the mountain.
Families will find many areas for hiking, eating meals outside, or just visiting the local attractions at a leisurely pace. Moganshan offers a blend of countryside comfort and early 20th century architecture. The area’s architecture is of an impressive variety, from the over-the-top Western opulence of Chiang’s villa and the sprawling Chinese-style compound of Du Yuesheng (“Pock-marked Du,” the notorious Green Gang boss from Shanghai who helped Chiang massacre the Shanghai workers’ movement in 1927), to the simpler elegance of the Western vacationers’ stone mansions. Many of the original houses, built by Western architects using the local gray dressed stone, still survive.
Mao Zedong was a frequent visitor to the area, and used a group of old stone foreign villas throughout the 1960s. By then, Moganshan was a secret retreat for “the leadership” in case of war, with air-raid shelters for the Big Brass. Some of the houses even have secret tunnels that go right down to the valley.
If you drive your car, start on the Outer Ring Road (A20) or by following Hengshan Lu, Cao Bao Lu and the Minhang Elevated straight out of town. Turn off the HuHang Highway at exit 18, the Hangzhou Express Ring North. Just after you have crossed the Grand Canal (historical point of interest) turn north off the Ring Road onto the HangNing Highway, following signposts to Nanjing. After about twenty minutes you will come to the Deqing exit. Moganshan is also signposted from the highway. Depending on the traffic, the trip can take anything from 2.5 to 4 hours.
If you travel by bus or train, go first to Hangzhou, and then take a taxi to Moganshan.
Hangzhou is the capital city of Zhejiang province and is located 120 miles south west of Shanghai. The city has about 5 million residents and was recognized as one of China’s most renowned and prosperous cities over the last millennium (in the year 1100, it was the most important city in the world!). With beautiful, natural scenery and the gorgeous West Lake, Hangzhou is a favorite among expats and their families of all budgets.
There are many interesting attractions in Hangzhou:
- The West Lake (Xihu) is a very enjoyable location for the eyes and the heart, with enough fabled islands and pavilions to keep a horde of painters busy for a lifetime! Take a leisurely boat tour of the lake, while stopping at 1-2 of the several islands.
- The Zhejiang Provincial Museum is actually very important and interesting. It is also very popular, so get there when it opens at 9 am.
- Lingyin Temple is an unbelievable adventure for the whole family. You could see the resident monks going about their normal daily business, or you might see couples praying for future babies, and your family would certainly enjoy simply walking through the temple grounds – it is equivalent to walking through an enchanted park.
- There are so many pagodas that contribute to the exotic ambiance. Among the best are the Three Pagodas reflecting the Moon and the Six Harmonies Pagoda.
- Don’t forget to see a tea plantation – this is the home of the world-famous Longjing (Dragon Well) tea, a famous variety of green tea.
You can get to Hangzhou very easily. A favorite mode of transportation is the super fast train (the “D” or “CRH” train) that leaves about every hour and a half from Shanghai South Station. You will be in Hangzhou in less than 90 minutes. You could always take a bus – it would be slower, but cheaper.
Suzhou is the city of canals and old walled gardens that Marco Polo is supposed to have called the “Venice of the East”, but many towns compete for this title. Suzhou’s ancient gardens and well-preserved architecture give the city a calm often missing from Asian cities; you will find traditional tea ceremonies, concerts, and other performances. Suzhou is easily reached by train: about 55 minutes from Shanghai North Station. You can also hire a car for the weekend, though it’s hardly necessary, as the ancient city is really better seen on foot.
Suzhou is on the shores of the beautiful Lake Taihu, a shallow freshwater sea that covers some 2,200 square kilometers (850 square miles). Known for its lovely stone bridges, pagodas, and painstakingly crafted gardens. It is a very popular tourist attraction, as well as the center of the Chinese bridal gown market. The silk industry in Suzhou holds a prominent position and it is not unusual for European and American brides to fly to Suzhou to choose their wedding dresses and bridesmaid gowns at a price that is significantly lower than what they would pay in their home countries.
Boasting a proud heritage that stretches back over 2,500 years, the downtown area of Suzhou remains as a classic example of architecture and provincial life during the Song Dynasty. Originally a key commercial port at the end of the Grand Canal, it is home to innumerable enchanting Chinese gardens that thankfully escaped the ravages of the Cultural Revolution. The Old Town district is particularly picturesque and has a number of excellent attractions:
- The Suzhou Museum contains over 30,000 meticulously preserved cultural relics, among them Ming and Qing dynasty paintings, calligraphy and ancient artifacts.
- The silk factories illustrate the extremely high quality of the silk products produced in Suzhou. From the worms to the finished product, you will see it all.
- Pingjiang: The 800 year old village contains important historical sites and some outstanding scenery. This district also contains the Pingjiang lodge – fantastic example of traditional Han and Tang dynasty style architecture.
- Try to have lunch at WuMenRenJia Restaurant – they have a Kun opera performance that is well worth seeing. Kun is one of the region’s traditional art forms, with a history of more than 500 years.
- The kids will like roaming around the many gardens that were built by Suzhou’s richest citizens hundreds of years ago. The best garden belonged to the Humble Administrator.
You can easily get to Suzhou from Shanghai in about 1 hour by taking a train from either of the two train stations, by bus, or by a taxi.
Putuoshan is directly south of Shanghai and can be accessed by car, bus, or ferry. It is an island known as a sacred Buddhist place. There are ancient temples here, amazing scenery and beautiful beaches, but with waters not very suitable for swimming. It is the perfect island to wonder around, relax and admire the atmosphere. Putuoshan is holy to East Asian Buddhists and home to over 1,000 temples, large and small. There is a regular pilgrim’s route on the island that gets as crowded as any street in Shanghai. But step just a little off the beaten path and you’ll find many lovely views, secluded beaches, smaller and more intimate temples, and other treasures.
After paying the 200 RMB admission fee to the island, you would be free to wander among the temples and gorgeous scenery. Its claim to fame is as one of China’s four sacred Buddhist mountains. It’s here where the bodhisattva Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy, apparently found enlightenment.
The island’s Buddhist heritage draws thousands of the devout every year, but its inviting landscape is what has turned it into a national park and a popular resort destination for wilting city dwellers. The tree-lined slopes, clean beaches, and dozens of quiet temples are all easily accessible on foot or by the efficient minibus system – the island is only about four miles long by three miles wide. And with all the walking paths, it’s easy to find yourself alone. Most visitors say Putuoshan is best explored on foot. But with little ones, the minibus is a handy option. They cost between 2-4 RMB and stop at all the main sites.
You can take a relaxing overnight ferry from the Bund to Putuoshan on a Friday evening, wander the island for a day and a half, then take a Sunday afternoon hydrofoil home. Buses to the high-speed boats at Luchaogang Pier leave from the bus station under the Nanpu Bridge (1588 Waima Road, Huangpu District). Book tickets through hotel concierges or a travel agent – prices will range from 150 to 800 RMB, depending on your accommodations. Boats do sell out, so book in advance.
One of the absolutely most scenic weekend trips to take from Shanghai is a trek to Huangshan, or Yellow Mountain. It is one of Chinas ten best-known scenic spots.
Located in the south of Anhui Province, with an area of about 1,200 square kilometers, known as “the loveliest mountain in China”, it is famous for magnificent scenery whatever the season: granite peaks piercing the clouds, strangely shaped rocks and gnarled trees, hot springs, waterfalls, wonderful scenic lookouts and over 1,500 plant species. No commercial traffic is allowed within the core area of about 150 square kilometers, and it is accessible by cable car or by walking. Yellow Mountain is recognized in China as the number one mountain under heaven, and has some of the most spectacular scenery you will ever see anywhere.
It features numerous imposing peaks (77 exceed 1,000 meters), forests of stone pillars and endless groves of evergreen pines; other features include grotesquely-shaped rocks (many of which are individually named, such as “pig-headed monk eating watermelon”), waterfalls, pools and hot springs. Because of its mists and clouds, natural scenery in the area changes constantly.
In addition to the mountain, the village of Huangshan is worth seeing. The famous film “Crouching Tiger” was made here. Surrounded by a moat with bridges to the village and a half-moon shaped pond in the center, this is a favorite location for artists. Laid out to represent a buffalo, it is one of the prettiest places in the area, and is known as “the Chinese town in the pictures” and has been recognized by UNESCO as one of the world’s protected heritage sites.
From Shanghai, you can take the overnight sleeper train, the bus from Shanghai South Station, or Shanghai Airlines has a 1-hour direct flight there every night at 8:50 pm.
A little further down from Hangzhou, the train line curves hack east along the south rim of Hangzhou Bay, reaching the old wine-making town of Shaoxing, birthplace of famed writer Lu Xun.
It’s worth a visit to wander the Lu Xun museum, to enjoy the largely untouched traditional architecture, and to eat in any of several local restaurants that have been in business for two or three centuries, brewing the potent local rice wine and using it in distinctive dishes. For the adventurous, there are charming country roads connecting Shaoxing with Hangzhou that make for a pleasant, long day’s bike ride.
Further along Hangzhou Bay is the old port town of Ningbo, home to some of China’s most spectacular seafood, and to several pleasantly sleepy oceanfront hotels. Ningbo is also a jumping-off point for a trek into the Siming Mountains, home to some of the wildest and loveliest countryside left in coastal China. The Siming range features excellent hiking, biking, fishing, birding, and hunting. The city of Ningbo has a very pleasant Waitan – similar to Shanghai’s Bund – with a multitude of shops and restaurants overlooking the river that runs through the city.