There are many beautiful ancient water towns with a three hour drive of Shanghai. Being the closest to the city, Zhujiajiao is the most commercialised and busiest, along with Zhouzhuang. Quieter, and no less attractive, are traditional Tongli - easily combined with a visit to the classical gardens of Suzhou - and Nanxun, perhaps the most photogenic of all the water towns.

The ancient water town of Wuzhen offers a good balance between visitor facilities and a traditional and authentic experience. It was once run down and isolated, but a £400 million facelift restored it to its former glory and the town is now one of the prettiest in all of China. Traditional wooden houses jut up to one another, reflected in the sleepy canals, which are crossed by a myriad of graceful bridges and traversed slowly by small hand-rowed boats. Part of the maze of waterways here is the historic Grand Canal, the world's longest and oldest canal, which links five great rivers.

You can float down the canals, stroll the narrow lanes, visit unique museums (antique beds, for example) and theatres, watch martial arts on a boat or just sit back savour your surroundings. Comfortably visited on a day trip from Shanghai, the pace of life here is a million miles away from the hustle and bustle of the nearby metropolis. And the scenery is almost poetic.

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