Beyond Shanghai: 5 getaways in the Yangtze River Delta

Kate Springer, CNNUpdated 20th July 2017
(CNN) — Home to a cool 88 million people, the Yangtze River Delta is the most populated region on Earth. In the center of it all is Shanghai, China's commercial capital and a must-visit destination.
Shopping, ancient gardens, temples and dynamic architecture make it one of the most fascinating megacities. But that's not the only reason to go. Shanghai also happens to be an easy jump-off point for more rustic side trips.
From the canals of Shaoxing to Hangzhou's famous West Lake, China's ancient "water towns" and lush tea plantations are just a 20- to 30-minute bullet train ride away. Here are five day trips you'll enjoy when you travel here:

1. Hangzhou

Boating on West Lake in Hangzhou.
Boating on West Lake in Hangzhou.
Cancan Chu/Getty Images AsiaPac/Getty Images
A 45-minute bullet train ride from Shanghai (on a "D" or "G" train), Hangzhou has been praised by poets and explorers alike (including Marco Polo) as one of the most photogenic places in China.
The city revolves around West Lake, which is best explored by bike in the morning, when the byways are empty and willow tree-lined causeways are shrouded in ethereal mist. Around the lake, travelers will find dozens of ancient pagodas, gardens, carp ponds, half-moon bridges and temples -- not to mention easy treks through the hillsides.
The majority of hotels -- including a Four Seasons Hotel Hangzhou at West Lake and the historic Shangri-La Hotel, Hangzhou -- are along the western shores. Nearby, a cluster of gardens and islands were once part of Emperor Qianlong's holiday palace, back in the 19th century.
But the countryside is half the reason to go. Outside of town, travelers can explore the Dragon Well Tea Village for fresh air and Longjing green tea.

2. Shaoxing

A fan shop in Shaoxing.
A fan shop in Shaoxing.
China Photos/Getty Images AsiaPac/Getty Images
A 20-minute bullet train ride southeast of Hangzhou will drop travelers in Shaoxing, which -- perhaps optimistically -- has been dubbed the "Venice of Asia." A small city (by China's terms) of 5 million, Shaoxing is best known for its romantic canals and stone bridges.
More than 4,000 bridges connect the cityscape and a stroll along the cobbled pathways will take you past traditional white houses with slate-tiled roofs. Shaoxing is also famous for its literary history, once home to Chinese scholar Zhou Enlai and famous writer Lu Xun.
Most of the action revolves around the eponymous Lu Xun Road pedestrian strip, where travelers can walk through Lu Xun's 19th-century residence.
The most charming hotel in Shaoxing is the Xianheng Hotel, which dates back to 1894 -- supposedly opened by the writer's uncle. Here you'll find beautiful lotus ponds, antique furniture and a restaurant serving traditional Shaoxing cuisine. And what exactly is that?
Travelers will find stinky tofu, braised pork belly and Shaoxing wine (a Chinese rice wine) -- said to be made with special water from the nearby Jianhu-Mirror Lake and then buried underground to mature.

3. Moganshan

The villa at Le Passage Moganshan.
The villa at Le Passage Moganshan.
La Passage Mohkan Shan
About a 30-minute drive northwest of Hangzhou, or 2.5 hours southwest of Shanghai, the small village of Moganshan is a refuge for nature lovers. Part of the beauty of Moganshan is there's not too much to do, aside from explore the bamboo forests and tea plantations.
A typical day might include an easy bike ride through the hills, a tea tasting, a bit of lounging by the pool or a zip-line outing at Discovery Adventure Park. While it might feel completely untouched, Moganshan was actually a popular hill station during the 19th and 20th century.
This is where Shanghai's foreign expats and politicians (including Chairman Mao) came for cool mountain air during the city's steamy summers. The exclusive nature of Moganshan attracts elite jetsetters who gravitate towards eco-friendly retreats like Naked Stables and Le Passage Mohkan Shan.
Offering an ultra-posh experience, there's also La Residence -- a villa with 30-feet-tall ceilings and eclectic Scandinavian furniture that's been built into the tea hills above sister property Le Passage Mohkan Shan. Costing roughly $28,000 a night, the eight-bedroom villa might be part of the reason the area's been called "The Hamptons of China."

4. Ningbo

A view of Xuedou mountain, near Ningbo.
A view of Xuedou mountain, near Ningbo.
Lintao Zhang/Getty Images AsiaPac/Getty Images
An easy drive from Shanghai across the Hangzhou Bay Bridge -- the world's longest trans-oceanic bridge -- Ningbo is a rapidly modernizing city with a long history. Not only is Ningbo home to one of the busiest shipping ports in the world, but it's also one of China's oldest cities.
Dating back to 4800 BCE, Ningbo was an important stop on the Silk Road. Beautifully preserved pagodas and towers can still be seen today, including the Tang Dynasty-era Tianfeng Tower.
One of the city's most scenic areas is the centrally located Moon Lake, where travelers will find the Tianyi Pavilion, an ancient library, temple and stunning Chinese pavilions.
History is everywhere, from China's oldest wooden structure -- the Baoguo Temple in the north -- to the Tang Dynasty-era Qita Zen Buddhist Temple downtown.
The city has also drawn attention for its exciting architecture, such as the Ningbo History Museum. Designed by Pritzker Prize-winner Wang Shu -- of Amateur Architecture Studio -- the contemporary museum is made of concrete and bamboo, incorporating traditional tiling techniques and handmade bricks that pay homage to demolished houses in China.

5. Suzhou

A sightseeing boat sails on a canal in Suzhou.
A sightseeing boat sails on a canal in Suzhou.
China Photos/Getty Images AsiaPac/Getty Images
About a 20-minute train ride west of Shanghai, Suzhou is another beautiful canal city -- split north to south by the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal.
Nearly half of this 2,500-year-old town is covered in water, with rivers and canals dividing the streets into a checkerboard.
The romance continues in the cobbled streets and Chinese gardens, of which there are more than 60 scattered about the city. The main sights include the 12.85-acre Humble Administrator's Garden, a World Cultural Heritage site that dates back to 1509. A walk -- or bike ride -- here uncovers lotus pools, poetic temples, bamboo groves and elegant courtyards.
Come evening, Pingjiang Lu is the best pedestrian street for a stroll past historic white houses and trendy new teahouses. Meanwhile, the Suzhou Silk Museum shows off the city's 4,000-year-old silk-weaving traditions. If you're looking for a souvenir -- this is the place.
Should time allow, there are few other "water towns" nearby that are worth a visit, including Zhouzhuang, Xinchang and Nanxiang.