When it comes to traditional Chinese water towns, visitors to the Yangtze River Delta have a host of beautiful examples of to choose from—canal towns like Tongli and Zhouzhuang, for example, or the city known as the "Venice of the East," Suzhou.
Yet if you only had the time to visit one, many in-the-know China travelers would recommend the small but bright gem of Wuzhen (Wūzhèn, 乌镇). Situated between Shanghai, Suzhou and Hangzhou in the heart of the network of waterways that have nurtured this part of China for millenia.
Wuzhen itself possesses over 2,000 years of history, a fact made material in attractions like Tongji Bridge and Renji Bridge (together known as the "Bridge within a Bridge," thanks to a trick of visual perspective), the quaint Fanglu Pavilion and the ancestral Residence of Mao Dun, one of 20th century China's most cherished novelists, who is also commemorated by the Mao Dun Museum.
Entrance to Wuzhen is free, but museums and sites require a ticket to get in. The town is divided into the East Scenic Route (RMB 100) and the West Scenic Route (RMB 120).
Wuzhen itself, however, is the real treasure—its narrow streets, alleys, canals and traditional whitewashed houses with grey slate roofs make for a wonderful day of casual exploration, and it's within easy day-tripping distance of Shanghai, Hangzhou and Suzhou.