Among the many water towns in the “land of rice and fish” that stretches over parts of Jiangsu and Zhejiang, Xitang (Xītáng, 西塘) is often recommended as one of the most authentic. While the more newly built area around the main entrance lacks the rustic water town charm, over half of the town is occupied by remaining Ming and Qing Dynasty architecture with many of the old residences now serving as shops, guesthouses, teahouses and restaurants. Narrow alleyways like Shipi Long snake among stone streets that often run parallel to nine waterways that weave through Xitang. A unique feature of the town, many of the walkways are covered by connected black-tile awnings that shaded merchants and shoppers along what have long been the water town’s areas and over walkways along canals where goods were often bought straight from boats. The longest canopied walkway stretches 1,300 m (1,422 yd).
Xitang is not quite as crowded as tourist favorites like Zhouzhuang or Wuzhen. Morning in Xitang, before the descent of day trippers from Shanghai and Hangzhou—at its worst on weekends and holidays—the largely elderly population of Xitang quietly goes about their lives. Even while orange-capped tour groups follow the call of the megaphone over the town’s 104 historic bridges, laundry and vegetables hang out to dry around the still occupied old homes. When the sun sets, thing start to get a little quieter again as many of the tourists head home and old buildings are lit up by red lanterns.
It was these serene images of water town life that brought the crew for the action movie Mission: Impossible: III into town in late November, 2005. Although presented in the movie as part of Shanghai, the movie brought the town more recognition. Nothing tangible remains, however, outside of a single sign with Tom Cruise and a few pictures in local businesses of their owners with the actor.
If entering by the historic area’s main gate, there’s an RMB 100 entry fee that also grants entry into Xitang’s museums and temples. This can be avoided by heading into the town from a different direction, which many cab drivers are happy to do. The ticket office is open daily from 8am to 4:30pm and seniors over 70 can get in for free.
Zhejiang guide | Xitang attractions
Xitang flights (Shanghai) | Xitang hotels