Tongli Water Town
Tongli, a small but elegant water town, is renowned for gondola rides, beautiful water, the Tuisi Garden, the Three Bridges Area, and the graceful layout. It is one of the six famous ancient towns in south China along with Nanxun, Wuzhen, Zhouzhuang, Xitang, and Luzhi.
It is a hint of old China. Visitors usually take one or two days to relax in the laid-back atmosphere. A mix of traders and locals are still living and working there. It is less commercialized and crowded than some other famous water towns.
- Transport: 2 hours' drive from the Bund, Shanghai; 45 mins' drive from Suzhou
- Visiting time: 3 hours
- Suitable for: all people (but not recommended for the disabled)
- English signs: not many
- History: over 1,000 years
Why We Recommend Tongli
Our Customers and Guide
If you like a small but graceful water town, Tongli Water Town is the best choice. Most of the buildings in Tongli are situated along the waterways. Walking in the laid-back town, it's not difficult to imagine how life was 100 years ago.
- You can take a gondola ride along the beautiful Tongli canals
- At night, it is quiet, but many Chinese lanterns will be lit up.
- It is less commercialized and crowded than some other famous water towns.
- There are numerous rivers and canals, 49 stone arch bridges, and countless buildings in Tongli that date from the Ming (AD 1368-1644) and Qing (AD 1644-1911) Dynasty period
Top Things to Do in Tongli Water Town
There are 7 highlights of Tongli that are highly recommended by China Travel as follows.
1. Enjoy a Gondola Ride
Never miss taking a gondola in Tongli Water Town. It is the best experience. Boat time is about 20 minutes. Water is the major way of transport in Tongli.
2. Explore Tuisi Garden
Tongli is home to Tuisi Garden, aka ‘Retreat and Reflection Garden’ (‘Retreat Garden’ for short), which can be favorably compared to the famous gardens of nearby Suzhou. It was built in 1885–1887 during the Qing Dynasty.
The highly compact garden has two parts:
The western section is a private dwelling, consisting of an inner and an outer house, which in turn comprises a reception hall, a tea hall, and a sedan hall.
The eastern section is the more public area of the garden, including ponds with boats, bridges that span the narrower parts of the pool, waterside pavilions (the most famous of which is Water Fragrance Pavilion), verandas, rockeries, and tree-lined walkways.
In season, the garden is alive with flowers. A scholar garden was a place not only for contemplation, but it was also a place where friends – fellow officials, writers, artists, and intellectuals – met to discuss subjects high and low, and where one often drank copiously and generally had a good time.
All in all, ’Retreat Garden’ is a place of beauty and charm. Little surprise, it has been recognized, together with other classical Suzhou gardens, as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001.
3. Visit the Three Bridges
Tongli Gondola Ride
There are 49 stone bridges, of a variety of styles, joining 7 islands created by 15 rivers and 5 lakes. Each bridge has a poetic name.
The most unique thing about Tongli is that it is built across a wide stretch at the confluence of three rivers, where there are a number of small islands, all of which are interlinked, and stone arch bridges link the part of the city on the river banks. Because the bridges cross three rivers, they are called Three Bridges: Peace and Tranquility (Taiping) Bridge, Lucky (Jili) Bridge, and Lasting Celebration (Changqing) Bridge.
The Three Bridges are lucky symbols in the eyes of the local residents, who believe that walking over them on weddings or birthdays brings good luck.
4. Explore Lanes and Streets
Many narrow and long lanes can be found in Tongli. There are eight major streets in Tongli Ancient Town, some are partially hidden by trees and some are situated by the river.
5. Visit Jiayin Mansion
It was built in 1922, during the early years of the Republic of China (1912-1949), but it was built in the Ming Dynasty style. Jiayin Mansion faces Chongben Mansion across a waterway. It was built as the residence of a local scholar by the name of Liu Yazi (1887-1958).
Jiayin Mansion is characterized by high, white outer walls and by inner walls clad with wood paneling with exquisite carvings. Above the main doorway is a section of roof with upturned eaves, reminiscent of the style of the Huizhou architecture. A handsome but unimposing garden forms the center of the mansion complex.
6. Visit Chongben Mansion
It was constructed by a wealthy Tongli merchant (Chong Ben) in 1912, has four courtyards and numerous buildings made of a combination of brick, stone, and wood. The interior is adorned by wood paneling with carved scenes from classic Chinese literature, including images of cranes and vases, both considered auspicious, the latter because the word for "vase" in Chinese is the same as the word for "peace". (Many Chinese words and numbers are considered lucky because they are homonyms of other words such as luck, wealth, long life.)
A special feature of Chongben Mansion is that each row of buildings is situated at a slightly higher elevation than the preceding row of buildings (i.e. the rows are "stepped"), which was the owner's way of expressing the hope, if not the conviction, that each generation of the Chong family would attain greater success than the previous.
7. Visit Gentle Mansion
It was built during the Ming Dynasty. The enormous complex, including living quarters and garden, was built by a Ming Dynasty official, Zhu Xiang, who styled himself Gengle. Gentle Mansion comprises 52 houses, distributed among 5 courtyards.
The garden naturally contains a pond, a lotus pool, and a rockery made of grotesquely shaped (eroded into strange shapes) stones from the bottom of nearby Lake Tai. Bridges span corners and elongated stretches of the pool. Trees and buildings are strategically placed so as to conceal the complete dimensions of the garden, a factor that gives the illusion of a much larger garden. A 400-year old pine tree also can be found in the garden.
Gentle Mansion has survived the rise and fall of several Ming and Qing Dynasty emperors.
How to Get to Tongli From Shanghai, Suzhou, and Beijing
Railway: Take a train to Suzhou first and then to Tongli.
Below are some cities’ travel hours to Suzhou:
|Departure||Arrival||Bullet train||Normal train|
|Note: Bullet trains arrive at Suzhou North Railway Station and normal trains at Suzhou Railway Station.|
|Departure||Arrival||Operation Time||Travel Time|
|Suzhou||Tongli||every 10 minutes||45mins|
|Shanghai Bus Station||Tongli||10:00-17:00||2h|
|Hangzhou North Bus Station||Tongli||7:50; 10:40; 13:20||2h|
|Nanjing Zhongyangmen Bus Station||Tongli||to Suzhou first, then change to Tongli||2h|
Taxi: from Suzhou: 100 RMB and 45 minutes one way. But when you want to get back, it is not easy to find a taxi, unless you book one in advance.
Other Ways to Get to Tongli from Shanghai or Suzhou
Route 1: Shanghai – Tongli
- From Passenger Station at Hutai Road, Shanghai (上海沪太路客运站) to Tongli: The bus departs from 1:30 pm every day. The 2.5-hour journey takes about 20 RMB, with no stop.
- Tourist Center at Shanghai Stadium (Recommended): The direct bus at the No. 12 Gate of Shanghai Stadium leaves for Tongli at 8:30 am every day. The returning bus from Tongli departs at 4:30 pm.
- The North Square of Shanghai Station: There are direct buses run from the North Square of Shanghai Station to Tongli every half an hour.
Route 2: Shanghai – Suzhou – Tongli
- Shanghai – Suzhou
1. By Bus: Departures every 15 minutes; journey length: 2 hours.
2. By Train (Recommended): Departures every 20 minutes; journey length: 1 hour by regular train; 30 minutes by express train.
- Suzhou – Tongli
3. There are shuttle buses from the square in front of Suzhou Railway station to Tongli that are available during 6 am – 6 pm, at a cost of 8 RMB.
4. The tourist buses leave the Bus Passenger Terminal in Wuzhong District of Suzhou for Tongli every half an hour from 7:40 am to 6:10 pm. The 40-minute journey takes 8 RMB.
With China Travel: This will solve your problems, like not knowing Chinese, finding the bus or train station, going to the wrong station or town, and waiting. Our English-speaking guide and experienced driver will make your trip easy and fun, and serve your party only.
We pick you up at the place you tell us (hotel, cruise terminal, airport, or train station) and guide you in Tongli, and then transfer you to the place you want to go:
Best Time to Visit
The scenery is suitable for a visit all year round. It is less commercialized and crowded than some other famous water towns. But avoid Chinese public holidays like National Day and Labor Day.
Places to Live in Tongli
You can stay at Suzhou city or Tongli Water Town. Most hotels in Tongli are well-equipped with modern facilities like a western-style toilet, wi-fi, phone, and television. There are some high-end hotels usually costing about RMB 1,000 per room per night.
China Travel staff have tried out some hotels in Tongli. The hotels that cost under RMB 350 are not comfortable or clean enough.
Food in Tongli
Tongli's food culture is characteristic of the cuisine south of the Yangtze River. The most famous dishes are: "Pork Shanks Serving the Number One Scholar"; “Shelled Freshwater Shrimp in Cakes”; “Three-Slice Spring Rolls”; braised, minced eel; and the classical, bouillabaisse-like dish, made of a combination of white fish, weaver fish, mandarin fish and turtle
How to Plan Your Tongli Tour
1. Start from the morning: Tuisi Garden → Gondola Ride → Pearl Tower → Three Bridges Area → lunchtime → Chongben Mansion → Jiayin Mansion → Nanyuan Teahouse for layover → Luoxing Islet
2. Start from the afternoon: Tuisi Garden → Gondola Ride → Three Bridges Area
- Please feel free to contact us if you have any other travel ideas!
Tour Tongli with China Travel
- Explore all the highlights listed above.
- This tour also includes visiting Humble Administrator Garden (Zhuozheng Garden) in Suzhou and a lunch: Dumplings and Suzhou local food
- Take a 20 mins gondola ride along the canal in Tongli
- We will take you to visit a local family and listen to the family head singing local songs
- It’s uncommon to find western-style toilets in the water towns, but our guides know where they are.
- A driver with over 5 years of experience and an English-speaking guide with excellent knowledge of water towns will be dedicated to serving your private party only on your tour day.
You may get confused with which water town is the best to go to if you are the first time to visit, so we list all the water towns with detailed information for your inspiration: