Shanghai is surrounded by watertowns. Nanxun, Xitang, Tongli… Suzhou, if you stretch the definition to breaking. But the most recognizable one might just be Zhujiajiao.
Located in Qingpu 40km west of downtown, the village claims a 1,700 year history, though most of it dates to the Qing Dynasty (1600s-1900s), with some elements dating back to the Ming. It's been described as the Venice of Shanghai for its peaceful canals, its historic houses and lanes, and the heaving crush of tourists that threatens to sink it into the muddy waters.
Oh The Humanity
On even a semi-busy day on Zhujiajiao's Bei Dajie and Dongjing Jie, a boiling river of flesh snakes its way through century old streets at a crawl. Hundreds of people crammed in cheek to armpit. Mothers clutching their babes clamber onto the front steps of stores to escape the undulating, Fincher-esque nightmare.
The River Styx wishes it got this kind of traffic.
How To Actually Enjoy A Visit To Zhujiajiao
I'm going to show you how to actually enjoy Zhujiajiao. Contain your astonishment. Here are the three rules that have seen me go back to Zhujijiao like four times just this year and have a really, really good time.
The key is to avoid people.
Rule #1: Find a decent hotel and plan a staycation
Yep. Don't be fooled, Zhujiajiao is not for an action-packed day-tour of a historic town. It's for a weekend away from the city, soaking in that quiet watertown vibe somewhere off the beaten path, comfortable in the knowledge that you're just an hour from the city center. Bring books, podcasts, your Netflix account, a significant other and/or your favorite naptime plushie. If you happen to like rain, Zhujiajiao during a rainstorm is a spine-tinglingly soothing experience.
This also means that your choice of hotel is absolutely crucial. Make sure it's in the Old Town, isn't far from the canals, has windows that don't face onto the street, and definitely not on the roads mentioned in Rule #2.
Personally Recommended Places To Stay
The Tile Guesthouse (青白瓦宿客栈) - A little courtyard with six rooms and a shared kitchen area. It's tucked down an alley off Xijing Jie, a stone's throw from the main northern canal, but it's peaceful and very, very relaxed. If possible, get the corner room with the garden view. Ideal for a lazy weekend.
Old Studio (和处) - This converted mansion has two separate buildings, each housing tastefully renovated rooms with all the mod cons. The main room's loft apartment has a very cool trapdoor entrance and a tatami bed under the rafters. Although the front rooms face onto Xijing Jie, which gets some foot traffic, they're separated by a garden space.
Rule #2: Avoid Bei Dajie and Dongjing Jie At All Costs
These two streets are a fascinating glimpse into what streetlife one or two hundred years ago was like. With a bit of mental effort, you can imagine when the shopfronts selling chintzy tourist gunk were instead cobblers, fish mongers and jewelsmiths.
Avoid them at all costs. They're a ticking road rage timebomb.
Take the side streets instead. One street away from the hustle and bustle of Dongjing Jie, it's peace and quiet. With a good sense of direction, you can get to your café or hotel with minimum exposure to the crowds and maximum exposure to the actual old parts of Old Zhujiajiao.
Rule #3: Go Out Before Noon And After Dark
Most tourists to Zhujiajiao are day trippers. The busiest times of the day are roughly 11am to around 5pm. Take a walk in the early hours of the morning, or after dark, when most of the crowds head home and the streets are quiet again. The stores close, and the alleys are filled with an eerie, haunting sense of history that has seeped into the cobblestones.
What's There To See And Do
If you do manage to brave the crowds during opening hours, here are a couple of the highlights (onlylights?) that Zhujiajiao has to offer. They've been done to death everywhere else, so I'll give you the crib notes.
Package tickets can be bought at the entrances to the town for 30rmb.
Ancient Qing Post Office (大清邮局) - The well-maintained exterior of this old outpost of the Qing Dynasty belies a fairly empty interior. A couple of scrolls, some cool postcards and some illustrations don't really make up for how cool it would've been to see the preserved set-up of a post office.
City God Temple (城隍庙) - Every town has one. The shrines to lesser gods in the outlying rooms and alcoves are neat, but you're not missing much if you give this one a pass. Here, just look at the pictures.
Kezhi Yuan (课植园) - This giant garden occupies much of the northwestern portion of Zhujiajiao. Gorgeous, well-preserved, packed.
Yuanjin Buddhist Temple (圆津禅院) - The view from the top of this active Buddhist Temple's pagoda is excellent. Hit the giant bell if you get a chance to. Won't bring you any good luck, but it feels great.
Cross All The Bridges in Zhujiajiao - Zhujiajiao has something like 36 bridges. Unless you go looking, you'll encounter maybe eight. They vary from little two-meter stone-and-wood constructions to Fangsheng Bridge, the majestic five-arch, six meter tall, seventy meter long construction dating back to the 1800s. It's packed, but since it's the only way across the river (apart from the 80rmb tourist gondola ride) you'll have to brave it eventually. See Rule #2.
Hexin Yuan, The Hidden Garden (和心园)
This! This is worth visiting. Despite being directly on Xijing Jie, Hexin Garden remains blessedly unknown. Once a family manor, it was bought up by a private collector a decade ago, and filled with hundreds of his antiques collection. It's exceptionally well-maintained, and draws a fraction of the guests that Kezhi does.
It houses hundreds of antiques. Tang dynasty sculptures, furniture rumored to belong to Du Yuesheng, decorative rocks, stone tablets, even a two-story "Twin Pagoda" from Sichuan, which was disassembled when the Three Gorges Dam threatened to flood it, shipped across the country, and lovingly reassembled right here in the central garden. Entrance is 20rmb.
Where To Eat And Drink
Quote Wikipedia, "Zhujiajiao is famous for its cuisine." In reality, it's watertown food. You'll find something very similar just about anywhere around Shanghai. Especially on the northern streets, the lane is flanked by stalls selling steaming hunks of reddish-brown braised pork. There are plenty of places to get skewers or tofu.
Most of the restaurants on the main streets are roughly the same, a mix of Shanghainese and Zhejiang cuisine. Lots of tanks with live seafood. Round tables with glass tops. You get it. Pick at random, or better yet, pick by which one has the best canal seating or the nicest balcony. Look up as you walk around, pick one, and find the entrance from the street.
Oh, try the little wonton shop just in front of the little footbridge connecting Dongjing Jie and Xijing Jie. It's cheap and adorable. Also, the fried red bean cakes on Dongjing Jie are almost worth the hassle of the crowds to try.
If you don't want to relax in your picturesque bed and breakfast, or if you've ignored rule one about getting a picturesque bed and breakfast, then here are a couple of quiet, more secluded coffeeshops you can comfortable chill at.
Canal Coffeeshop - Walk down Caohe Jie and on the canal-side, just down from the shop with the corgi on the stoop, you'll encounter an open-fronted café with a piano. The appeal is in the exposed stone terrace directly on the canal. Great place to sit and relax, soak in some sun, or settle into the couches to read.
Amy's Bakery - It's at the far eastern end of Dongjing Jie, just across the little bridge. Quiet spot, far from most of the crowds, it's got a spacious garden facing onto a canal, and the owner bakes her own cakes.
Like the restaurants, there are dozens of options available, especially along the western edge of Caohe Jie. You can pick one at random, based on how quiet it is and how close to the canal side windows/terraces you can sit.
There's also a Starbucks on the southern end of Fangsheng Bridge, I guess.
Sadly, Red Star has closed. Once upon a time, this outpost of rock and roll and medicinal usage in Zhujiajiao drew in a semi-regular crowd from downtown. A year or so ago, it finally closed. RIP Red Star.
Instead, I'll recommend Dorjelam (多杰拉姆) on Caohe Jie, by the Post Office. Decked out like a Himalayan hostel with a committed drinking habit, they have Tibetan beer on tap and live music nearly every night. No medicinal usage permitted.
How To Get There
This is your best option. Line 17 opened in 2017 with a stop at Zhujiajiao. 40 minutes from Hongqiao Railway Station, and long portions of it are overground past the countryside.
The station is about a 20 minute walk from Zhujiajiao and Fangsheng Bridge. Tip: instead of turning down Xiangningbang Lu, keeping walking up Zhuxi Lu, cross the river on and head straight into Zhujiajiao from the back via Siming Lu, avoiding the crowds from Rule #3.
The Huzhu Express Line runs from Pu'an Lu near People's Square every thirty minutes, and it takes about an hour to get to the Zhujiajiao Bus Station. Lines are better than they were before Line 17 opened.
Taxis or a DiDi will cost you about 200rmb. Ask them to drop you at the northern carpark; there's a gate where you can get your entry tickets. Again, entry into the town is free.
And Stay There!
Despite being so old, Zhujiajiao feels pretty young. Several shops are run by young, hip-looking dudes and dudettes who are into hanfu and tea. A common refrain I heard from the owners of cafes, bars and hostels is that they got fed up with the stress of Shanghai and moved out here for some quiet and some culture. Some of them are taking over family housing or shops, but a lot of them had their eyes on brand new flats at low prices.
Anjuke cites the sales price in the area at around 32,000rmb per sqm for an apartment in the brand new complexes popping up around Zhujiajiao. Compare that with like 110,000rmb in Jing'an. You hear the same reasoning from people moving to Suzhou: you can live in a smaller city where the pace isn't so harrowing and the cost of living isn't so high, and still get a Shanghai paycheque. At the cost of a one-hour commute.
I'm not at that stage yet. But a couple of days in Zhujiajiao does wonders for Shanghai burnout. If you do it right.