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The water towns in Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces are famous for their willow-banked canals, quaint alleys, craft shops, and lantern-strewn lanes. Lesser-known Zhujiajiao is a lot quieter than the most tourist-visited towns and has the added advantage of being just 40 minutes away from downtown Shanghai in the Qingpu district.
Modern Zhujiajiao is home to around 60,000 people, but the enchanting old quarter is considerably more tranquil. With 36 stone bridges spanning the canals and streams, it has earned itself the nickname “Venice of the East,” as have all the water towns at some point in their existence.
Habitation dates back several thousand years, but Zhujiajiao flourished in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) as a marketplace. It’s strategic placement at the confluence of several rivers made it ideal for passing trade. In recent years, Zhujiajiao has become popular with artsy Shanghai residents keen to escape the city; several bohemian cafés, bars, hostels, and galleries have sprung up. The newcomers live down the narrow lanes alongside the locals.
The ancient quarter of Zhujiajiao is set slightly apart from the new town and there is a nominal ¥10 entry fee. However, since there are so many entrance points to the old town, it’s difficult to enforce. If you want to fly solo and avoid a guided tour, go for it, but if you want to hire a guide, expect to pay around ¥120 for three hours. Various sets of attraction tickets can be bought that allow entry into a number of sites. Tickets and guides can be acquired at the main entrance to the old quarter.
The great thing about Zhujiajiao is that you can stroll around it in a couple of hours. Another good way of getting around is by hopping onto one of the many gondolas you’ll see on the canals. The gondolas seat six people and run along two routes: a short trip for ¥60 per boat that takes you up and down the main canal and a longer tour around town for ¥120. Tickets are sold at the wooden booths next to the main attractions.
Zhujiajiao opens to visitors at 7:45 a.m. and closes at 5:30 p.m., thus the hours of operation for every establishment listed here are, essentially, 7:45 a.m.-5:30 p.m. The bars that are open later won’t be of great interest to visitors leaving when the old quarter closes, but if you’re staying at one of the hostels overnight, you may be interested. Many of the bars serve as daytime cafés, in any case.
Stretching for about a kilometer (0.6 mi) through Zhujiajiao’s old quarter, North Street (Bei Dajie) is flanked with traditional buildings from the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) Dynasties. Once the town’s main thoroughfare, it crosses northeast to southwest from the Fansheng Bridge to the Handicraft Exhibition Hall and the Tongtianhe.
The striking five-arched Fangsheng Bridge is Zhujiajiao’s largest and tallest, stretching for 70 meters (230 ft.). It was built in 1571 and is carved with dragons and lions.
One of Zhujiajiao’s most famous landmarks is the Old Post Office at the southwest end of Xihu Street near Caohe Street. It dates from the reign of the Qing emperor Tongzhi in 1903 and went through many guises over the years, from a private post office to a customs house.
From Great North Street, cross Tai’an Bridge to get to the Yuanjin Buddhist Temple across the Caogang River. Built in 1341 during the reign of the Zhizheng emperor of the Yuan Dynasty, the temple has several colorful statues. Next, head south to the Daoist City God Temple with its old gingko tree.
Close to the entrance to the old quarter is Zhujiajiao’s most famous attraction: Kezhi Garden dates from 1912 and is the result of 15 years of work. The garden’s design mixes Chinese and Western sensibilities and is split into two sections: Ke and Zhi. Ke means “to learn,” while Zhi means “to plant,” implying that knowledge is acquired through diligent work.
The ticket office (164 Xinfeng Rd.) sells three combinations: Type 1 (9 attractions): ¥80 gets you a river boat ride, plus entry into the Y-Art Gallery, Tong Tian He Chinese Pharmacy, Old Post Office, City God Temple, Shanghai Handicraft Exhibition Hall, Yuanjin Buddhist Temple, Hanlin Stele Museum, Kezhi Garden, and Shanghai Quanhua Art; Type 2 (8 attractions): ¥60 gets you entry into all of the Type 1 attractions, minus the Hanlin Stele Museum; Type 3 (4 attractions): for ¥30 you get entry to Tong Tian He Chinese Pharmacy, Old Post Office, Yuanjin Buddhist Temple, and Kezhi Garden.
Restaurants and Nightlife
Since Zhujiajiao is so small, most of the cafés double up as bars and restaurants and the hostels and lodging houses offer food and drink. The intriguingly named Bum Cafe (44 Caohe St.) is fun for photo opportunities as well as a cup of coffee and a snack, while HEIMa Bar (25 Donghu St.) brings a taste of Iceland to this corner of China. Run by a couple of Scandinavian expats, the two-floor bar serves bottled beer, cocktails, and shots and is a café during the day.
The best known venue in town is Zher (118 Xijing St.). Run by a local punk musician named Frank, Zher (meaning “here” in Mandarin) is small, but the fun spills out onto the willow-decked outdoor area when the weather is fine. Inside, Frank’s space is decked out with comfortable armchairs, a film projector, and a foosball table. Drinks, snacks, and full meals are available.
Jazz Age (58 Caohe St.) is a café owned by a jazz enthusiast named Zhou. As well as making coffee and welcoming guests, Zhou collects jazz CDs and sells knock-off copies for ¥20 each.
If you decide to stay overnight in Zhujiajiao, your best bet for accommodation is one of the bohemian hostels that have sprung up in the past few years. Located inside quaint old buildings, often with canal views, these lodgings are cheap and convivial.
Cao Tang (31 Dongjing St., 152/2136-1365, ¥80-175) offers the option of a dorm bed in one of its beautifully decorated rooms or a double private room with en suite bathroom. The popular on-site bar serves Sinkiang black beer.
The My Way (29-31 Xihu St., 21/5923-0927, ¥300) is right next to the Old Post Office and has river-view rooms, Wi-Fi access, boho decor, and free breakfast for guests.
The international 1, 2, 3 Guesthouse (123 Xijing St., 134/8262-9203, ¥80-200) located down a lane near the Kezhi Garden offers mixed dorm and twin private en suite accommodations.
Other options are Uma (No. 4, Lane 103 Xijing St., 21/5924-0487 or 189/1808-2961, ¥30) and an apartment belonging to the manager of HEIma Bar (23 Donghu St., ¥400).
Getting to Zhujiajiao
The two best bus options are Tour Bus 4 that leaves from Shanghai Sightseeing Bus Center (Staircase 5, Shanghai Stadium, 666 Tianyaoqiao Rd., 21/6426-5555) daily, every half hour 7:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. (¥23 one-way) and the ¥9 pink Huzhu Express line that leaves from the junction of Chengdu Road and Dagu Road, running daily every half hour 7:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Last buses leave Zhujiajiao to come back to Shanghai around 9 p.m. The bus ride takes about an hour each way.
A one-way trip in a taxi will cost around ¥150. There are usually taxis waiting at the exit to the water village to take visitors back to Shanghai. If not, ask the visitors’ center to call one for you.
© Susie Gordon from Moon Beijing & Shanghai, 2nd Edition