Shanghai Day Trip: Zhujiajiao Water Town, a Lavender Paradise

By Sophie Steiner, October 12, 2020

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Background

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Zhujiajiao, also known as the Venice of Shanghai, is one of the oldest settlements in China, with archaeological findings dating back 5,000 years. The town was established about 1,700 years ago, developing during the Song (960–1279) and Yuan (1271-1368) dynasties, and, by the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), was established as a thriving market town and trading center for the entire area. 

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At first, Zhujiajiao became a well-known collecting and distributing center for agricultural products, but, because of its convenient location and natural environment, many merchants gathered here, developing the cloth industry and solidifying the town’s status a major hub south of the Yangtze River. 

How to Get There

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Zhujiajiao is located less than 50 kilometers from downtown Shanghai. To get there, take Metro Line 2 from People’s Square Park station towards East Xujing. At Hongqiao Railway station, transfer to line 17 towards Oriental Land. Get off at the penultimate stop, Zhujiajiao. This train journey only takes about an hour and 15 minutes and will set you back a mere RMB8. 

Once you arrive at Zhujiajiao station, take exit one across the bridge and down the stairs. From there, it’s a little less than a kilometer walk/Mobike ride to Zhujiajiao ancient town. Just take a left at Zhuxi Lu, your first right at Xiangningbang Lu, and then a left at Xinfeng Lu, which will lead you straight into the town. 

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If possible, try to go to Zhujiajiao on the earlier side to avoid crowds and to sample breakfast foods from the many hole-in-the-wall shops that exist along the walk from the train station to the old town. You can find bing of all kinds, wonton, shengjianbao, youtiao and all the other Chinese breakfast food staples. 

To Do 

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Aside from strolling along the cobblestone alleys and twisting canals, taking in the beautiful and mostly original architecture present in Zhujiajiao, you can also enjoy a leisurely boat ride, visit traditional Chinese gardens, explore a Buddhist temple and get a glimpse into what life used to be like in Shanghai over 100 years ago. Bonus: less than 10 kilometers away from Zhujiajiao Old Town, you can experience a sea of purple flowers that spread out into the distance, touching the horizon at Shanghai Ancol Dreamland Herb Farm. 

Fangsheng Bridge (放生桥)

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The most iconic spot in all of Zhujiajiao is without a doubt Fangsheng Bridge, the largest, longest and tallest stone arch bridge in all of Shanghai. After being rebuilt in 1571, and linking the northern and southern parts of Zhujiajiao, it has become the town’s trademark. Admire it from afar before crossing it yourself, since the views of it and the views from it are equally fantastic. 

Canal Boat Ride 

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If you’re craving more ancient architecture after viewing the Fangsheng Bridge, you can hop on any of the small boats for a canal cruise and observe the 35 other bridges present in Zhujiajiao. A 15-minute boat ride costs RMB80 for six people, and longer rides are RMB150. 

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Bei Dajie (北大街)

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Known as the “mile-long street with a thousand shops,” Bei Dajie is one of the best preserved ancient streets in China with buildings dating back to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). With hundreds of open-air shops, restaurants and cafés, you can easily spend an afternoon here. Purchase snacks and gifts for friends, taste local products and pop into any of the restaurants for an enjoyable lunch with a picturesque view of the Fangsheng Bridge.

Kezhi Garden

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Kezhi Garden is one of the largest Chinese traditional gardens in southern China that you’ve probably never heard of. It used to be owned by Ma Weiqi, a salt merchant and one of the wealthiest men in Zhujiajiao. The garden itself is composed of two parts: the study area (Ke Garden, 课园) and the farming area (Zhi Garden, 植园), enforcing the importance of studying and farming to maintain a happy and healthy household. 

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For only RMB20, you can enjoy a relaxing stroll through the garden, meditation in the pagoda, a view of the tallest structure in old Zhujiajiao (a five-story pavilion) and a quiet place to read.  

Yuanjin Monastery (圆津禅院)

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The Buddhist Yuanjin Monastery was built over 700 years ago on the northern end of Caohe Lu. Composed of three main buildings, visitors can explore numerous halls and pavilions for just RMB10. Climb up to the third floor of Qinghua Pavilion for a panoramic view across Zhujiajiao Ancient Town. 

Shanghai Ancol Dreamland Herb Farm (上海寻梦园香草农场)

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Shanghai Ancol Dreamland Herb Farm is a 266,667 square-meter oasis of herbs and flower gardens. Most famous for its expansive lavender gardens that are in full bloom between June and September, visitors can walk through the breath-taking sea of purple. 

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The farm is open daily from 8am-6pm and costs RMB50 to enter. The owners are in the process of building an outdoor BBQ area so guests can spend the entire afternoon there. 

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Note that the farm is located about a 25-minute cab from Zhujiajiao Ancient Town. The farm is relatively remote, so it’s best to ask for your Didi driver’s phone number or pre-arrange a time to get picked up or you may end up hitchhiking a few kilometers. There is a public bus that runs roughly every 30 minutes from a few blocks north of the farm back to the train station. 

To Eat

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While Zhujiajiao is located in Shanghai’s Qingpu district, it still retains its own unique culture and regional snacks. From roasted and dried soy beans to 100-year-old pickle shops to some of the most famous zongzi in the entire country, it’s impossible to leave Zhujiajiao hungry. 

Zharou (扎肉)

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Walking around Bei Dajie, you will spot massive steaming metal bowls filled to the brim with what appears to be lotus leaf-wrapped pork belly. The lingering smell of sweet, fatty pork will pull you in and have you taking your wallet out before you know it. 

Zharou are chunks of slow-braised pork in a sweet sauce, almost like fatty country-style pork ribs. The sauce is similar to a less sticky, thinner hongshao sauce that seeps in between the layers of meat and fat. Each piece is about RMB3 from street vendors, and RMB6 at sit-down restaurants. 

Zongzi (粽子)

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Everyone has heard of zongzi (粽子), the triangle-shaped sticky, glutinous steamed rice dumplings that flood every Chinese city around the Dragon Boat Festival. Zhujiajiao is no exception, and there are ayis dotting every corner, expertly folding the bamboo leaves together, stuffing them with rice, egg yolk, pork and other goodies, then wrapping them like pros with thin strips of pliable straw. 

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The fat from the meat melts into the rice, creating a thick, gooey texture and hearty flavor throughout. One of these bad boys will set you back only RMB4-6 and will keep you full for hours. 

Dried Soy Beans 

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Zhujiajiao is famous for its green soy beans used in many signature dishes. For an on-the-go snack, street food stalls along Bei DaJie sell a dried and roasted version of them for RMB10 a bag (250 grams) in four flavor choices. Choose from savory spiced, spicy with chilies, sweet with candied orange peel or lightly salted with shaved river bamboo fungus. 

Handalong Pickle Shop

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Handalong Pickle Shop, located at 287 Bei DaJie, has been selling pickled snacks using a secret recipe for over 100 years. From sweet or savory pickled ginger (RMB18 per jin) to pickled radishes in a chili dry spice rub (RMB12.5 per jin) to sweet pickled cucumbers (RMB12.5 per jin), the options are endless. Served in large apothecary-style jars, you can sample your way down the line, picking your favorites to bring home.

Shun Ji

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Being so close to the water, it’s no surprise that river fish, baby clams and small snails are on every menu of each restaurant that line Zhujiajiao’s canals. But don’t be mistaken, the food at some of these restaurants is significantly better than others. 

For meaty, flash-fried river fish (旁皮鱼), look no further than Shun Ji at 198 Be Dajie. The small fish are flaky with crispy bones, spicy chilies and freshly chopped scallions – the perfect snack for a cold beer and river view. 

Make sure to order the river clams with Chinese chives (韮菜蚬). The lightly stir-fried crunchy chives are smothered in hundreds of plump, luscious de-shelled baby clams. Order it with rice to soak up all of that umami seafood broth – utter crustacean heaven. 

Final Thoughts 

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This water town has its own unique character, specialty snacks and a nearby flower garden, so you can get nature, culture and history about an hour away from the comfort of your own couch. 

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Although Dragon Boat has long since passed this year, you can still sample the snack of choice for that holiday in one of the most famous places in all of China to eat it. Nosh your way through the winding alleys, marvel at ancient architecture, enjoy the laid-back vibe and treat yourself to an afternoon floating along the canals of the Venice of Shanghai.


[Cover image by Sophie Steiner]

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