Just 30 miles (50 km) outside the hustle and bustle of Shanghai, you’ll find the ancient town of Zhujiajiao (朱家角).
Established around the year 300 AD, this water town features 36 stone bridges that cross back and forth to the ancient buildings on either side of the river.
Boatmen steering tourists in gondolas have earned the town the nickname “Venice of Shanghai,” and it’s a great way to see Zhujiajiao as people have for centuries. But if you don’t want to spend 80 RMB (approximately $13 USD) to hire a boat for the short ride, you can wander around the town on foot for free.
If you’re there on a lovely Saturday as I was with my American expat friends Andy and Nicole and their children, then you won’t be alone in your sightseeing. Be prepared for lots of jostling in the narrow alleyways as you make your way toward the main attraction, the Fangsheng Bridge.
The most iconic of Zhujiajiao’s bridges, the Fangsheng Bridge is 230 feet (70 m) across and supported by five symmetrical arches. It was originally built in 1571 and then rebuilt in 1812. It’s a very popular spot for photos, and lots of people break out their selfie sticks to get the perfect shot. Don’t try to step onto the raised side platforms to get above the crowd, though; you’ll get a shrill whistle and a nasty look from the police on patrol. We watched this happen over and over as we slowly made our way across the crowded bridge.
If you’re spending the day in Zhujiajiao, there’s no need to pack a snack. There are a wide variety of options ranging from food on a stick to full, family-style meals, and the vast majority are very reasonably priced. Be sure to bring cash, as most vendors don’t accept credit cards.
After enjoying a huge lunch of kung pow chicken, eggplant with garlic sauce, stir fried corn with pine nuts, and wonton soup, we made our way back across the bridge to the Yuanjin Buddhist Temple.
Built between 1341 and 1368, it was rebuilt in the late 1500s and then expanded during the Qing dynasty. For your 10 RMB (approximately $1.70 USD) entrance fee, you can visit Maitreya Hall, the Hall of Three Saints (Amitabha, Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, and Mahasthamaprapta), the Yongyue Well with its colorful koi, Yuantong Treasure Hall, and Qinghua Pavilion.
While you’re in the temple, be sure to climb up to the third floor of the pavilion for a panoramic view of Zhujiajiao, which is well worth the ticket price.
There are several other attractions in the town, including the Kezhi Garden, Quanhua Art Gallery, and Great Qing Post Office. If you’re visiting more than one, consider purchasing a ticket package at the town’s main entrance gate.
I tried so hard to imagine what Zhujiajiao must have been like for its inhabitants 1,700 years ago. How it felt to roam the streets at a leisurely pace, stopping to greet friends and neighbors as you lived your daily life. The modern crowds made it difficult, with their ubiquitous mobile phones and pointy elbows. Watching the koi swim in lazy circles in the temple pond was as close as I got, and it was a lovely moment.
If you go: Zhujiajiao is open to the public from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and, as previously mentioned, gets very crowded on the weekends in good weather. As with most tourist attractions in the Shanghai area, be sure to bring your own toilet paper and soap or hand sanitizer for the restrooms and carry cash for any tickets, food, and souvenirs you may wish to buy. You can travel to Zhujiajiao on the Shanghai Metro or take a cab or bus, but plan extra time for sitting in traffic if you go by road.