Shanghai is my favorite city in China. I love its its unique blend of European flair and Chinese characters. It is a city like few others in the world -- a large metropolis, boisterous, contrasting, confident, obnoxious, and full of vibrant neighborhoods that offer kaleidoscopic insights into the modern China.
Yet, few tourists to Shanghai are aware of its colorful neighborhoods. Each time someone asks a Shanghai related question on one of the popular travel boards, invariably the names like the Bund, Jinmao Tower, or Xintiandi, get mentioned.
But Shanghai is much more than just tourist traps. To prove this point, I decided to write this guide on Shanghai's neighborhoods. To take full advantage of this guide, don a pair of comfy walking shoes and dive into the maze of this massive metropolis. Shanghai is one of the safest cities in the world, so you have a good excuse to get lost and discover something unexpected.
Historical Downtown Shanghai was bounded by the Suzhou Creek to the North, Hangpu River to the East, and a circular road called “Zhongshan Road” to the South and West. The neighborhoods discussed in this guide are mostly in downtown Shanghai, with the exception of the old Jewish Ghetto, which is just north of the Bund.
* A note on the road names: In Chinese, the word Lu means road. Most of the road signs in Shanghai standardize on using the word “Road”, but you may occasionally see one that still uses the English transliteration of Lu on the sign.
** Orientation: On the Shanghai map, first locate the People’s Park, where Metro 1 and 2 meet. This is the center of downtown Shanghai. The neighborhoods describe below will reference the People’s Park for orientation — the directions used in this guide are not official.
1) The Old Shanghai neighborhood surrounding the Yu Garden — Downtown South
This area, south of the Yu Garden, was called a derogatory name by some people in Shanghai, because it was the poorest neighborhood in the city as many immigrants from other parts of China initially settled here. Today, a piece of authenticity still remains.
Try visiting the Yu Garden in the morning and have lunch at the landmark Xiao Long Mantou (soup dumpling) restaurant there (the restaurant upstairs has a shorter queue as the price is higher — worth it to skip the line. It also accepts reservation. ). Afterwards, walk the neighborhoods south of the Garden with narrow alleyways full of bicycle shops, barber shops, and people living their lives in the open. On your map of Shanghai, look for the road “Henan Road”, a north-south major street in that area. Walk south on this street toward “Fuxing Road “, an east-west street. Around the intersection, you’ll find a Muslim mosque, and not too far to the west, a Confucian temple.
If you walk further southeast, departing from Old Shanghai toward the bund, there is the gorgeous Dongjiadu Cathedral in a neighborhood called Dongjiadu, which means Dong Family Wharf in Chinese. The Dongjiadu Cathedral, built in 1853, was the first church built by foreigners in Shanghai. It was constructed in the early Spanish Baroque style and is still in use today.
For more info on this area, google “Dongjiadu Cathedral”. I found an excellent article online: https://www.movius.us/articles/chinanow/oldcity.html
Food stalls in the Yu Garden can be considered a neighborhood of its own
2) The former French Concession — Downtown Southwest
Here stands the most bourgeois neighborhood in Shanghai, with an ambience evocative of the historical Shanghai. Wandering through the area at night, one can easily visualize Old Shanghai as depicted in the films. Though in reality, the area’s historical reputation was more mixed, as it used to be the center of organized crimes and lawlessness in the 1930′s. It was also where many Western ideas were first introduced to the Chinese intelligentsia living in the area, and saw the birth of the Chinese Communist Party in an iconic Shikumen-style house in the 1920′s.
** It might be a bit counterintuitive for people today to think of Communism as a Western idea first adopted by the intelligentsia in China, but that’s what makes history interesting. It is in fact no historical irony but destiny (at least to me) that the area surrounding the birth of Chinese Communism has been re-fashioned into XinTianDi (New World and Heaven), a shopping mecca developed by an American company where some of most expensive designer shops and boutique hotels in the world line the leafy neighborhood surrounded by Disneyesque recreation of historical building façades.
For a tour, start at the heart of the neighborhood, the Fuxing Park. Go early in the morning and watch the retirees exercise in the park. Exiting the park at its southwest corner, look for the Sun Yat-Sen House in the quiet lanes. Afterward, wander south toward Shaoxing Road.
Shaoxing Road, formerly Rue Victor-Emmanuel III., is quintessentially Old Shanghai. Barely 400-yard long, it is the publishing center of China, lined with Plane trees, comprises a former Russian Jew residential quarter, a house with gangster connections, a performance theater of Shanghai Opera (yes, that is a form of opera, dying though), a traditional Shanghai style building (Shikumen), a German cafe, a Japanese tea house, Shanghai’s smallest park (barely 22,000 s.f.) and several art galleries.
You can gain a flavor of Shanghai’s urban life by exploring Shaoxing Road. Below is the “Yellow-Book” of this street:
Facing east, the right side of the street:
No. 5 Shanghai News Publishing Company (former Zhu Ji-ling residence, Zhu was a prominent Catholic Shanghai business man )
No. 9 Shanghai Qun Opera Theater Company
No. 9 New Quixote Restaurant * Sichuan cuisine
No. 23 AdBay Cafe
No. 25 Cafe Vienna
No. 62 Hai Chen Japanese Tea House
No. 62 Shaoxing Park * Shanghai’s smallest park
No. 74 Shanghai Culture Publishing Company (former Zhang Qun residence, Zhang was mayor of Shanghai in the 20s)
No. 90 Tree * a leather goods store
Left side of the street:
No. 18 Jin Gu Cun * apartment complex that used to be a predominantly Russian Jews neighborhood
No. 27 Old China Hand Reading Room Cafe (Former residence of Du Yusheng’s fourth mistress)
* Du is the most infamous gangster in Shanghai during the 30s
No. 40-44 Angle Gallery
No. 54 Shanghai People’s Publishing Company (former residence of Du Yusheng’s mother)
No. 96 Shanghai’s best preserved Shi-ku-men Style House
No. 96 Le Petit Cafe
After Shaoxing Road, walk north toward the famous Huaihai Road, the former Avenue Joffre. It is a street as evocative as Champs Elysées. One can spend days exploring Huaihai Road and its surrounding streets. (OK, days if you were like me interested in Old Shanghai.) The street is full of fashionable (though not always expensive) restaurants, bakeries, cafes and night clubs. The streets Julu and Maoming north of Huaihai is club-central in Shanghai. Pick up any English newspaper in Shanghai and you’d find several band performances every night in this neighborhood.
As you walk west on Huaihai Road toward the US Embassy, the neighborhood becomes leafier and the noise dies down as you pass the triangle area bounded by Huaihai Road and Fuxing Road. Standing at the triangle facing west, you should take the left folk in the road and that would place you on Hengshan Road.
The Shanghai government has designated over 600 historical buildings for protection. A large percentage of these buildings can be found on the two-mile long Hengshan Road. Walking west on Hengshan road, you will encounter many European style villas and buildings adorned with preservation plaques – read these plaques carefully as they reveal pieces of history few visitors may learn. You may find Shanghai’s most prominent Protestant church, housed in a wood and brick structure of modern Gothic architecture, or the former houses belonging to the prominent Song families from Shanghai, whose daughters married the likes of Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek. (Soong May-ling, remember her?)
Numerous restaurants and bars line Hengshan Road today. The street is known for its wonderful diversity of food offerings, from Tibetan to Italian, and a booming night life scene. During China’s Cultural Revolution days, this street was practically the only place in China where one could find Western style restaurants, or even a proper ice cream. Many Chinese intellectuals from that era recall fondly this street, which served as their only visual link to a world that seemed forever severed from their lives and dreams.
At the western end of Hengshan Road is Xujiahui –a transportation hub, Shinjuku like in its monstrosity, it is home to Shanghai’s largest Catholic church — the St. Ignacious Cathedral, a formerly prominent landmark building, now buried amongst a garrulous sea of shopping arcades.
Other interests in the area include Shanghai Exhibition Center on Yan-an Road, located at the far northwestern edge of the French concession. Formerly the Sino-Russian Friendship Mansion, it was constructed at a time when China had a friendship thing going with Russia (that’s the early 1950′s). With its Stalinist neoclassical design, it has a reputation a bit like the Altare della Patria in Rome. People either love or hate it, few are indifferent. Proceed west on Yan-an Road, you’d encounter more old mansions including the former Kadoories mansion (the Children’s Palace today) and Eric Moller’s Norwegian fantasy house, a visual oddity standing out in a city full of architectural odds and ends.
3) Nanjing Road, the Bund and People’s Square in the center of Shanghai
This is Tourist Central in Shanghai. The Bund is the symbol of Chinese Capitalism — save your restaurant receipt to prove it. The sight of neon and concrete on Nanjing Road makes it an obligatory walk for tourists. Supposedly it is also a favorite haunt for scam artists, although I’ve never encountered any myself.
On the People’s Square is the excellent Shanghai Museum.
For a walk in this neighborhood, a good alternative to Nanjing road is the parallel Fuzhou Road, a few blocks to the south. You’ll find a good collection of book stores, including the Foreigner’s Book Store, and many interesting boutique stores. There is a street off Fuzhou road that was called “The Lane of Lingering Happiness”, Huileli in Chinese, a street of historical irrepute if you will, but I’ve never been able to locate it. See if you have better luck than I.
Walking eastward on Nanjing or Fuzhou Road for about a mile, you will end up at the Bund, Art Deco capital of the Orient. Many of these buildings had been banks before the revolution and are now again banks, which means they are open to the public. So don’t be intimidated by a hushed stiff-upper-lip-ness and venture inside for a good look; it’s a time machine experience. Imagine yourself traveling back to the 1920′s, or maybe on a set of Fantastic Four. Across the Haungpu River is a river front park in Pudong. Go there after dusk for the best view of the Bund. With tourist cruise boats sailing down the river amid its neon lit banks, this is Shanghai, flaunting her charm in a tour de force, alive with an alchemical glow, seduces with romannce and dreams from her past, present, and future.
4) Old Jewish Ghetto, north of the Bund in the Hongkou District
Just a stone's throw from the hustling PuDong Financial Center is a more muted neighborhood. Hongkou, the former Japanese stronghold in Shanghai, is directly north across the Bund from Lujiazui Financial District. The old Jewish Ghetto is located here, in an area north of Tilanqiao (meaning Basket-carrying Bridge in Chinese). Although the bridge is no longer, the name stuck. (of course, what a cool name, right?) Go there by the cheap commuter ferry from PuDong River Walk. For less than $1USD you can stay on the ferry for as long as you want. Some of the best views of the city can be had from the ferry.
The Ghetto was never the official name of the area. It was more famously (and euphorically) called Little Vienna in the 30′s and 40′s as many European Jews settled in this area. The Jewish history in Shanghai is one of the more intriguing stories, in a city full of historical intrigues.
Shanghai was one of few cities in the world offering a reachable refuge to the Jews at the beginning of WWII, and there lived tens of thousands Jews in Shanghai during the war. However, the history of Jews in Shanghai dated long before the war, and the Jewish footprints were all over Shanghai.
The Iraqi and other Sephardic Jews arrived in the 1800s after the Opium War, some like the Sassoons (of the Peace Hotel fame) and the Kadoories became prominent figures in Shanghai. Russian Jews arrived after the Bolshevik uprising;the European Jews arrived after the start of WWII, many of whom traveled an epic journey across continental Europe, Siberia, Japan, then finally reaching Shanghai. During WWII, Jews also endured the Japanese occupation, which forced them to live inside the “Jewish Ghetto”. There is still an active society of these survivors in the US, members of which tried to meet regularly and pass down their legacy of struggles and triumphs during that period. The Spielberg’s movie “Empire of the Sun” was about that period and was shot on location in Hongkou .
Before the War, the Jews also settled all over the city. Some built mansions in today’s Changnin District;while the Russian Jews mostly settled in the apartment complexes (Longtang) in the French Concession. There were many prominent Jews who had their roots in Shanghai, from Kadoories whose family went on to found the Peninsula fortune, to Mike Blumenthal, a former U.S. Treasury Secretary, who spent years as a boy in the Ghetto.
To visit the ghetto, a good place to start is Huoshan Park, a small local park located on Huoshan Road. The park has a small memorial, Monument in Memory of Jewish Refugees in Shanghai, and an orientation map for the ghetto. The ghetto was bounded by Gongpin Rd (W), Tongbei Rd (E), Zhoujiazui Rd (N) and Huimin Rd (S). Some of the more interesting streets here are Zhoushan Road, Changyang Road and Huoshan Road where one can still see many old dwellings. Also located at Changyang Road is the former Ohel Moshe Synagogue (now The Museum for Jewish Refugees in Shanghai). The exhibits and guided tours are a bit “iffy” from a historical accuracy point of view, but the museum is nevertheless worth visiting. Just imagine if the walls could talk. Even if you are not hugely interested in history, this working-class neighborhood is still largely insulated from Shanghai’s meteoric rise, and remains visually interesting in its old worldly shabbiness.For more information on Jewish history in Shanghai, check out this link: http://www.gluckman.com/ShanghaiJewsChina.html. Also, the Sino-Judaic Institute has some excellent articles on-line.
Jewish Refuge Museum
The former Ohel Moshe Synagogue
5) Suzhou Creek Art District on Moganshan Road — Downtown Northwest
If you are an art lover, check out the Shanghai version of the Meatpacking District set in the middle of an industrial neighborhood on the bank of what used to be most polluted creek in China. Many art studios are housed in former warehouses in this area and together they are creating a bustling art scene in Shanghai.
Shanghai is an excellent city to explore on your own. The streets are safe, taxis cheap, and street and metro signs bilingual. Bring the business card from your hotel and you won’t be lost (for long) — so treasure your time in Shanghai and immerse yourself in its colorful neighborhoods.