The Shanghai French Concession (上海法租界; Shànghǎi Fǎ Zūjiè), was a foreign concession in Shanghai from 1849 until 1946, and was the premier residential and retail district of Shanghai for much of the 20th century. With its European style cafes, quiet, leafy, tree lined avenues and tudor houses nestled in beautiful gardens interspersed with hole-in-the-wall eateries and local colours and flavours, it is a popular tourist destination. You could pretty much get off at any stop in the area and just stroll around the shops, boutiques, restaurants and deli’s. Or follow this self guided walk to hit some of the best spots between Xintiandi in the East, Tainzifang in the South and Fuxing Middle Road in the West.
Time: A full day
Distance: +/- 7km
Start: South Huangpi Road metro station
End: South Shaanxi Road metro station
Start your tour at (A) South Huangpi Road metro station. Leave through Exit 1 and head south on Danshui Road. Turn left on Taicang Road till you hit the Starbucks. You can’t miss it. The the two block area behind Starbucks is the heart of (B) Xintiandi, an upmarket, pedestrian only, shopping, eating and entertainment district composed of refurbished shikumen houses, narrow alleys and stone paved courtyards. With its stone gate buildings, it is a beautiful area, and you could spend a whole morning here browsing through book shops, cafes and delis selling French cheese, wines and Moët & Chandon, upscale boutiques and restaurants. In the south eastern corner of this block is the (C) Site of the First National Congress of the Communist Party of China which has now been preserved as a museum. The museum houses exhibits about the history of China and Shanghai and the foundation of the CPC. Entry is free. Head north on Huangpi South Road until you hit (D) Huaihai Road and turn left. Cross the road using the pedestrian bridge at Chongqing, because, well, it’s kinda cool. And also, you do not want to miss the little hole-in-the-wall establishment that sells (E) radish cakes a little way down from the corner on the north side of Huaihai Road. I can’t sell radish cakes by using the term “radish cakes”, so you’ll just have to trust me on this. These pastries have a warm, fresh filling and a flaky, crisp coating and make a perfect mid-morning snack. The shop is no more than a bamboo steamers filled window with a little sign hanging above it. Look for the green painted window frames with red writing. Skip the shāomài (sticky rice dumplings) here though. Maybe I caught them on a bad day, but I thought they were awful.
Take the next road left and head down Yandang Road towards (F) Fuxing Park. This cobblestoned road is semi pedestrianized and lined with Chinese shops and restaurants. The park is a feast for the senses. Vendors sell fresh seasonal juices at the entrance, the gardens are a riot of colour and fragrance, little old people do tai chi around every corner, and young and old sing karaoke on portable speakers. There are spontaneous ballroom dancers, mahjong playing enthusiasts, laughing children, pensive pensioners, kite flyers, fan dances, card games, makeshift tables where doctors take blood pressure and dispense advice and lots of music and random singing. The 10 hectare park is designed in the French style, with a koi filled central lake, fountains, covered pavilions, and colourful, seasonal flowerbeds. Exit the park through the north western exit.
Turn left on (G) Sinan Road and head south. On the left when you reach Xiangshan Road is the Shanghai Museum of Sun Yat-Sen’s Former Residence. Sun Yat-Sen was the forerunner of the Chinese democratic revolution and the founder of the Republic of China. The museum contains the original furnishings used by the family as well as displays of Mr. Sun Yat-Sen’s activities from his stay in Shanghai. A little further down, behind a red lacquered door lies the former residence of General Zhou Enlai, a former Premier of the PRC. The residence now houses a free museum that depicts the history of the Chinese Communist Revolution.
Turn right into Taikang Road. The area to your right is (H) Tianzifang, a maze of tiny alleys crammed full of more than 200 crafts shops, art and photographic studios, boutiques, bars, coffee shops and restaurants where some older residents still live. It is part of Shanghai’s urban renewal project. It is well worth a visit, even if you’re not big on shopping, if only to check out the Propaganda Art shop to pick up a money bag with the words “If man have money have romantic life everywhere” emblazoned upon it.
While there are many restaurants in Tianzifang, I highly recommend heading to the corner of Jianguo West and Shaanxi South Road for (I) a steaming bowl of Langzhou lamian noodles. For half the price of a Big Mac, you get dinner and a show as the noodle maker stretches, kneads, pulls and twists a ball of dough into perfectly pulled noodles (I giggle every time I say that), before chucking the whole lot out the window where his helper boils them in a broth of beef, herbs and spring onions. The dish is reminiscent of Vietnamese pho and has to be tasted before one can understand how something so simple can be so perfect. If, like me, you’ve forgotten what to ask for by the time you get there and simply point at the nearest bowl of warm looking soup, you might land up getting hand cut noodles – made by peeling strips of noodles from the same dough using a peeler. Either way, you can’t go wrong! Just take your plastic seat amongst the locals and slurp up. Walk off the carbs by heading north on Shaanxi South Road and then taking a right at Shaoxing Road. Along this road you will find Dean’s Bottle Shop for cider if you don’t mind the hefty price tag (and if you want cider in Shanghai, you better not mind the price tag), and the Manne et Sante bakery as well as the Cafe Vienna where you can get German meals and cakes. The Old China Hand Reading Room at no. 27 is a book store and coffee house with antique wooden tables where you can sit and peruse one of the hundreds of old and new books on sale. Half way down this road is the tiny Shaoxing park. No more than a few hundred square meters, it is a quiet spot to relax under the shade of a tree while watching the locals play mahjong, before you carry on on your merry way. Walk back down Shaoxing Road and then continue north on Shaanxi South. Turn right on Yongjia Road. On the corner at no 47 you will find the Double Rainbow Massage House, where blind massage therapists will give you an authentic Chinese foot massage. The Shanghai Culture Square on your left shows foreign and local musicals, bringing Broadway shows like Shrek and Phantom of the Opera to Shanghai. It is worth going inside just to see the intricate glass art wall and water feature in the foyer. Further down the road on the right, Mi Tierra Mexican restaurant offers modern Mexican cuisine and hosts salsa evenings on occasion.
Turn left on Rujin 2d Road and then left on Fuxing Middle Road (there’s another Starbucks here, should nature be calling). Turn right on Maoming South Road and head north. On this road you will find tailors and high end cheongsam boutiques. The cheongsam are material works of art, with exquisite bead work and embroidery and you really could spend a good few hours here drooling over these dresses if that’s your type of thing. The tailors will stitch up just about anything you want in 24 hours, and for considerably lower prices than you would find in retail stores.
At the intersection of Huaihai Road and Maoming South you will find the (M) Cathay Theatre, an art deco movie house designed by Hungarian architect C.H. Gonda that was completed in 1930 and that features both English and Chinese films. Further north on Maoming South Road, at the intersection with Changle Road, lies the Lyceum Theatre. Also built in the 1930’s, this theatre features dramas and small scale musical and symphony concerts.
Turn left on Jinxian Road. There’s nothing special on this street, but it’s just one of those typical French Concession alleys that I love, with boutiques, scrap shops and hanging laundry all over all the place. You will also find the (O) Tokyo Fashion Hair Accessories shop here, where young girls spend the day trying on wigs and doing each other’s hair. Sounds like some people’s worst nightmare, but it’s actually vastly entertaining!
Turn left on Shaanxi South Road. At the South Shaanxi Road and Huaihai Road intersection you will find the Parkinson department store, home to fashion boutiques, homeware, gadgets and restaurants. You can stock up on you MAC and Chanel here if you need to. Turn right on Fuxing Middle Road. A little way down you will find a Rolise store. Here you can pretty much stock up on underwear for life. Gorgeous bras for a fraction of the price you would pay anywhere else in every conceivable style and colour you can think of. Made for the Chinese market, this is one place where you’ll be glad if you’re on the smaller cup end of the spectrum! Turn left on Jiashan Road. There is a little mom and pop shop here that sells cong you bing, freshly rolled and fried while you wait. Or depending on where in the world you hail from, you might be just about ready for a plate of fish and chips round about now. The Sailor’s fish & chips shop on Yongkang Road is worth a pop in, but the whole road is packed with European style eateries and sidewalk vendors selling a multitude of dishes to choose from if you’re in the mood for something else. It’s a vibey little neighbourhood and a great place to sit on the sidewalk with a pint and a camera. Turn right on Taiyuan Road and then right on FenYang Road. The Shanghai Arts & Crafts Museum is on the right at number 79. You can watch live craft demonstrations, such as traditional jade carving, lantern making, paper cutting and embroidery and see exhibits of the history of these and other crafts. The museum is open from 9 to 5 and entrance is 8RMB.
To get to the (S) South Shaanxi Road metro, turn right on Fuxing Middle Road, left on Xiangyang Road and right on Nanchang Road.
Got another day to kill in Shanghai? Check out my self guided walking tour of the Bund and Old Shanghai, covering the area between Nanjing Road East and Fang Bang Road.