A picturesque place, Shanghai is.
The glitzy Bund attracts tourists from all over, camera-ready and scrambling for the perfect spot to capture the city’s iconic skyline and mega skyscrapers.
But through Shanghai’s alleyways and the historic neighborhoods nestled within lies the true charm of the city. The vibrant energy coming from everyday locals that weaves through the cracks, beyond the popular streets is what breathes life into this culture-infused metropolis.
As you walk through the ‘old’ city, its history slowly unfolds in front of your eyes – starting with Shanghai’s distinct shikumen architecture, a blend of Western-style lanehouses and Chinese courtyards. Many were demolished during the city’s rapid urbanization but the remaining ones date back to the late 19th century and are now on the government’s preservation list, according to CCTV, aimed for a UNESCO world-heritage status.
After decades of building higher buildings, wider roads, replacing the old with the new, the city and its people have shifted their focus to keeping the old essence as part of the new.
So, you don’t have to go far to immerse yourself in the marvelous mix and history of the city.
Photo source: Flickr | Tony Chen
Shanghai Old City and Yu Gardens
A thousand years ago, Shanghai began as a medieval, walled city – referred today as, Old City. With narrow alleyways and streets lined with small shops and stalls, this is where commerce began in the city around 700 years ago. When the first bank, teahouse, noodle shop and jewelry store opened.
The walls have been demolished. But back then, they were built as protection from Japanese pirates and ringed around the city on what today are Renmin and Zhonghua Roads. Within this gem of an ancient area you can see some well preserved architectural treasures of the Old City – like the pagoda-style tiles and intricate stonework at the entrance gates.
Photo source: Shanghai Highlights
Photo source: Wikimedia Commons
During the era of foreign concessions in Shanghai (1842-1943), the Old City maintained its local and traditional feel and practices since foreigners rarely entered the area (even as they developed the surrounding blocks). Today, it’s become one of the city’s main tourist attractions because venturing around the quaint side streets still gives an atmosphere of the old.
Dotted with temples, the most famous in the area is the City God Temple (城隍廟) – a Taoist temple and one of the biggest examples of traditional Chinese architecture in Shanghai. A few steps away, you will reach Yu Gardens (豫园). A private garden built during the Ming Dynasty that features traditional Chinese pavilions, zigzag stone paths, and sculpted gardens.
Zhujiajiao Ancient Town
Photo source: Lonely Planet
Located in the outskirts of Shanghai, Zhujiajiao (朱家角) is a very well-preserved ancient water town that was established some 1,700 years ago. This quaint little town is built on the tributaries of the Dianpu River. It has 36 old stone bridges, waterside restaurants and stores and sailboat rides, thus, sometimes coined the ‘Venice of Shanghai’.
Maybe a typical Chinese water town but this relic from the Ming and Qing dynasties is still bright and flourishing. Traditional sailing boats move slowly along the river, flanked on both sides by millennia-old architecture and traditional designs – old stores, historic buildings, even a Qing dynasty post office (the best kept of its kind in China).
For a little quiet time away from the crowds, you have several choice gardens like the Kezhi garden with amazing architecture and charming courtyards.
Photo source: Shanghai Highlights
Entering the shops and restaurants, you travel back in time with authentic, traditional Chinese designs of black and white stone exteriors and wooden furniture. Sit by the windows and enjoy the view of willow trees and Chinese lanterns swaying in the breeze as you observe the lives of the locals in a charming small, local town.
Apart from winding around the narrow stone alleyways, walk along its many old stone bridges. Built in 1571, Fangsheng bridge (放生桥) is a symbolic attraction of the town, being the longest, largest and tallest bridge with five signature holes. Marvel at this beautiful sight while being surrounded with Shanghai’s rich history.
Many of the old houses around Longhua have been turned to modern complexes with wide bike paths. But despite this refurbished look, the neighborhood has retained evidence of its past with its museums, factories and especially, a very (very) old temple.
Photo source: YuzMShanghai
Photo source: Sothebys
A hangar that used to store airplanes during the Second Sino-Japanese War was reconstructed as a contemporary art museum featuring local and international artists. Juxtaposing the old exteriors and structure with modern art inside, the Yuz Museum has become somewhat of a landmark in the city. Plus, it is the only one in Shanghai dedicated to showcasing conceptual, large-scale installation art.
By retaining the unique grandeur of the massive hangar-converted structure – the main gallery alone is 3,000 square meters – the space is the perfect pedestal to display the magnificence of the giant installations.
Photo source: The Culture Trip
And now the very old temple – Longhua Temple and Pagoda is an ancient temple said to have been first built in AD242, during the Three Kingdoms Period. This long history has been the backdrop of many legends and executions and have been ravaged many times by war. During the reign of Emperor Tongzhi and Guangxu in the Qing dynasty, most of its buildings were reconstructed and retained the Song dynasty’s architectural design.
Standing seven storeys tall, the Longhua Pagoda is the oldest and tallest in Shanghai. This octagonal-shaped pagoda is made up of a red brick body, a brick cylindrical core surrounded by a wooden staircase. Each storey is encircled with balconies and ornamented handrails. Bells are placed on the eaves to make cheerful sounds whenever a breeze passes by.
Also within the temple complex, a venerable copper bell – weighing 3.3 tons – sits at the Bell Tower and is struck 108 times every New Year’s Eve to bring good fortune to the world.
Fengjing Ancient town
Photo source: China Highlights | Red lanterns hang on both sides of the canal and the lights illuminate the whitewashed walls that reflect off the dark waters at night
Like Zhujiajiao, Fengjing Ancient Town is another lovely water town in the suburbs of Shanghai and almost as old – this is a 1500-year-old historical town. Apart from its well-preserved ancient architecture and stone bridges, this historical and vibrant town is known as ‘Wuyue’ being situated at the intersection of the Wu and Yue Kingdoms.
This little suburb town has a big network of old stone bridges – 52 in total with the oldest having a 700-year history. There are also some old temples and residences scattered about. There are four ancient buildings, Heping Street, Shengchan Street, North Street, Friendship Street, which are still well-preserved.
Previously an agricultural area, it grew into a town for folk arts and Chinese rice wine. ‘Peasant art’ came from the farmers and artists who sell paint pictures – a relaxing sight as you observe them sit through the afternoon, painting by the canals. Fengjing is a thriving, old town with working folks that retain unique, traditional customs, and simple folkways around idyllic scenery.
Shanghai Grand View Garden
Photo source: Marriott
Modeled after the fictional garden in the classic 18th novel “A Dream of Red Mansions”, the Shanghai Grand View Garden (上海大观园) is an exquisite garden complex with traditional pavilions, courtyards, pools, waterways and bridges. Between and around these lodges are landscaped woodlands, formal gardens and trees.
This large-scale garden replicates the pseudo-classic architectural style – following symmetry. While main and secondary buildings are distributed equally in the north-south and east-west axes accordingly, this garden concept is unique and novel as it takes advantage of water with artificial lakes and waterways.
Around the pavilions, there are big rockeries that form secluded passageways. And in the halls, there are wax figures depicting the storyline of the old novel, making visitors feel like they are walking through the novel’s different scenes.
Photo source: Trip.com
Most of these historical neighborhoods are located quite a distance from Shanghai’s city center. But reaching these ancient towns and seeing the very well-preserved ancient architecture and designs is like traveling back in time and getting an immersive cultural experience into China’s history. Each bridge, each shop has its own unique story.
There are many more historical neighborhoods around Shanghai but these should be a good starting point.