If you are coming to Shanghai to see modernity, you won’t have to look far. JinMao Tower will cast a shadow over the city, reminding everyone daily that China is on the cusp of international renown and greatness. What may be harder to find is old Shanghai, that cultural beacon of two-toned string instruments and red lanterns that only the locals know about. Here’s how you can find these hidden gems without trekking into the countryside.
Taikang Lu is a favorite among local artists and expat eccentrics. You’ll find cute restaurants and fashionable bars alongside take-away ice cream shops and high-class fashion stores selling biodegradable, all natural, organic baby clothing. While it may seem modern and retro, the entire area was once a hutong, or a series of old-style homes that comprised a mini village. You’ll walk through a maze of archways and a honeycomb of rooms that once served as homes to some of Shanghai’s inhabitants. Any tour of Shanghai old town must include, or start with, Taikang Lu.
For a more modern take, you can visit Xin Tian Di, which is a similar hutong conversion full of high-fashion stores and top chef restaurants. This is where Shanghai’s well-to-do lounge away the weekends and where the housewives of Shanghai spend there weekdays shopping and sipping coffee. It can easily be argued that this is the exact spot on the planet where east meets west, culturally speaking.
Yu Gardens is a special place. This was once Shanghai’s center, and was composed of the Buddhist Temple, the execution grounds, a stage for plays and operas, and thousands of small booths selling merchandise and food. You’ll get a taste of that today in Yu Gardens, though it has been heavily renovated and features a revolving cast of English-speaking salesmen. For the real deal, stroll past the hype into the dinky side streets and you’ll find old Shanghai still exists, and, incidentally, some of the best hole-in-the-wall restaurants lie down these back alleys.