Time seems to move a little slower in the former French Concession. While the twisting alleyways of Shanghai’s older neighborhoods have a chaotic charm and the skyscrapers of Pudong present a spotless vision of modernity, the breezy, tree-shaded avenues of what was once the French Concession inspire lingering strolls in search of preserved mansions, one-of-a-kind shops, and, most importantly, delicious food.
A preserved french concession building
“I’ve lived in the same old-school compound for around eight years now, and I still love it,” says Jake Newby, a longtime Shanghai expat and the former editor of Time Out Shanghai. “For quality of life and character, it’s easily one of the best areas in the city.”
Kate Wood Originals
Get oriented over an espresso and tonic water at And Coffee (315 Wulumuqi Zhong Lu; 乌鲁木齐中路315号), with a big picture window looking out on bustling Wulumuqi Zhong Lu (Urumqi Middle Street). Back out on the street, look for vendors selling everything from Shanghai-style pork buns (sheng jian bao, or 生煎包: steamed, with a pan-fried, crispy bottom) to jianbing (煎饼: a crepe-like breakfast wrap).
Any exploration is best done while properly shod, and Culture Matters (206 Wulumuqi Zhong Lu; 乌鲁木齐中路206号) stocks local retro sneaker brand Feiyue, favorites of everyone from martial artists to Chinese indie musicians. Then step into Kate Wood Originals (336–338 Wulumuqi Zhong Lu; 乌鲁木齐中路336–338号) for sunglasses with handmade bamboo frames—not to mention custom wood-frame bicycles.
Zhang Leping studio
A wander north to Wuyuan Lu leads to the former home of Zhang Leping (288 Wuyuan Lu; 五原路288号), the illustrator who created the beloved children’s cartoon Sanmao (“three hair”). The two-story mansion, now a free museum, houses Zhang’s preserved studio and artifacts from his long career. Or head south to Huaihai Zhong Lu to the onetime residence of Soong Ching-ling (1843 Huaihai Zhong Lu; 淮海中路1843号), who was married to Sun Yat-sen, known as the founder of modern China. The home, originally built in the 1920s for a wealthy foreigner and surrounded by lush gardens, offers a glimpse inside the architecture of Shanghai’s Paris of the East era. It’s worth noting, though, that the stately buildings belie a less-than-pleasant past: The former French Concession was one of several regions of the city held by foreign powers during the century after the Opium Wars.
Circle back to Wulumuqi Zhong Lu for lunch at Slurp! (247 Wulumuqi Zhong Lu; 乌鲁木齐中路247号), a bright little restaurant specializing in street food from the Yunnan province, like rice-noodle soup topped with creamy fresh tofu served in a copper pot. For a midafternoon recharge, book a traditional Chinese treatment at Yu Massage (366 Wuyuan Lu; 五原路366号).
Post-massage, take in the art at Bank, located one bendy block north of Yu at 298 Anfu Lu (安福路298号). “Tucked away in a basement behind all the cafés and ceramics shops, it’s well worth checking out for challenging contemporary art,” says Newby. Through early September, Bank has an exhibition of more than 20 artists exploring the theme “Now Is the Summer of Our (Dis)content . . . ” in works ranging from installations to sun-soaked paintings. For another side of Chinese contemporary culture, this time the music scene, head to Uptown Records ’n’ Beer (131 Yongfu Lu; 永福路131号), a pocket-size gathering place for local artists and musicians that sells vinyl from Chinese indie bands and a well-curated international selection, with rare Japanese pressings.
Uptown Records ’n’ Beer
Just around the corner, Boxing Cat Brewery (82 Fuxing Xi Lu; 复兴西路82号) makes its own beers, from the signature Standing 8 Pilsner to collaborations like the Sumeria Mokha Ale, made with local roaster Sumerian Coffee. Or settle in on the leafy rooftop terrace of neighboring Daga Brewpub (100 Fuxing Xi Lu; 复兴西路100号), with pours from China’s expanding class of craft brewers, notably the Baby IPA from Nanjing’s Master Gao, spiced with a hint of jasmine tea.
Boxing Cat Brewery
Head once more to Wulumuqi Zhong Lu for mala peanut tiger shrimp poke at Little Catch (247-6 Wulumuqi Zhong Lu; 乌鲁木齐中路247-6号), an airy spot run by sisters Wenyi and Jiayi Huang that doubles as a fish market. Nearby, you’ll also find all stripes of regional Chinese cuisine, including savory lamb hot pot at Lao Beijing Shuan Guo (346 Wulumuqi Lu; 乌鲁木齐路346号).
The nearby Shanghai Symphony Orchestra Hall, designed by Japanese architect Arata Isozaki, is home to Asia’s oldest orchestra, with history going back to 1879. “If something good is playing, it’s just very chill,” says Little Catch’s Wenyi.
“The newly opened All Club (17 Xiangyang Bei Lu, second floor; 襄阳北路17号2楼), from some of the people behind legendary underground club The Shelter, has quickly become a magnet for anyone looking for an interesting night out in contrast to some of Shanghai’s glitzier, EDM-focused nightlife spots,” adds Newby, offering one way to end a night in the neighborhood. Or opt for a quieter cocktail at whiskey-centric Senator Saloon (98 Wuyuan Lu; 五原路98号), with a well-earned Sazerac to toast a full day.