Amble through the winding streets of Shanghai‘s Old Town and you’ll find an ancient way of life flourishing in the shadow of glittering skyscrapers.
Built in the 11th century, this enclave has a tradition of resisting change. In the mid 16th century the Ming emperors constructed a stone wall around the city (still visible) to keep out marauding pirates; and when the Europeans arrived in the early 19th century to build their concessions, the old city of Shanghai held fast.
The result is a unique pocket of true Shanghainese culture. Residents shop, eat, bathe and socialise just as they have done for generations, in shared open spaces. A local dialect, “Shanghainese” (or “Shanghai-hua”) – which only survives in spoken form – is used instead of Mandarin. Alongside the crumbling temples, antique markets and street-side vendors, you’ll encounter women hand-washing sheets in stone laundries and men gutting fish, or maybe visiting an open-air barber. The contrast between these teeming streets and the shiny towers above is incredibly poignant.
Located south of the Bund, Shanghai’s iconic waterfront, Shanghai’s Old Town is just a few blocks in size, making it ideal to explore by foot. A good place to start is Laoximen Metro station. From here head north until you reach Shouning Lu, home to the best street food snacks and crayfish restaurants in the city. While the restaurants look basic, our advice is to roll your sleeves up and dive in.
Around the corner is the City of God Temple, hidden behind a myriad of bustling street stalls selling tourist tat. Originally known as the Jinshan Temple, it was dedicated to the spirit of Jinshan, or “Gold Mountain”, an island off the coast of Shanghai. In 1403, it was converted into the City of God Temple during the “Yongle” (or “Perpetual Happiness”) era. The temple was closed during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and finally reopened in 1994 when it became home to Taoist priests.
For a one-off dynastic architecture, head north to Yuyuan Garden. Once the private oasis of a 16th century government minister, Yuyuan Garden was a bastion of tranquillity decked with pavilions, rockeries and bonsai trees. A turbulent history followed and its Zen days are now far behind it. Today it’s a tourist attraction thronging with dumpling stalls, fake designer handbag sellers and teahouses. Nonetheless, no trip to the old city of Shanghai is complete without a visit. Seeing this intersection between new metropolis and ancient streets where modernity meets antiquity makes you hope the Old Town can hang on in there just a little longer.
Have you visited the old city of Shanghai? Let us know in the comments section below.
Written by Charlotte Middlehurst