April 24, 2015
For travellers to Shanghai who’ve come prepared for bustle, soaring skyscrapers and ultra-modern living, the French Concession might seem a little unexpected. Here, you’re more likely to encounter picturesque, tree-shaded streets than frenetic, neon-lit cityscapes. From historic sites to pretty public parks, from the art galleries that give the neighbourhood its creative character to the trendy warrens of bars that tempt the city’s younger set, here are some of the best things to do in Shanghai’s wonderfully evocative French Concession.
During the Opium Wars, this part of Shanghai was allocated to the French – hence the name. Though the French haven’t been around since the 1940s, their influence is still visible in the elegant streets and European-style architecture of the district. A key example is the historic Sun Yat-sen House, an ornate, two-storey mansion that was once home to the national hero and founder of the Republic of China. Alongside the well-preserved structure is a neighbouring museum, which provides more details about his fascinating life.
Looking for a bit of quiet contemplation after fighting through Shanghai’s crowded streets? Within the French Concession is a virtual oasis: lovely Fuxing Park, one of the largest green public spaces in the city. Also a product of the area’s French past, the park’s fountains and orderly flowerbeds make it popular among visitors and residents – you can still see locals dancing, doing tai-chi, playing mah-jong, and otherwise profiting from the verdant surroundings.
From the outside, the Cathay Theatre is a surprising neighbourhood landmark – its distinctive Art Deco design makes it a standout, even amidst the aesthetic variety of the French Concession. A wander by should suffice for those on a tight schedule, but if you’re in for a bit of a cultural adventure – and have an afternoon to kill – you can even stop in to catch a Chinese-language film, as the theatre is still active.
If you’d rather just let whim guide your discovery, rest assured that the French Concession is resolutely flâneur-friendly. One of the best backdrops for your wanderings is the busy Hengshan Road, which is one of the area’s principle arteries. Here you’re liable to find historic mansions, thriving bars, fragrantly wafting street food, and all manner of fellow amblers – all of which serve as a good introduction to the French Concession’s character.
One of the most enduring highlights of the French Concession is the upmarket Xintiandi. A pedestrian-only network of streets, Xintiandi is popular during the day as a shopping hub – it’d be wise to come prepared with a credit card or two. But the area is especially alluring after nightfall, when crowds of younger residents flood in, and chatter from the many cosy bars and restaurants resonates out in the narrow streets.
Less built up than Xintiandi – but no less worthy of a wander – is the labyrinthine Tianzifang, a collection of narrow, historic streets that house coffee shops, galleries, bars, restaurants, and other diversions. Beyond the ground-floor attractions, be sure to direct your attention to the buildings as well: the area is famous for its East-meets-West Shikumen architectural style, and down its narrow walkways many photographic opportunities lie in wait.
The appeal of the Shanghai Arts and Crafts Museum is manifold: for one, the museum occupies a rather lovely, turn-of-the-century building that comes complete with an attractive garden. For another, alongside the exhibits of carved jade, lanterns, ivory, and other traditional crafts, visitors are often treated to live sessions during which artists demonstrate their ancient practices.
A trip to Shanghai without a taste of the city’s signature xiaolongbao? Unthinkable. Known in the West as “˜soup dumplings’ for their wonderfully brothy, meaty interiors, traditional xiaolongbao can be found all over the city. And yet, locals know to head to Fu Chun in the French Concession, where the atmosphere and service are adequate but the dumplings sublime. Alternatively, Michelin-starred dumpling chain Din Tai Fung also has a French Concession location, for those after a more gleaming ambiance.
Out-of-towners are often surprised to discover that Shanghai has quite the reputation for jazz. In fact, the city has been considered something of an international jazz hub since the 1920s, and these days, that musical legacy is still being celebrated. Of all the jazz clubs in the city, it’s the JZ Club in the French Concession that arguably attracts the most recognition. Settle in for a low-lit evening of Shanghainese-style performances, and remember to arrive early enough to claim a good seat.
Craft beer”¦in Shanghai? Those looking for a sudsy reprieve should make their way to Boxing Cat Brewery, which opened here in 2008, making it one of the city’s first microbreweries. It’s only fitting that the bar has settled into the lively French Concession, which is usually on the cutting-edge of the city’s food and drink trends. Though the Boxing Cat is certainly popular amongst the city’s thriving expat scene, locals also come for house-brewed pours ranging from pilsners and stouts to pumpkin ales (when the season strikes).
Virgin Atlantic operates direct flights to Shanghai, so start planning your French Concession adventure.
What are you most interested in exploring in the French Concession? Can you recommend any of your own neighbourhood highlights? Let us know in the comments below.
Written by Claire Bullen