The Old City of Shanghai

By: Charlotte Middlehurst

September 15, 2014

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.
Old Town Shanghai architecture
The old vs. the new: a familiar contrast of the modern skyscrapers and the traditional buildings of the Old Town Nils & Araceli Jonsson/Flickr

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.

Monks shopping on Antique Street in Old Town | The Old City of Shanghai
Monks shopping on Antique street in the Old Town Brian Jeffery Beggerly/Flickr

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.

City God Temple | The Old City of Shangahai
The opulent interior of the City of God Temple Cory Doctorow/Flickr

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.

Yuyuan Gardens at night | Old City of Shanghai
Yuyuan Garden is a spectacular sight when lit up at night Silas Yeung/iStock/Thinkstock

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.

Yuyuan Gardens by day | Old City of Shanghai
It’s worth enduring the crowds to go to Yuyan Garden whilst visiting the Old Town Eduardo M/Flickr

Virgin Atlantic operates daily direct flights to ShanghaiBook your flight today.

Have you visited the old city of Shanghai? Let us know in the comments section below.

Written by Charlotte Middlehurst


Charlotte Middlehurst

Charlotte Middlehurst is a Shanghai-based journalist writing about culture, society, travel and business in the PRC. Since moving to China four years ago, she has written about everything from bird fighting tournaments, to Manga artists, to foreign investment opportunities. Charlotte is currently Sector Editor at Time Out Shanghai and Beijing and a proud Virgin Atlantic blog contributor. Her work has appeared in the Financial Times, New Statesman, Dazed and Confused, Monocle and the South China Morning Post. You can follow Charlotte on Twitter @charmiddle

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