advertisement

French Concession

Start: Xintiandi, Luwan District (Metro: Huangpi Rd. ★).

Finish: Hengshan Lu, Xuhui District (Metro: Hengshan Rd.).

Time: 4 to 6 hours.

Best Times: Weekday mornings and midafternoons.

Worst Times: On weekends (especially Sun) and evenings, many of these streets are quite crowded with local shoppers and visitors. Lunchtime (11:30am-2pm) also brings out big crowds.

Shanghai's French Concession, consisting of a corridor running from the lower Bund between today's Yan'an Lu and the Chinese Old Town west along Huaihai Lu, contains many of the city's most picturesque colonial mansions, parks, hotels, and town houses. The French arrived in 1846 and leased land just south of the British Concession's holdings. They established a series of fine residential neighborhoods west across today's Luwan District, branching off Huaihai Lu, the main avenue known in colonial times as Avenue Joffre. The concession's northern border, today's Yan'an Lu, was originally a creek named Yangjingbang, which was filled to become the street then known as Avenue Edouard VII. The streets in the long, sprawling settlement were lined with plane trees; the buildings, with their mansard roofs and shutters, resembled those of French towns of the time; and these neighborhoods, most now dating from the first 3 decades of the 1900s, remain much intact, although the modern construction boom has laid waste to considerable clusters of the French legacy.

Still, especially in recent years, a concerted effort has been made to preserve and spruce up many charming blocks of the original French residences, open historic houses, and convert some of the surviving mansions and estates to fine restaurants and retail shops -- all making for a delightful, if spread out, stroll through colonial Shanghai. Refusing to join the International Settlement formed in 1863 by the British and Americans, the French had their own electric power, bus system, and legal system within their 10-sq.-km (4-sq.-mile) quarter. It was a neighborhood that attracted not only the French, but international adventurers, Chinese gangsters, White Russian refugees, Communist revolutionaries, and pimps and prostitutes as well. By the 1930s, the French were vastly outnumbered here, but their sense of style has endured.

From exit no. 1 of the Huangpi Rd. (S) Metro station, head west, past the Shui On Center (no. 333). Turn left (south) at Madang Lu for 2 short blocks to:

1. Xintiandi (New Heaven and Earth)

Beginning at Taicang Lu, this 2-square-block pedestrian mall of cafes and boutiques is one of the hottest venues in Shanghai, with its restored late-colonial architecture known as shikumen (row houses with courtyards and stone frame gates), though it must be said that many of the buildings are new constructions done in the traditional style. It's all quite faux but very upscale and worth a stroll. In the evenings, you'll often see Chinese tour groups traipsing through. The Site of the First National Congress of the Communist Party (Huangpi Nan Lu 374) anchors its southeast corner in an original shikumen building.

Head west on Xingye Lu, crossing the massive Chengdu Bei Lu/Chongqing Nan Lu elevated overpass. Descend, and proceed west on Nanchang Lu as it snakes around. At the next intersection, take a left (south) down Yandang Lu to the entrance to:

2. Fuxing Park

Since the French established it as their park in 1909, it has been known locally as French Park, and it is still one of Shanghai's loveliest urban green spots, famous for its rose gardens. Looking diagonally southeast from the southeastern entrance to the park, you can spy the former residence (southeastern corner of Fuxing Zhong Lu and Chongqing Nan Lu) of American journalist Agnes Smedley. At the statues of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engel (a favorite point for Shanghai's ballroom dancers to practice), bear west past the club Muse at Park 97, and exit the park on Gaolan Lu (the former Rue Corneille).

Cross Sinan Lu and continue 1 more block on Gaolan Lu to a decidedly strange sight, the:

3. Former St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church (Gaolan Lu 16)

Built in 1933, the high-domed church is testimony to the bygone presence of White Russians in the French quarter. After 1949, it served for a time as a warehouse for washing machines. In recent years, several restaurants have tried to make a go of it here, but none with much long-term success. The church's icons, stained glass, and religious murals inside are lovely, but of late, the place has fallen into some disrepair.

After a gawk, retrace your steps east along this pretty lane, back to the tree-lined Sinan Lu (the old Rue Masenet), and take it 1 block south to Xiangshan Lu (Rue de Moliere), passing along the way the lovely cafe cum antique shop Antique Garden Shanghai. Step in for a cup of tea if you need refreshment, or browse the interesting curios here, a number of them collected from the former mansions around the area. Across Sinan Lu at the Xiangshan Lu intersection, you'll find:

4. Sun Yat-sen's Former Residence (Sun Zhongshan Guju, Xiangshan Lu 7)

The founder of the Chinese Republic, Sun lived here with his famous wife, Soong Ching-ling, from 1918 to 1924, the year before his death. You can tour the house from 9am to 4:30pm. This is a typical small mansion of the French concession.

Continue south down Sinan Lu, crossing busy Fuxing Lu. On your left will be the Sinan Mansion compound (no. 53) consisting of 51 villas largely built in the 1920s and 1930s, which were recently restored to become a high-end residential and commercial area home to boutique hotels, luxury stores, and restaurants. Also on the same side of the street is:

5. Zhou Enlai's Former Residence (Zhou Gong Guan, Sinan Lu 73)

Zhou eventually became second in power to Chairman Mao, but as head of the Shanghai branch of the Communist Party in the 1940s, he lived modestly in this French Concession house in 1946, whenever he was in town on Party business.

Return to Fuxing Zhong Lu (1 block north) and take it west to Ruijin Er Lu (the former Rte. Pere Robert), the next major street. Turn left (south) for a block or so to the:

6. Ruijin Hotel (Ruijin Binguan, Ruijin Er Lu 118)

This beautiful estate on the west side of the street, now the grounds for a hotel and restaurant complex, was the Morriss Estate in colonial times. The owner of the villas that still stand in these spacious gardens built his fortune by running the North China Daily News, then the main English-language newspaper in Shanghai; he also bred greyhounds that he would race at the 50,000-seat Canidrome just to the west (today's Cultural Square). The last Morriss descendent to live here died in the gatekeeper's house a few years after the Communists took over in 1949. The wide green lawns and ornate villas with stained-glass windows are exquisite relics of the privileged life led by wealthy foreigners in old Shanghai.

Exit the estate by the west gate onto:

7. Maoming Nan Lu

Known in colonial days as Route Cardinal Mercier, today's Maoming Lu is a pretty and quaint, tree-lined street home to cafes, bars, and a slew of fashion shops.

8. Take a Break

At this point, if you need a refresher, you can head south (left) on Maoming Lu to Blue Frog (Maoming Nan Lu 207-6), a cafe-pub-restaurant that serves smoothies, stiffer libations, and American comfort food. If you prefer an old Chinese-Shanghai setting, head north on Maoming Nan Lu to the 1931 Bar and Restaurant (Maoming Nan Lu 112). Qipao-clad waitresses will serve you teas, coffees, juices, wines, and classic Shanghai dishes and snacks while Nat King Cole croons in Portuguese in the background. It's all very dreamy and nostalgic.

Head north up Maoming Lu all the way to Huaihai Zhong Lu, formerly Avenue Joffre, the main street of the old French Concession and stocked then with the latest fashions from Paris. Cross Huaihai Lu. In front on the left is the:

9. Okura Garden Hotel (Huayuan Fandian, Maoming Nan Lu 58)

The towering Okura Garden Hotel, a Japanese-managed five-star property, opened in 1989 on the site of the 1926 Cercle Sportif Française, once the most luxurious private club in the French quarter, with its grand ballroom, swimming pool, lounges, and wicker sofas. For a look at its original Art Deco interiors now brilliantly restored, take a right inside the hotel lobby past the business center to the east wing. This was the original entrance to the Cercle Sportif's ballroom, complete with marble stairways and colonnades topped by nude female figures. The Grand Ballroom still bears its beautiful stained-glass ceiling lights. This club served as Mao Zedong's private quarters whenever he visited Shanghai, which perhaps explains the eight-room underground concrete bunker that connects to the Jin Jiang Hotel across the street (the entrance near the fountain is usually locked, though).

Outside, cross Maoming Lu to the landmark:

10. Jin Jiang Hotel (Jin Jiang Fandian, Maoming Nan Lu 59)

The massive old hotel complex with its Art Deco buildings is most famous for being the site where Richard Nixon and Zhou Enlai signed the Shanghai Communique in 1972, which opened China to the West for the first time since World War II. Originally built as exclusive apartments, the buildings became part of the Jin Jiang Hotel in 1951. Since then, the various structures have been modernized, gaining in luxury but losing in character. No longer as lively as it was several years ago, the Jin Jiang Shopping Lane (just inside the gate, parallel to Maoming Lu) still has several restaurants and shops worth a browse, including the hip Shanghai Tang clothing and crafts store from Hong Kong.

Reemerging on Maoming Lu and walking north (right) to the corner, you can see across Changle Lu (formerly Rue Bourgeat) the old:

11. Lyceum Theatre

The theater was built in 1931 by the British Consul for the Amateur Dramatic Society. Margot Fonteyn danced here as a girl. Today, it serves as a theater primarily for large pop concerts. You can check out its restored lobby inside.

Head west on Changle Lu for 2 blocks (passing a row of shops that sell and tailor traditional qipao dresses), then turn left (south) on Xiangyang Bei Lu (the former Rue L. Lorton). At the next intersection with Xinle Lu, you'll find in the southwest corner:

12. Former Russian Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Mother of God (Xinle Lu 55)

Built in 1931, this building with the gorgeous peacock-blue domes was then the most active church among Russians. At one point, the church housed a stock exchange with an electronic trading board. It is currently partially occupied by a restaurant, the Grape, popular with expatriates for its inexpensive and tasty Shanghai fare.

Continue south on Xiangyang Lu, passing on the east side of the street Xiangyang Gongyuan, formerly a private garden in French Concession days famous for its cherry trees. Cross Huaihai Zhong Lu to the south. Head west on Huaihai Lu, then left (southwest) down the slanting street of Fenyang Lu (the old Rte. Pichon). About halfway down the block on the right (west), you'll pass the:

13. Shanghai Conservatory of Music (Shanghai Yinyue Xueyuan, Fenyang Lu 20)

Established in 1927, the Shanghai Music Conservatory moved to the current premises in the 1950s. The three remaining colonial-era villas on today's campus, one of which was the former Belgian Consulate, date to the 1920s.

Continue south on Fenyang Lu past Fuxing Lu (or Rte. Lafayette, as it was once known) until you come to the intersection with Taiyuan Lu, where you'll find (on the eastern side of Fenyang Lu) hidden behind a tall wall the:

14. Shanghai Museum of Arts and Crafts (Shanghai Gongyi Meishu Bowuguan, Fenyang Lu 79)

This marvelous 1905 French Renaissance-style marble-and-stone mansion (open 8:30am-4:30pm) served as the private estate of the director of the French Municipal Council, a French general, and finally the first mayor of Communist Shanghai, Chen Yi, before housing the open workshops of some of China's most skilled artisans. This survivor of colonial Shanghai packs a triple punch: as a place to watch traditional arts and crafts being fashioned, as a museum of those works, and as an architectural masterpiece, resplendent with its unaltered interiors, sculptures, and marble fountains in its garden.

At this point, you can take a quick detour south on Taiyuan Lu past Yongjia Lu to the:

15. Taiyuan Villa (Taiyuan Bieshu, Taiyuan Lu 160)

This lovely 1920s colonial mansion hosted American Gen. George Marshall in 1946 when he was attempting to mediate a truce between Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong.

Head back (north) up Taiyuan Lu, take a left (southwest) on Fenyang Lu until it ends at a four-way intersection of Fenyang Lu, Taojiang Lu, Dongping Lu, and south-running Yueyang Lu. The Puxijin Monument located on the tiny island in the middle was dedicated to Russian poet Alexander Pushkin on his 200th birthday. From here, you can head west for your ultimate destination:

16. Hengshan Lu

Formerly Avenue Petain, a big, tree-lined avenue with orange-tile sidewalks, wrought-iron railings, and ivy-covered mansions, this is one of Shanghai's trendier streets. End your walk here with a bit of shopping; or have a look at the ivy-covered International Community Church (Guoji Libai Tang; Hengshan Lu 53) established in 1925 and the former Shanghai American School (built in 1923) across the street. Or do a spot of people-watching at any of the cafes dotting the side streets. To get to Hengshan Lu, head west on Dongping Lu with its row of quaint restaurants and shops. Don't miss the English-style villa with yellow walls at Dongping Lu 9 where Chiang Kai-shek stayed with his wife Soong Mei-ling. Next door (west) at House no. 11 is another 1920s Soong family mansion (currently occupied by Sasha's restaurant).

17. Winding Down

After this long jaunt through the old French quarter, there's no better reward than to enjoy some good food in one of the many splendid colonial mansions around Hengshan Lu. If you fancy Continental dishes presented in a 1920s Soong family mansion, try Sasha's (Dongping Lu 9, House no. 11 at Hengshan Lu). More Continental and Asian fare is served next door in the serene Lapis Lazuli (which also has lunch specials). For Irish ale, live Irish music, and Irish stew, served in an old courtyard house, try O'Malley's (Taojiang Lu 42, west 1 block off Hengshan Lu). If just taking a load off in a charming cottage adorned with antiques and bric-a-brac sounds like your cup of tea (or vodka-laced coffee), check out the Cottage (Taojiang Lu 25a at Hengshan Lu), as undemanding a spot as any to wind down.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.