Old Town of Shanghai is located where the pre-Shanghai fishing community lived and it is one of the last places where you can peek into the traditional life in Shanghai. As Huángpu River got wider and deeper it became also an important waterway for trade and the area started developing. Shanghai gained township status in 1267. During Ming Dynasty (1554) the area got a high wall with a moat around it to protect it from the attacks of the Japanese pirates. The circular wall was 10 meters high and 5 kilometers long. These days only a short part of the wall remains.
During the concession era after the Opium War 1842 this part of the treaty port remained under Chinese administration. The locals lived tightly packed in sort of a ghetto and all forms of shady business found it’s way to these mysterious quarters, backstreets and alleys. Brothels, drugs, guns, gangsters, smuggled goods, dark deals. Conspiracies, detection, espionage. Real Shanghai Noir, Chicago of the East, but very real.
The Yu Yuan Bazaar is a fun way to start exploring the Old City and try to imagine what life may have looked like back in the day. The buildings are replicas of Ming era buildings, but they are pretty. This is still a real bazaar, with street food, handicrafts, tea houses on upper floors. We think this is one of the best places to shop for souvenirs.
Decorative items, tea pots and tea, chop sticks, traditional clothing, little bags’n pouches, calligraphy sets, art, fans, slippers, little figurines and magnets.
Street foods, this is the place to come to explore different sorts. You may be delighted at one moment, slightly disgusted the second and that is part of the fun!
This maze of buildings, lanes and alleys is totally hilarious. You will find yourself returning to same spots time and time again if you don’t go and find the tourist information that provides maps. We didn’t and had a blast: whaaaat, we are here again!
Look at the buildings to learn a little of the old style building trends. You’ll see balconies decorated with lovely Chinese ornaments and roofs with a sweeping curvature that rises at the corners of the roof. Upturned flying eaves, another way to describe these roofs.
For a relaxing moment go find a tea house on the second floors of the shops. Drink tea or beer, but try to get a table by the balcony. What a fantastic thing!
The Yù Yuán Gardens in the middle of the bazaar area are definitely a place to go to if you want to find something ancient (although fixed after wars and other events). A son once decided to build a detailed, fantastic garden for his father to enjoy during his old years. Unfortunately the perfectionist son used all the money and at the end they had to sell it all.
Fortunately the garden was preserved and you can actually get your zen at the cool pathways, walk through the doorways so many have walked through before you.
Admire the greenery, the carp ponds. The shady alcoves and nooks. Don’t rush trough, sit down and calm down. Even if you have fellow visitors rushing around. Study the buildings, the structures, the items on the roof tops. The guy who designed these things wanted to bring the most delightful experiences for all who visit the garden. An interesting fact of the garden is that during the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864) a branch of the Triads, the Small Swords Society (named after the daggers they used in close combat), took over Shanghai for 17 months and set up their headquarters here.
For an experience of local faith visit Chenghuang Miao, Temple of the Town God or the City Temple of Shanghai it is known by these days. This temple dates back to 15th century, but it has been reconstructed time and time again.
This Taoist temple is dedicated to gods protecting the city residents from harm. The temple is a place of worship, so respect the worshippers as you wander around.
From Yùyuán you can continue to the interesting streets and alleys of The Old Town. Here the old men sit outside napping, laundry is being lifted up to the air to dry, women clean vegetables, song birds sing in their cages.
In the distance you can see the high rise skyscrapers, but here the time seems to stand still.