Strolling through Shanghai’s French Concession is akin to stepping back in time. A far cry from the fast pace and ultramodern look of most of Shanghai, the sleepy tree-lined streets of this old neighborhood—one of Shanghai’s last remaining colonial districts—are filled with villas and mansions dating back to the 1920s and 30s now housing chic boutiques, galleries and cozy, intimate cafes.
The territory that was once the French Concession was given to the French government in spring of 1849, but the neighborhood didn’t reach its peak until the 1920s when it became Shanghai’s most elite residential neighborhood. Spend some time exploring the Sylvan streets, and you’ll see one of the world’s largest remaining collections of art deco residential buildings, including the historic Cathay Theater.
Many of the French Concession mansions, some former residences of famous denizens, have been converted into free or inexpensive museums offering a brief history lesson on the neighborhood and the city as a whole. The former residence of Sun Yat-sen details the life of this great Chinese revolutionary, while the former home of communist party official Zhou Enlai gives a history of the Cultural Revolution and its effects on Shanghai, though from a decidedly communist perspective.
While it’s easy to find suggested paths through the French Concession, part of the joy of this area is letting yourself get lost. Break off the main roads to explore the area nestled between Fuxing Road and Huaihai Road, where you’ll find dozens of tiny boutiques and restaurants. For a night out on the town, try out some of the bars popping up along Fuxing Xi, Julu, Fumin and Yongfu Roads.