Pictures of the floating world

Shanghai: 19-21 centuries

Explore the unique atmosphere of more modern side of Shanghai!

By Anna Purpurpurpur

Shanghai is a city with many faces: modern, contemporary, ancient parts of it are all tightly tangled together to create the vibrant and unique atmosphere of the busiest Chinese city.

I’ve already written about the old city district, the financial district with famous towers and the temples of Shanghai, and now it’s a turn of the more modern history of the city when the concessions (the areas governed by other countries) emerged under the rule of the Chinese Empire, the communist rule and bursting life of the modern city.

1.The Bund

The Bund is the promenade along the west side of the Huangpu River. This left bank is where all the western architectural treasures are located with the right bank growing into skyscrapers of Pudong. Once it was a place to stay and to go for the foreigners as the hotels, banks, insurance companies and clubs all sat here, and many buildings have ‘Heritage architecture’ plaques with some information about them.


Stay alert for the iconic buildings of the concession period of the city that were erected around from 1860s to 1930s including:

  • Astor House, first European hotel in China dating back to 1858,
  • Russo-Chinese Bank Building, now the Shanghai Gold Exchange, 1896,
  • HSBC Building: The Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation Limited has been presented here since 1865 and this neo-classical building dates to the 1920s, and the original bronze lions nicknamed Stephen and Stitt came here all the way from the UK!),
  • General Post Office Building with a clocktower (1924),
  • Broadway Mansions, a beautiful hotel in Art Deco style built in 1934
  • Palace Hotel and Cathay Hotel (read below)

Recently the Bull, identical to the Wall Street bull, was established here too.

2. Peace Hotel

Peace hotel now consists of two buildings. First part is the former Palace Hotel, where the Swatch Art Peace Hotel now resides.
The Sassoon House, also now known as the former Cathay Hotel (1929), is the fashionable Fairmont Peace hotel. This Art-Deco gem was owned by famous businessman of the time Victor Sassoon who lived over here in the penthouse too. You can enter inside to have a look at the ballroom and to visit the historical jazz bar with many artefacts of the time.

3. Former French Concession 

Former French Concession is not one landmark you can examine and go, it’s rather an area occupied by the French in 1849 – 1943 (progressively expanding with time and taking an infix of other foreigners, for example the White Russians after the revolution of 1917), just south of the British concession. It still retains its own architectural style of residential housing with London planetree growing along the roads that made it famous in the first place.

4. Tianzifang 

Tianzifang just near the former French Concession area is a creative territory: hundreds shops, cafes, tea houses and studios squeezed into a few narrow alleyways where they sell food and various arts and crafts are located here.

It is famous among tourists, so be prepared to find it busy! The area is usually compared to Xintiandi because of the shikumen buildings (an old style of housing emerged in the 1860s that combines western and eastern architectural elements) and the whole concept of the space organisation but I find them pretty different. 

It definitely has more vibe of the asian markets when all shops are packed tightly – and this is good for visitors because you always get the change of scenery. My favourite part of it was a shop with the cutest french buns, just look at those faces! 

5. Nanjing Road 

Nanjing Road is probably the busiest shopping street of Shanghai, always full of tourists, food smells, noises and neon lights! You might even find it called ‘Times Square of Shanghai’. The road is named after the city of Nanjing, a former capital of the early Six dynasties, of Ming dynasty, Capital of the Republic and also sadly known as a place of the hideous Nanking Massacre during WWII. It started emerging in mid-19th century, 

You can start exploring Nanjing Road from the Bund, go to the People’s Square (this part is called East Nanjing Road) and then, crossing Middle Tibet Road, to Jing’an district (West Nanjing Road). There are a few landmarks here too, including the Monument to the People’s Heroes and the statue of Chen Yi, the first Communist mayor of Shanghai in 1949 – 1958 and Foreign Minister of China in 1958 – 1972.

6. People’s square 

People’s square occupies the site of the former horse racing course but gradually developed under the main square of the city under the communists including the move of Shanghai Municipal Government and Shanghai museum into this area. During our visit the square was all festive and decorated with flowers. 

7. People’s park 

Another landmark to see here is People’s park adjacent to the People’s square, also part of a race course. I loved this green area with a large lake, elders engaging in the marriage market (people come with large pieces of paper where they ‘promote’ their grown kinds to others hoping to find a match) and the ever changing landscape – and the Shanghai History museum is located here too!

8. Shanghai History Museum

Shanghai History Museum, or Shanghai Revolution History Museum, is a must visit to everyone who would like to dive into the contemporary history of the city. It was established in 1983 (albeit changed locations a few times, and moved to the current building of the former Shanghai Race club just in 2018)

Shanghai History Museum gives an overview of the origins of Shanghai with the exhibits as old as 6 thousand years and focuses on the events that happened in the last two centuries, since the opening of Shanghai port such as the Opium wars and the communist revolution (be ready to encounter heavily politically engaged materials). You will be able to explore all kinds of objects, from the cannons, embroidery, pieces of furniture, to scrolls and political posters.  And make sure you go to the roof too – the views are really nice there!

If you love museums, go to the Shanghai Museum too! Unfortunately, we couldn’t get there as there were queues for many hours due to the Golden week holidays. 

9. Pudong

Pudong is the very heart of the financial life of Shanghai. But it’s not only all-offices boring space: it’s a very fashionable and cool place to hang-out or even to stay in a hotel or to shop! Finally, some of the best observational points where you can see the fabulous views of Shanghai! Read more in the separate blog about Pudong!

10. Xintiandi

Usually when one talks about modern Shanghai, the narrative goes straight into the Pudong area, and Xintiandi district is hugely overlooked. However, this area really impressed me, essentially considering that it was my first impression of Shanghai as we stayed there!

Xintiandi is a very lively and busy area in Huangpu District famous for its architecture: you can still see the shikumen historical housing there! In other parts of the city shikumen buildings were mostly destroyed.  At the same time, modern shops, cafes and hotels are built into the same space, which altogether creates a unique vibrant atmosphere. I really enjoyed the food we tried there and exploring the Hubindao Shopping Mall.

Where to stay in Shaghai? 

We chose The Langham, Xintiandi, as the hotel to stay in Shanghai. It’s a chic and beautiful place close to many restaurant and cafes, our room looked at the old shikumen buildings, and the breakfast had a really vast selection of dishes (dim sum for breakfast? Yay from me!). Probably the cutest feature of the hotel was a pink London cab parked outside! And I must say, I have a soft spot for the Langhams as they smell of my favourite Hermes perfume, and their breakfasts and spa are always just spectacular.

Read more about the mainland China:

Old city of Shanghai
Temples of Shanghai
Pudong, Shanghai
Forbidden city, Beijing
Great Wall of China

I hope you enjoyed my blog!
Yours, Anna

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