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Shanghai: Walking Tour 4

French Concession

Start: Xintiandi, Luwan District (Metro: Huangpi Nan Lu).

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

Time: 4 to 6 hours.

Best Times: Weekday mornings and mid-afternoons.

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 Concession 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 Nan Lu Metro head west, past the Shui On Center (no. 333). Turn left (south) at Madang Lu for 2 short blocks to:

1. Xin Tiandi (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 shiku men (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 shiku men building.

Retrace your steps north to Huaihai Zhong Lu, formerly Avenue Joffre, the main street of the old French Concession and stocked then with the latest fashions from Paris. Head west, crossing the massive Chengdu Bei Lu/Chongqing Nan Lu elevated overpass. Descend, and take the first major left, south on:

2. Yandang Lu

This is yet another cobblestone pedestrian food street lined with small cafes, bars, and shops in colonial-style buildings. If you need a pick-me-up, Da Marco Restaurant halfway down serves a bracing cup of cappuccino.

Continue down Yandang Lu 2 blocks to the entrance to:

3. Fuxing Park (on Nanchang Lu)

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 for the upscale Park 97 restaurant complex, and exit there on Gaolan Lu (the former Rue Corneille). Cross Sinan Lu and continue 1 more block on Gaolan Lu to a decidedly strange sight, the:

4. 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, the picture of Chairman Mao on the exterior facade less so.

After a gawk, retrace your steps east along this pretty lane, back to Sinan Lu (the old Rue Masenet), and take it 1 block south to Xiangshan Lu (Rue de Moliere), where you can enter:

5. 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 era.

Continue south down Sinan Lu past the busy Fuxing Lu to:

6. 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:

7. 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 which 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 wealthy foreigners led in old Shanghai. The grand villa on the northwest edge of the property now houses a bar (Face) and two superb restaurants (one Thai, one Indian).

Take a Break

No place better to relax, have a drink, or eat a fine Asian meal than at Face on the Ruijin Hotel estate (Ruijin Er Lu 118, Building 4). In the back is an Indian restaurant, Hazara; and upstairs, a superb Thai restaurant, Lan Na Thai. The setting is a 1930s colonial mansion with a large manicured lawn fit for a croquet match. If you prefer an old Chinese-Shanghai setting, wait until you get to Maoming Nan Lu for 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.

Exit the estate by the west gate onto:

9. 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. (At night, the southern part of the street, flanked by some of Shanghai's hottest and loudest bars and clubs, becomes impossibly rowdy and quite seedy.)

Taking a right (north) up Maoming you'll cross Fuxing Zhong Lu, Nanchang Lu, passing the 1931 Bar and Restaurant along the way"), and finally Huaihai Zhong Lu, ultimately coming to another landmark, the:

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

The massive old hotel complex with its Art Deco buildings on the right (east) side of the street 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.

Re-emerging on Maoming Lu and walking north to the corner, you can see the old Lyceum Theatre, built in 1931 by the British Consul for the Amateur Dramatic Society, across Changle Lu (formerly Rue Bourgeat). Margot Fonteyn danced here as a girl. Today, it serves as a theater primarily for large pop concerts. You can take a peek inside its restored lobby. Cross back to the west side of Maoming Lu to the:

11. 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 Francaise, 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, head back north up Maoming Nan Lu, turn left (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 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. The Xiangyang Clothing Market, the place to shop for brand-name remainders and knock-offs, was once here, but was being demolished at press time. 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 Shanghai Conservatory of Music (Shanghai Yinyue Xueyuan). 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:

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

This marvelous 1905 French Renaissance-style marble and stone mansion (daily 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 becoming 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:

14. Taiyuan Guesthouse (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 is dedicated to Russian poet Alexander Pushkin on his 200th birthday. From here, you can head west for your ultimate destination:

15. 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 trendiest 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 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).

Winding Down

After this long jaunt through the old French quarters, there's no better reward than to enjoy some fine vittles 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 a leisurely cup of latte or tea will do, the "fragrant camphor" teahouse of Harn Sheh (Hengshan Lu 10 at Taojiang Lu) is as undemanding a spot as any to wind down.

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