Shanghai Old Town Walking Tour, Shanghai

Shanghai Old Town Walking Tour (Self Guided), Shanghai

The Old Town of Shanghai, historically the heart of the city, is a part of Shanghai's urban core. Shanghai's importance as a trade hub led to its elevation to county status in 1292. In 1554, during the Ming Dynasty, the area was surrounded by protective walls to safeguard against Japanese pirate raids and remained so until 1912, when the walls were dismantled.

During the colonial era, with the advent of foreign concessions that developed to the north and west in Shanghai, the Old Town remained under Chinese control. It served as a densely populated district for Chinese migrants and became known as the "Chinese City."

Today, the Old Town retains some historical features. One of its must-visit places is the Shanghai Town God's Temple, which dates back to the 15th century. It's a Taoist temple where locals used to worship the town's protective deities. Visitors can explore the intricate architecture and soak in the spiritual atmosphere.

For those interested in antiques and unique souvenirs, the Antiques Market of Shanghai Old Town is a treasure trove. It's a bustling marketplace where you can find ancient Chinese artifacts, traditional handicrafts, and one-of-a-kind collectibles.

Yuyuan Bazaar is another vibrant spot in the area, known for its lively atmosphere and street food stalls. Here, you can savor delicious local snacks and shop for traditional Chinese goods.

Adjacent to the bazaar is the Yuyuan Garden, a classical Chinese garden that dates back to the Ming Dynasty. Its exquisite design includes pavilions, bridges, and beautiful flora, making it a serene escape from the city's hustle and bustle.

Shanghai Old Town is also home to the Shanghai Confucian Temple, which pays homage to the revered Chinese philosopher Confucius. This temple is a place of contemplation and a glimpse into Confucian traditions.

On this self-guided walk, you will have a chance to explore the Old Town's transformation, from its Ming Dynasty roots to its role in early 20th-century Shanghai, all while witnessing the blend of ancient and modern architecture that defines this historic neighborhood. Those interested in spirituality, shopping, or history, will find it all here in equal measure. For a deeper appreciation of China's heritage, we encourage you to take this journey.
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Shanghai Old Town Walking Tour Map

Guide Name: Shanghai Old Town Walking Tour
Guide Location: China » Shanghai (See other walking tours in Shanghai)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 8
Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 4.0 Km or 2.5 Miles
Author: emma
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Shanghai Town God's Temple
  • Antiques Market of Shanghai Old Town
  • Yuyuan Bazaar
  • Yuyuan Garden
  • Shanghai Confucian Temple
  • Fazangjiang Temple
  • Birthplace of Chinese Communist Party
  • Shikumen Open House Museum
Shanghai Town God's Temple

1) Shanghai Town God's Temple (must see)

Traditionally, any notable city in China with a sense of history has a temple to its patron deity placed in the old quarter. The Ming-era Taoist temple in the Yuyuan Gardens serves this purpose for Shanghai and deserves a visit if you are in the vicinity, especially given the scarcity of old-style buildings in this part of the city.

Until 1950, this was the center of what is sometimes referred to as "popular Taoism", which is quite removed from the philosophical Taoism of the Tao Te Ching teaching by Lao Tzu. However, the new communist government was equally unsympathetic to any form of Taoism, and promptly removed from the temple all the statues allegedly supporting religious superstition.

Apparently, that reformation still wasn't enough and during the Cultural Revolution the temple was fully converted to a secular use with the main hall housing a jewelry shop for many years afterwards. The return of the traditional Chinese culture to political respectability saw the temple back in the hands of Taoist priests and reconsecrated in 2006.

Inside the temple, passing through its medium-size main courtyard, in front of the main gate, opens way to a number of halls, including the Huo Guang Hall, on the north side, with a large statue of Huo Guang, the prime of Shanghai's three City Gods. Going round the back of the hall one can see a short corridor leading to the hall of Qin Yu-Bo, Shanghai's second major deity. Around that are additional small halls featuring, among others, the Gods of Wealth, Literature, and Knowledge. Few more gods can be seen in the other halls around the main courtyard.

The area outside the temple is packed with souvenir shops selling everything, from postcards to key-chains to handicrafts to clothing, plus many other stores to choose from, mixed up with the beautiful modern but traditionally-styled buildings housing food courts and restaurants offering a wealth of regional cuisine.

At night, when they are lit up, or even during daytime, these old-style buildings are great for taking memorable photos contrasting the Bund's high-rises in the background.
Antiques Market of Shanghai Old Town

2) Antiques Market of Shanghai Old Town

The Antiques Market of Shanghai Old Town, nestled in the basement of the Huabao building within the bustling Yu Garden Shopping Complex, stands as Shanghai's premier indoor antique market. This sprawling subterranean haven hosts over 200 established antique dealers, creating a labyrinthine treasure trove of historical artifacts and curiosities that echo China's rich and multifaceted past.

A visit to the market is akin to stepping back in time, with each stall and corner brimming with items that tell tales of days gone by. Shoppers can find an eclectic array of merchandise, ranging from intricately embroidered silk jackets and dressing gowns to lustrous freshwater pearls. The market also offers an impressive selection of ceramic tea sets that reflect China's long-standing tea culture, alongside Cultural Revolution posters that capture a pivotal era in the nation's history. Additionally, visitors can discover beautifully crafted wooden fans and painted scrolls, each piece adding to the market's allure as a center for Chinese antiquities and craftsmanship.

The history of this market stretches back to before 1949, preceding the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s, when it served as a holiday market selling folk antiques and handicrafts. Today, it has evolved into a vibrant destination that attracts tens of thousands of visitors daily, drawn by the vast assortment of goods on offer. The Antiques Market of Shanghai Old Town is not just a place for buying antiques; it's a cultural journey that offers a glimpse into China's storied past, making it a must-visit for locals and tourists alike.

Beware – you will definitely have to bring out your haggling skills here! Whatever the price the dealer asks you initially, try to bargain for at least 40% less.
Yuyuan Bazaar

3) Yuyuan Bazaar (must see)

Regularly packed with locals and tourists, this busy shopping area – located just outside the famous Yuyuan Gardens – is a good chance to get a glimpse of Shanghai's everyday life. Amid the plethora of goods on sale – including fresh produce, second-hand stuff, antiques and handicrafts – the most intriguing, perhaps, are the countless food offerings whose vendors seemingly compete with each other. The vast majority of them specialize in dumplings of every imaginable filling; they even have dumplings filled with soup and served with a straw. The Nanxiang Shanghai steamed buns are pretty good on a chilly day either, and there's a long but well-organized queue for them in the central courtyard.

On the whole, this new-looking Ming-style bazaar is a cacophony of shops, street performers, sedan-chair rides and swarms of people everywhere. It covers an area of over 50 hectares and houses almost 3,000 shops and nearly 10,000 vendors. Among them are souvenir shops with tonnes of fine gift ideas, from painted snuff bottles and delightful Chinese kites to embroidered and clever palm-and-finger paintings.

As with any shopping in Asia, haggling skills are quite handy here, especially if you've done your homework on products and prices previously. Another good thing is to buy as the locals buy, particularly women, who certainly know where the best deals are.

Why You Should Visit:
No matter how commercialized, this is still a pretty sight to behold. Only in China!

Other than the bazaar itself, there are a few spots just behind the Yuyan Gardens on Fuyou Street where you can find things at wholesale prices. In particular, if you're after household items, check out the Fuyou Street Merchandise Mart – similar to WalMart in the U.S., but in a fraction of the space it usually occupies there. Bargaining here is recommended, but the prices aren’t too high to begin with – just perfect for those on a budget.
Yuyuan Garden

4) Yuyuan Garden (must see)

This lovely classical Chinese garden was built in 1577, under the Ming Dynasty, by a high-ranking imperial court official who dedicated it to his elderly father, and quite fittingly so, as ‘yu’ means peace and comfort in Chinese. Probably because of this name or good luck, despite changing fortunes, the garden had miraculously survived the passage of centuries and was reopened to the public in 1961.

For those unfamiliar with Chinese gardening, this would be a great introduction to its elegance manifested, among other things, in the hidden bat and dragon features and, in this particular case, a huge authentic rockery dating back to the Ming period. Overall, the garden has less emphasis on flora and more on water and the harmonious position of elements.

It may well look small, but you will be amazed at how much actually fits in here. The corridors, archways and zigzag bridges all are carefully placed with a great deal of meaning. Of special interest is the Ming-style rosewood furniture in three halls within the garden, one of which is historically famous as the headquarters of the anti-imperialist “Little Sword” society during the Taiping uprising in the 1850s-60s. The roofs and tops of the walls here are decorated with incredible carvings of dragons, horses, and warriors.

Among other highlights is the famous Jade Rock, a 5-ton boulder said to have been one of the private collection items of the Song Dynasty Emperor Huizong. Interestingly enough, this rock's 72 holes are reportedly positioned so as to make the water or smoke sent into one of the holes, come out from all the other holes simultaneously. Sometimes, the guides show another trick with a coin dropped into a hole at the top and exiting from a certain hole down below (each time different) in accordance, they say, with the person's astrological sign.

Depending on the time of your visit, the garden may be quite crowded – but that's China! Try coming early, as closer to the opening hours as possible; otherwise, later in the day, the queues are usually long! Don't forget a bottle of water or check out a two-storey teahouse on the island in the middle of the garden. The Queen of England herself once dropped in for a cup of tea there, so these days it’s a bit pricey, but you’re welcome to poke about anyway.
Shanghai Confucian Temple

5) Shanghai Confucian Temple (must see)

This ancient shrine is the main temple of Shanghai and a definite must-see for those visiting the city. It is dedicated to the famous Chinese philosopher Confucius and was founded under the Yuan Dynasty, when Shanghai, then a small fishing village, was granted the status of a county seat. With time, this shrine became China's most prestigious academic institution and a religious temple combined.

The complex is well-tended and is much larger than it looks on the outside. Within its walls are a number of scenic spots such as the Music Terrace, Study Gate, Etiquette Gate, Hall to Listen to the Rain, Sky and Cloud Reflection Pond, and Confucian Study Hall, to mention but a few.

Facing the front gate is the Dacheng Hall, or the Hall of Great Perfection, to the right of which is found the eponymous huge Dacheng Bell, weighing some 1500 kg. They say, the sound of this bell is loud and clear, and its reverberations last up to three minutes!

The appealing atmosphere of scholarly introspection infuses the complex and is enhanced with the statues of Confucius, particularly the seated golden one beside the Dacheng Hall, flanked by the statues of his two most illustrious disciples, Yan Hui and Zeng Shen. Modern-day students, wishing to excel at exams, come here to tie a red ribbon around the pine tree for good luck.

In addition to the ancient Confucian texts, the temple houses a collection of ceramics and a tea house where tea lovers can enjoy a Chinese tea ceremony and sample local varieties of tea free of charge.

In keeping with the ancient tradition originated in the Ming and Qing periods, each Sunday in the northeastern part of the temple there is a book fair where people come to buy, sell or exchange books. Some truly old and rare editions can be found there, so it's well worth attending.

The area outside the temple is packed with stores and several eateries selling authentic Shanghai food at reasonable prices. Also nearby is the famous Xintiandi district.

The Sunday book market has to be visited as it is something different in Shanghai, but beware that it opens at 8am and closes early around 3-4pm.
If you want full access then pay 10RMB; otherwise, you can just go to the book market inside the inner courtyard. 10RMB gets you into the temple as well as the other courtyards.
Go towards the temple and the guards will ask for your tickets. Most people think they cannot go up, but that's what your ticket covers for.

Fazangjiang Temple

6) Fazangjiang Temple

Fazangjiang is one of the four most prominent Buddhist temples in Shanghai, alongside those of Yu Fu Chan Si (the Jade Buddha Temple), Jing'an Si (the Temple of Peace and Tranquility), and Longhua Si (the Luster of the Dragon Temple). Its unique architecture would make it a top attraction of the Old Town, but curiously enough it does not advertise itself and, without stepping through its doors, people (locals or foreigners alike) may never know it is there. On the outside, it looks pretty much like any other gated entrance with no sound or smell passing from behind the wall, even if there is a prayer in session or incense burning underway.

The temple was built in 1924 and, similarly to the acclaimed Jing’an Si temple, was used as a factory during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s-70s. Now restored and reconsecrated, some parts of its main hall reflect Art Deco motifs, adding to the uniqueness of its location inside a tower-like structure. A large statue of Buddha Gautama Sakyamuni sat on top of a lily dominates the hall. There are also two gilded walls with the images of “Arhats” – enlightened persons who have reached nirvana – as well as golden sculptures of the Buddhist trinity. There is even a small shrine dedicated to Dizang Wang, the Chinese God of the Underworld in Buddhist mythology. Swastika, the ancient Buddhist symbol of eternity, is found on many prayer ribbons hanging around.

Much to its merit, Fazangjiang has kept its historical identity intact and is now a welcoming oasis amid the hustle and bustle of a busy metropolis. No entry ticket is required, and the serene atmosphere of the temple makes it a fine place to acquaint yourself with the merits of Chinese Buddhism.

A vegetarian restaurant run by the temple, serving simple dishes, is right next door and is quite handy for those seeking to quench their hunger other than purely spiritual.
Birthplace of Chinese Communist Party

7) Birthplace of Chinese Communist Party

July 23, 1921, is the day the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was founded, but very few realize that its "birth" actually took place in Shanghai. It was here that the CCP held its First National Congress, thus charting the course to what later became the People’s Republic of China and subsequently transforming this unassuming shikumen block into one of China's most venerated communist shrines.

Despite elements of propaganda, this place gives a fairly good account of events of 1921. There's a little exhibition hall with curious artifacts and photographs, combined with the exhibits related to the broader Chinese history and Shanghai history, in particular. Among other things displayed here is a waxwork diorama of young Mao Zedong and his comrades. The curators really have done a good job fitting so many displays into a relatively small space.

In order to get in, you'll need a ticket, but the tickets are free and provided next door to the museum entrance. Once inside, seek to avoid guided Chinese groups whenever you can, as the space gets crowded almost immediately.

Overall, a visit to this 'shrine' of Chinese Communism is a great contrast to the hum of Starbucks just around the corner, jam-packed with locals guzzling their chai lattes and enjoying free Wi-Fi – a juxtaposition of old and new, communism and capitalism.
Shikumen Open House Museum

8) Shikumen Open House Museum

The Shikumen Open House Museum recreates the interior of an authentic "stone-gate" house in Shanghai when the city was known as “Paris of the East.” The carefully restored building is fascinating to wander around, skillfully evoking the life of early 20th-century Chinese gentility before the communist era.

The “shikumen” style housing was typical and unique of Shanghai's middle class back in the 1920s and 30s. At the time, there were nearly 9,000 shikumen houses in the city, with most of Shanghai's elderly population having been born there.

The house-museum has eight well-appointed exhibition rooms stretched over three floors: the living room, the study room, the master bedroom, the daughter's room, the son's room, the kitchen, the grandparents' room and the prayer room, each containing pertinent everyday objects of the era: from children's books and toys, to typewriters, kitchenware, furniture, toiletries and the like. A top-floor display details how the surrounding Xintiandi neighborhood came about, admitting that most of it was built from scratch.

Paved and pedestrianized, with the old alleys opening out onto the central plaza, Xintiandi is a great place to wind down or linger over a coffee after a visit to the museum, surrounded by upscale restaurants and shops, and with plenty of outside seating for people watching.

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