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This city of 23 million doesn’t have as many neighborhoods as you would think such a metropolis would. Shanghai’s best neighborhoods are the ones which showcase how multifaceted it is. These are the French Concession, Hongkou’s Jewish Quarter, north Jing’an, and the Old City.
It’s cliché to say this is one of Shanghai’s best neighborhoods, but there’s a reason everyone clamors to live here and bars and restaurants will pay exorbitant rent. These streets—inhabited until the Japanese invasion by the French and Shanghai’s wealthiest locals—teem once again with foreigners, but you’ll still find plenty of elderly Shanghainese residing in the charmingly decrepit lane houses. Lining the blocks are imported French plane trees, which have grown tall over the years since they were brought over and now shade the streets like canopies.
Hongkou’s Jewish Quarter
Jews flocked to Shanghai in two distinct waves. The first were Middle Eastern Jews who, having made a fortune in India, wanted to continue working in Asia. One of these new immigrants was Sir Victor Sassoon who left his legacy in Shanghai in the form of the Peace Hotel. The second wave was more than 20,000 Jews coming from Eastern Europe, fleeing the Nazis during World War II. What remains today is the Ohel Moishe Synagogue, one of just two in Shanghai, and a slew of tenements. Try the Shanghai Jews tour, led by Israeli photojournalist Dvir Bar-Gal.
The area north of Jing’an Temple, beyond the shiny malls of West Nanjing Road, is where you’ll see real contrast. There are a number of tree-lined streets and several blocks of old houses and, on the same street where a septuagenarian in padded pajamas hangs out her washing, you’ll spot Frenchmen stepping up to a wine bar. Continue walking north and you’ll soon see enormous Soviet Bloc towers, occupied almost exclusively by middle-class Chinese. Go even further and you’ve reached Suzhou Creek, along which more Bloc towers stand and which the government is trying to re-develop.
After the First Opium War in 1842, this area was known as the “Chinese city,” because until 1854, locals could not live in the foreign concessions. Today, the Old City sits right next to Yu Garden and the City God Temple, both packed with domestic and international tourists. After your visit to the gardens, take a stroll through the back alleys of the Old City to really get a taste of local flavor.