Old Town (南市) Shanghai

Rachel Palfini

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Today was my first day in Shanghai without CIEE orientation activities, so with my trusty Lonely Planet guidebook in hand, I headed for Old Town Shanghai. There are 11 districts in Shanghai and Old Town is one of them. I chose to spend the day in Old Town because it’s supposedly the “most traditionally Chinese area of Shanghai” (Lonely Planet, Harper & Pitts).

Old Town Shanghai.

Old Town Shanghai.

Old Town Shanghai. You really need to be careful with the motor bikes--they don't stop for anything, not even red lights!

Old Town Shanghai. You really need to be careful with the motor bikes–they don’t stop for anything, not even red lights!

It took me about 45 minutes via subway to get to Old Town and even though I had to transfer onto three different lines, I cannot say enough good things about Shanghai’s metro. It’s super convenient with 13 different lines, trains arrive every two or three minutes, each station has tons of signs to direct you where to go, and both trains and stations are clean and well lit. After arriving at the Yuyuan Garden stop (豫园站), I wandered outside trying to orient myself with a map. I’m generally not the best with directions, but walking around Shanghai is also very convenient because all the street signs have Chinese characters in addition to pÄ«nyÄ«n (Ex: 河南南路, S Henan Road). PÄ«nyÄ«n is the romanization of Chinese words, so you can read the words (more or less) even if you don’t know the characters.

My first stop in Old Town was the Old Shanghai Teahouse (老上海茶馆). So far, I’ve only had green tea and I was craving anything different. It was a little difficult to find because it was located on the second story of the street and all along the first floor of the street were little shops with people selling souvenirs, antiques, and everything in between. The host was very kind and spoke a decent amount of English, although I asked my questions in Chinese. He did respond in English though, which I found a little odd since most people I’ve communicated with respond in Chinese as soon as I start speaking Chinese. I ordered jasmine flower tea, some Shanghai soup dumplings, and settled down for some people watching.

My jasmine flower tea with dumplings.

My jasmine flower tea with dumplings.

I didn’t have to wait long because two older men, wearing fuschia, flower-printed shirts soon walked in with traditional Chinese instruments and began playing. They were very talented and it added a lot of ambiance to the little tea-house. I didn’t realize how expensive tea shops are in China––I paid 55 yuan (11 USD) for my jasmine flower tea. However, in Chinese tea shops, you get a whole pitcher full of hot water to keep adding to your tea leaves or tea flowers. Once the host brought the jug, I was a little more satisfied with the price but I should have been much more careful about how much tea I drank because public toilets don’t really exist (or at least I have yet to see them anywhere). Tip for those in need of a bathroom, fast: metro stations.

For the rest of the afternoon, I visited Temple of the Town God 城隍庙 (Daoist), Chéngxiāng Gé Nunnery 沉香阁 (Buddhist), and Wén Miào 文庙 (Confucian). There were tons of tourists (mostly Chinese) in the Daoist and Buddhist temples. The courtyards were filled with people holding long sticks of burning incense and bowing in the four cardinal directions. Then in each of the main buildings, there were kneeling stools which everyone took turns using to pay their respects to the Town God or the Buddha (if only people waited as patiently to get on and off the metro as they did to pray at these temples).

The central courtyard of the Daoist temple. Note the man in the blue jacket bending over with smoking incense.

The central courtyard of the Daoist temple. Note the man in the blue jacket bending over with smoking incense.

Inside the Temple of the Town God.

Inside the Temple of the Town God.

After wandering around the Daoist and Buddhist temples, I hopped back on the metro and traveled a stop further to go to the Confucian temple. I hadn’t initially intended to go because it was pretty far away from the other two temples but I am so glad I did. It was by far the highlight of my day. The Confucian temple was tucked away on side street, well off the main roads, which allowed it to be almost completely silent inside (an anomaly in Shanghai). I was the only visitor while I was there and the complex was so peaceful and beautiful. I’ve included some photos below that only begin to capture the tranquility of the temple.

One of the buildings at the Confucian temple. This one housed old Chinese manuscripts/texts.

One of the buildings at the Confucian temple. This one housed old Chinese manuscripts/texts.

Close up of the statue of Confucius.