The Former French Concession is perhaps the most charming part of Shanghai’s truly unique appeal – the juxtaposition between the ultra-modern and the colonial past. With its tree-lined streets, boutique shops, historic lane houses and villas, the area is a window into the city’s history. For a certain type of expatriate, the opportunity to experience ‘lane house life’ or what some call ‘the real China’ is the main draw. For others it’s the area’s location at the heart of downtown Shanghai which provides unfettered access to the city’s seemingly boundless shopping, cultural, dining and nightlife options. Some are attracted to the exclusivity of living in the unique properties sprinkled among the locals who still comprise the vast majority of residents.
To the north, the area is bounded by Yan’an Elevated Road, which divides the downtown inner ring area roughly in half east to west. The combination of Xujiahui Lu and Hongqiao Lu mark the southern edge while Huashan Lu and Xizang Nan Lu define the western and eastern borders of the district respectively. Huaihai Lu is the main east-west thoroughfare through the area.
If you are looking for that authentic Shanghai experience, then there are three types of properties that you’ll be looking at. The first and most stunning of these properties are garden houses. Each of these stand alone two storey villas has a large garden and in most cases have been restored to their former grace rather than renovated. Of the options for historic homes, they are in the shortest supply and are at the top end of the price range. They are also the most exclusive properties in the city.
The second option and by far the most popular with expats are lane houses, which can be found in shikumen. Each shikumen (literally stone gate), or lane, is a micro community of formerly 3- or 4-floor townhouses which in most cases were divided into smaller dwellings. Over the past decade, many of these townhouses were reconsituted and renovated – often beautifully – into spacious single family dwellings. They usually come with a small courtyard with a high stone fence or roof patio and in some cases a carpark.
During the renovation process, many lanehouses were totally gutted to make way for a fully modern makeover. It’s not uncommon to find a lane house that is better appointed than the luxury villas found in suburban areas and with a design that is totally unique.
That being said, for every grade A renovated lane house, there is another with issues. Many of the shikumen do not have upgraded water and sewage, so while the property may have all new pipes, it may still suffer from slow draining showers and inadequate water pressure. Internet speeds may also be an issue. Ironically, Shanghai has some of the worst Internet speeds in China and shikumen are only now being upgraded to 2MB bandwidth. Mould is another problem to be aware of as corner cutting on waterproofing in an already damp city can lead to very damp homes.
The third option for colonial housing in the Former French Concession is the colonial apartment, many of which are in classic art-deco buildings designed by famous architects in the first half of the 20th century. Many have been beautifully renovated and are quite popular with young professional couples looking for something more special during their time in the city.
Though only about 20 percent of what was once 9000 colonial buildings remain standing, many of them are in the Former French Concession. That isn’t to say that colonial vestiges are the only possibilities for housing, as numerous high-rise luxury apartment complexes replete with top-end ammenities also dot the area. Many of these complexes offer stunning views of the city, given their low-rise surroundings, providing occupants the feeling of being above it all.
Due to its location at the heart of downtown Shanghai, the Former French Concession is well served by world-class medical facilities. For general health clinics, ParkwayHealth has locations at 389 and 1376 Nanjing Xi Lu and Global HealthCare at 1515 Nanjing Xi Lu. Both offer Western doctors and top-notch facilities and are very popular with expats.
Shanghai United Family Hospital at 1139 Xianxia Lu offers a more comprehensive expat oriented facility including surgery and emergency medicine.
SinoUnited Health is another expat facility which specialises in sports medicine and is located at 1376 Nanjing Xi Lu.
While the facilities listed thus far are not technically in the Former French Concession, they are only a short distance away by taxi.
For top level OB/Gyn service, American-Sino has the best in Shanghai. It’s located in the Former French Concession at 800 Huashan Lu.
For 24-hour medical service, Huashan Hospital at 2 Wulumuqi Zhong Lu and Ruijin Hospital at 197 Ruijin Er Lu are large well-reputed foreign friendly local facilities also located within the district. Full contact details are provided in our Health services listings.
While the Former French Concession does not have an international school within its boundaries, all international schools offer bus services to the area. Most expat children from the area commute to Gubei, Hongqiao or Huacao, where the international schools on the Puxi side of the river are located. Some parents even choose to send their children to international schools on the Pudong side of the river due to personal preference. In some cases these international schools have a dedicated bus service for students living in the area in order to reduce commute times.
Commute times to international schools vary based on traffic, which is contingent on the day of the week, the time of year and a host of other factors. In general, however, your child can expect anywhere from 15- 30 minutes to Gubei, 20-35 minutes to Hongqiao and 30-60 minutes or more to Huacao and Jinqiao.
Depending on the route and distance, buses range from 6-seater minivans to full-size tour buses.
Though lacking in international schools, the Former French Concession has a plethora of nurseries and kindergartens within walking distance of almost any part of the district. While these institutions vary in quality, size and curriculum, they are popular with expat parents who do not want their three-year-old taking a long bus ride to school every day. That said, most international schools employ Chinese teaching assistants as bus monitors who will escort your young child directly from your care all the way to their classroom.
One of the main attractions of the Former French Concession is proximity to basically everything via Metro (Line 5, 8, 10), taxis (which are cheap and everywhere), walking, biking and even electric scooter. So while expats in other areas are highly dependent on private drivers (particularly in Jinqiao and Huacao) expats living in this area are not. This can be very important to families with one driver and a trailing spouse potentially left stuck in the compound all day.
If you choose to live in any of the downtown areas and rely on taxis for your daily commute to work, it should be noted that while the city boasts more than 45,000 of them, catching one on the street during rush hour can at times be a cut-throat struggle requiring a solid strategy and a lack of regard for your fellow human beings. Add in a bit of foul weather and a Friday afternoon and you’ll find yourself quickly searching for alternative transport. Getting to know the Metro even if you don’t use it every day is invaluable in these cases.
Shops and Services
Huaihai Lu (virtually the entire stretch from Shaanxi Lu westward) is a shopping mecca with hundreds of boutiques and luxury brand designer shops, as well as huge shopping malls to cater to every possible desire. Far too numerous to list here, these options are well detailed in our Shopping pages.
Of note, however, and also a tangible benefit of living in the area, are the countless small speciality shops which offer everything from high-end handmade leather shoes to spa treatments of every kind imaginable. Most residents say that one of their favorite things to do is go for a walk with no particular destination in mind just to explore what’s on offer.
As far as restaurants are concerned, you could eat at a different establishment every day for a year and not yet have scratched the surface of options from every part of the globe (and China). To put it mildly, the Former French Concession is a foodie’s dream come true. From top-end haute cuisine in the most elegant of surroundings, to tasty ji dan bing (a sort of Chinese breakfast burrito) served from street side stalls, to everything in between. In this regard, you will definitely not be disappointed.
In addition, with two highly efficient and low-cost delivery services available to residents of the area (Sherpa and Mealbay) you can order from a wide range of restaurants in English and have food delivered right to your door.
In terms of drinking, familiar Irish pub names like O’Malley’s and the Blarney Stone can be found in the heart of the Former French Concession around Dongping Lu, as can a host of others, including classy fixture Sasha’s and the popular global brand Paulaner Bräuhaus (housed in a stunning colonial villa).
A wide variety of bars and clubs also dot the area, serving up everything from rock to house to indie – most notably jazz, represented by the JZ Club at 46 Fuxing Lu, which is a very popular venue offering a taste of old Shanghai in an undeniably cool setting.
In line with the dramatic increase in wine consumption in China in the last decade, classy wine bars can be found in the area as well, offering chic surroundings and long global wine lists.
To round out the genre, there are also a number of excellent cocktail lounges in the area.
In terms of food shopping, most expats look no further than the City Shop chain of supermarkets, which specialize in imported and organic food (they have their own farm) and offer free delivery if your order comes to more than RMB200. They have locations at 939 Huaihai Lu, 160 Xinhua Lu and 1376 Nanjing Lu, giving you easy access to virtually all you need. Beyond City Shop, the Gubei Carrefour (said to be the busiest by foot traffic in the world) is in nearby Gubei and is also popular with expats, and the Japanese supermarket at the Jing’an Metro stop has an excellent deli and arguably the best sushi in the city, as well as a variety of imported food.
For the health conscious, there are a variety of options. Will’s Gym (garden variety Western-style gym) has a number of locations in the area and there are publicly accessible running tracks and basketball courts at Luwan Stadium and Jiaotong University.
The Ambassy Club at 1500 Huaihai Zhong Lu is one of the top private health clubs in the city with excellent indoor and outdoor swimming pools, a gym that never seems too busy, squash and basketball courts and a spa. Though technically only recommended people may apply, they seem to have a work around in most cases.
Another gem not widely known or used by expats is the Luwan Teenagers Activity Center, on Jianguo Lu between Shaanxi Lu and Ruijin Lu. The facility is public, fairly new, pay per use (and cheap) and has large gymnasiums for basketball and badminton; most importantly it is air conditioned. The facility also offers swimming, martial arts classes, archery and more.
Beyond these options, most large hotels have excellent fitness facilities which you can either buy a membership for or pay per use; there are a variety in the Former French Concession and even more in nearby Jing’an.
Costs for memberships range from a few thousand RMB for a typical gym to RMB100,000+ at the Shanghai International Tennis Centre.