If you’re looking for somewhere to relax, stroll and shop all in one, then Tianzifang needs to be at the top of your Shanghai to-do list.
Tiánzǐ Fāng（田子坊）is a labyrinth of alleys which forms part of the Former French Concession district, and from the main road you may not even realise it’s there – it looks just like a standard, bustling Shanghai street. But venture through the gates and you’ll find a maze of knick-knacks, snack stalls and hidden gems. There are countless things to do in Tianzifang, and you’ll definitely find yourself getting lost among its twists and turns. A word of advice – avoid visiting on the weekend if possible, unless you enjoy feeling like a sardine shuffling your way down each alley.
Marvel at local artists’ work
Tianzifang’s lanes are packed with art studios and craft shops, and many artists take up residence here to produce and sell their wares. There are intricate pieces inside small bottles created with sand and a small pointed stick, and beautiful waterfall paintings made with nothing more than the artist’s thumb nail. Nearly all these pieces are for sale, so you can watch the impressive artistry as it’s created and then take it home with you – along with the knowledge that it’s genuinely hand-made
If you’re in the market for some cute souvenirs, Tianzifang is the place to be. Get your bargaining hat on and be prepared to haggle if there isn’t a marked price (some shops here will not accept haggling, so judge each stall for yourself). You can easily pick up Chinese-style jewellery, classic paper fans, silk scarves, chopsticks and more. Do a lap of the block before you make any purchases to get a feel for prices (as you will see the same goods in multiple shops), and then dive into your chosen spot. If you’re looking to splash a little more cash, check out one of the many boutiques and treat yourself to a lush, leather briefcase or some sweet-smelling hand-mixed perfume.
If all that shopping and getting lost has tired you out, head to the cat café near the front of the block. Coffee and snacks are a little pricier here than your average caffeine fix (a standard coffee will set you back about ¥40, which is roughly £4.50), but you’re also paying for the privilege of hanging out with some fluffy felines while you sip your drink. If you’re heading here during a busy period you might have to wait, but bona fide cat people will find it’s worth it.
Second only to the advice about avoiding weekends, the best tip for Tianzifang is to come here on an empty stomach. With snack stalls on every alley and countless restaurants hidden among the shops, there’s something for everyone. Whether you’re after Chinese dim sum, Western hamburgers or something more adventurous (chicken heart skewers, anyone?), you’ll find something to fill your belly. Culture Trip highly recommends the ‘pick your own’ dim sum stall towards the back of the block, where you can choose from their wide array of options.
If you’re looking for a good spot to start your evening, or treat a date to a quiet drink, weave your way through the alleys until you find one of the many bars here. Bell Bar offers reasonably priced beverages in a comfortable, intimate setting inside an old four-storey house filled with squishy, homey chairs and sofas. The main bar is on the ground floor, with a few bar stools available – but keep winding your way up the creaky staircases until you find your perfect spot.
The commercial side of Tianzifang is a relatively recent development, while the old residential buildings that make up the block are links to its past. Built in a style called ‘shikumen’, which literally means ‘stone doors’, these houses give the area a very local and authentic feel. Many people like to visit just to take snaps of this interesting architecture, which is always lavishly decorated, especially around national holiday time. There are many nooks and crannies, with cute window displays or ornamental doorways – ideal for getting that perfect Instagram picture.
Look for the giant waiter bear in the doorway, and you’ll find the Teddy Bear Family store, which is a café, restaurant and workshop combined. First floor is for grabbing a drink (surrounded by teddies, naturally), while the third floor has a small but adequate restaurant. But the second floor is where the real fun is – head here for the chance to create your own DIY teddy bear. Some of the jewellery stores throughout the lanes also allow you to get hands-on, and you can pick your own beads and charms to make bracelets or necklaces at a fraction of the price of buying them on the high street.