Staring at a map of Shanghai before arriving can be an intimidating exercise for even the most steely-nerved of us. Metro lines are stacked upon 8 lane highways and massive highrises to form an urban mass that many consider to be the word's largest city.
Throw in the population that is possibly as high as 30 million and Shanghai can look like an urban black hole. And as a whole, it is.
However, for all of its sprawl, there are really only a few areas of the city that most expats and returning Chinese live in, and finding housing in one of these areas is a straightforward affair that is limited only by one's budget.
In the right neighborhood, Shanghai can feel less like a megalopolis and more like a small city where you run into the same people day after day. After all, the total population of foreigners in Shanghai is only around 200,000 people or so, and they tend to form tight-knit clusters within the following 5 districts.
Following is our list of Shanghai's 5 Best Districts to live in.
#1: The Former French Concession (Xuhui & Huangpu Districts)
The Former French Concession isn't a district in and of itself, as it sits in parts of both Xuhui and Huangpu Districts. It was of several foreign concessions in Shanghai from 1849 until 1943, when the Japanese invaded China. The Former French Concession (also sometimes referred to as the FFC) is bordered by Yan'An Road in the north, Xujiahui Road in the south, Huashan Road to the west and Xizang Road to the east.
The streets of the FFC are lined with London Plane trees (a relative of the Sycamore planted by the French) and early 20th century architecture. A lack of skyscrapers in the FFC means that it has a lower population density than other parts of the city, which you can feel.
Housing is in high demand in this area of the city, and that is reflected in the prices that people pay to live here. If you have the budget, we would recommend living here above anywhere else. You can find rooms online in shared apartments for 3,000 RMB a month and one bedroom apartments starting at 5,000 RMB a month if you are lucky. As with housing anywhere in Shanghai, the best deals aren't advertised online and are usually found through one's personal network.
The level of activity on the streets of the FFC ranges from idyllic to bustling to slightly hectic during rush hour, but overall it retains a mellow atmosphere that makes it one of the most peaceful areas of the city. The FFC is also where a large portion of Shanghai's nightlife is concentrated.
During good weather, particularly sunny days, a stroll or bike ride through the Former French Concession is as good as it gets. Cafes, boutiques, alleyways, embassies, and beautiful architecture (from art deco to traditional Chinese architecture) are sometimes hidden in plain sight throughout the tree-lined streets.
#2: Jing'An District
Jing'An district is one of Shanghai's main commercial centers (the other being Xujiahui), and its streets feature a nice mix of older lane houses and architecture set alongside thoroughly modern skyscrapers. Jing'An sits just north of the French Concession, with Yan'An Road dividing these two areas of the city.
People choose to live in Jing'An for a few reasons. For one, it features cheaper rent than the FFC, though it can still be pricey. As of 2015, you are probably looking at 2500 RMB to 3500 RMB a month for a room in a shared apartment. The further north in Jing'An you go (closer to Putuo District) the less expensive it gets.
Jing'an also features a healthy nightlife scene, with many of the city's premiere bars and restaurants located here. As of mid-2015, development is occurring in central and north Jing'An at a rapid pace, and there are always new restaurants popping up alongside warehouses that have been re-purposed into hip, urban working spaces.
In addition to its rapidly growing nightlife scene, the reason that many choose Jing'An as a place to live is because their offices are located there- Nanjing West Road cuts through Jing'an's center.
Look for housing nearby to the Jing'An Metro stop or Changping Road metro stop. Those on a budget should might look further north, closer to the Suzhou Creek area.
#3: Xujiahui (Xuhui District)
Xujiahui sits to the south of the FFC and is a thoroughly modern area of the city. It is full of some good housing deals, though they are generally in larger, skyrise apartments and not the traditional shikumens and lane houses that dot the French Concession.
Xujiahui is also home to some of Shanghai's largest shopping malls including Metro City, as well as Shanghai's largest electronics market and other properties.
Xujiahui features wider boulevards and more car traffic than you'll find in the French Concession, and at times it feels like just another Tier 2 city in China. The abundance of chain restaurants like Pizza Hut, Starbucks, and McDonalds don't lend much in the way of unique character, but they do add an element of convenience, and the FFC is just a short ride away for those craving culture.
#4: Changning District
Changning district sits to the west of the French Concession and like Xujiahui is a good choice for those on a stricter budget. Constituting an area of 26 square miles, Changning is also one of Shanghai's largest districts, so you'll want to pay attention to where you live, as not all neighborhoods are created equal.
The two areas you should consider are the Zhongshan Park area or the Hongqiao Road area. Both of these areas are lively and feature an abundance of modern amenities.
Zhongshan Park has cheaper rent than other areas of the city and is probably the best metro station to live by, as lines 2,3, and 4 all run through it. The convenience of this subway stop combined with its location beneath Cloud Nine Shopping Mall, which contains dozens of restaurants and retailers, means that it gets busy here, especially during rush hour. It's not as bad as People's Square, the busiest metro stop in Shanghai, but the rush hour crowds at Zhongshan park lend it a hectic feeling. At least there is a Yang's Fried Dumplings in the mall to escape to if need be.
Also in Changning district, the area around Hongqiao Road (NOT Hongqiao Railway Station) is worth considering. There is a mall and plenty of restaurants nearby, and the Hongqiao Road metro station is only 3 stops away from the smack dab middle of downtown (Line 10 South Shaanxi Road). The Hongqiao Road metro is also nearby Red Town Sculpture Park (pictured above).
#5: Huangpu District
Huangpu is one of the oldest areas of city. In fact, it is in Huangpu that Old Town is located, which is an area of the city that was fortified with a wall to keep marauding Japanese pirates out. In addition to Old Town, Huangpu features some of Shanghai's most notable tourist attractions- including the West Bund and Nanjing East Road- as well as some of Shanghai's most beautiful art deco buildings.
Huangpu is also home to Yu Garden and People's Park.
Rent in Huangpu is cheaper than in the French Concession, and many neighborhoods retain a highly local feel. With lines 1,2, and 8 running through it, the People's Square metro station is a convenient hub for many residents of Huangpu. However, it is also the busiest metro stop in the city by far and many long-term Shanghai residents swear that they will never again pass through here during rush hour. Plan your commute carefully and avoid entering or exiting at People's Square during rush hour if at all possible.