Alleys provide great opportunities to walk through something a little more intimately scaled. Sometimes they provide a refuge from the city. But Tianzifang is the opposite of a refuge. It is tucked away off the French Concession in Shanghai and is a maze of alleys and shops that was definitely slightly overwhelming the first time.

Tianzifang is a history-rich old quarter where East meets West. As I looked around I could see products not only designed in China but all over the world for sale in tiny restored buildings that are back-to-back with local residences. While my eyes were feasting on all the things that the merchants sell, my mind was also wandering amidst the traditional vibe of the place. The aesthetics of the establishments are very charming since the shops are still reflective of old Shanghai style.

As I explored the alleyways I ended up being jostled around with other tourists who were also getting lost in the maze for the 20th time. My first visit was very overwhelming and I could hardly take everything in. But this was a great excuse to go and visit again, and the next time I made sure that I arrived before 9am, so as to avoid the crowds that start flooding in after 11am.

Here are some essential Travel Tips for when you visit Tianzifang

  1. When you drop by Tianzifang, keep in mind that there are three main lanes which you can take. These lanes each go from north to south and there are several smaller alleys which intersect with each lane. If you find yourself quite lost because of all the turns that you have taken while being entertained by the various products that are being sold, just look for one of the main lanes and you can easily find where you are supposed to go next.

2. Get there very early to avoid hordes of domestic tourists. Otherwise be prepared for being pushed around when this area gets busier.

3. Avoid going in the holidays when it is very, very crowded.

4. Learn to bargain on the stuff you are going to buy. I was advised that you should pay as little as two thirds of the price asked originally.

5. A camera is necessary when you go to Tianzifang as there will be so much you would love to capture. But be careful as it is not allowed to take pictures in the residential area where the local residents still live.

6. Look out for the old residential buildings called ‘shikumen’, literally ‘stone doors’. These houses have stone door-frames and solid wooden doors.

7. Many original residents still live in the narrow lanes. Please be mindful and respect their privacy.

8. Some shops do not permit you to take photos, even of the exterior. So don’t feel offended when they stop you and chase you away.

9. Besides places of business, there are still some residents living there. Don’t enter residential houses mistakenly.

10. Take toilet-paper as there are only traditional Chinese toilets. Otherwise there are nice public toilets in the mall across the street where the Starbucks is located.

Where is your favourite alleyway to explore?