Tianzifang and Xintiandi are based on a similar idea – an entertainment complex housed within a warren of lòngtáng (弄堂, alleyways). Unlike Xintiandi, families actually reside in Tianzifang and have done so for decades, meaning there's a genuine charm, vibrancy and community. You do need to wade through the souvenir stalls to get to the good stuff, but this network of design studios, cafes, bars and boutiques is the perfect antidote to Shanghai's oversized malls and intimidating skyscrapers.
There are three main north–south lanes (Nos 210, 248 and 274) criss-crossed by irregular east–west alleyways, which makes exploration slightly disorienting and fun. The real activity is shopping, and the creative independent start-ups make for some interesting finds, from vintage spectacle frames at Shanghai Code and crafted kid's clothes at Chouchou Chic to hand-wrapped pǔ'ěr teas from Zhenchalin. Elsewhere, a band of cool cafes, restaurants and bars, such as Kommune and Bell Bar, can sort out meals and drinks and help take the weight off your feet. Tianzifang can get hugely popular during weekends and holidays, when security may limit access to the lanes. The best time to visit is weekdays, preferably early in the morning or later in the evening. There's a tourist information centre at the entrance to Lane 210.