A Walk in Shanghai's Old Financial District - TheStreet

The icons of modern Shanghai are luridly lit, look-at-me highrises, but until the 1980s, the city of 18 million was symbolized in Western eyes by a solid line of impressive, marble- and granite-clad corporate buildings arrayed along the Huangpu River: the Bund.

The heritage buildings of the Bund -- some renovated and reborn as the homes of smart restaurants, upscale bars, stylish shops and a sprinkling of banks -- are still there, and the Bund, while no longer China's Wall Street, is still one of the most interesting places to visit in Shanghai.

The Bund is best explored on foot, which I did recently in the company of

Peter Hibbard

, an expat Brit and former urban planner who leads walking tours of the Bund and nearby neighborhoods. It was a revelation. I had strolled around the area on previous visits, armed with a street map and a smattering of information, but I never really knew what I was looking at. When you hear the back story, it all becomes a lot more interesting.

My walk with Hibbard, whose new book is

The Bund Shanghai: China Faces West

, was arranged through my hotel, the Pudong Shangri-la, which is situated directly across the river from the Bund and has splendid views of its neo-classical buildings.

There are other tour guides in town, of course. And you can set off on your own with Hibbard's book or various travel guidebooks, which outline good walks, but it was fun being able to ask questions.

For example, how old is the Bund? It dates back to the 1840s, when Europeans and Americans dug in, made Shanghai an important treaty port, carved out semi-autonomous concession districts and gave Shanghai a decadent, cosmopolitan character that reached its zenith in the 1920s and '30s. Think slicked-back hair, clingy cocktail dresses, round, rimless eyeglasses and smoky clubs.

The most important buildings on the Bund (pronounced 'bond,' and derived from a Hindi word for 'towpath,' which it once was) were put up between 1910 and 1935 along a busy road, with the river port on one side and the central business district on the other. Most of the builders were British, and they spared no expense, importing Italian marble, Oregon pine and British bronzework. Most of the buildings were bank headquarters; some included exclusive private clubs. Several were hotels, chief among them the Cathay Hotel and Astor House, both of which still stand.

From Astor House on the north end to no. 3 the Bund and its sleek, international restaurants on the south end, my walk took about three hours. That included time for coffee and chat and for poking into moldering mansions that now contain up to a dozen family apartments.

Many of the former mansions still have grand central staircases, but they are no-frills buildings now; drying laundry hangs above the staircases in the midday gloom and bicycles are stacked in the entryways.

The corporate buildings at the heart of the Bund are in varying states of repair and offer varying degrees of public access. After the revolution of 1949, the structures were poorly maintained or badly modernized, and were closed to the outside world for nearly 50 years.

Today, the magnificent old Custom House at 13 the Bund, built in 1927, is a gold exchange; you can walk up to the gate and look in at historic mosaics of junks and river views, but you can't go inside.

The domed former Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, opened in 1923, is now the Pudong Development Bank. Located at 12 the Bund, it boasts marble mosaic floors, an airy octagonal rotunda and eight glorious, allegorical wall murals representing world financial centers, among them Tokyo, London and New York. You can look around, but security guards put the kibosh on photography.

The most accessible places are, as you might imagine, hotels, eateries and retail centers.

Just north of Suzhou Creek, the 1911 Astor House welcomes visitors. The hotel has renovated parts of its rambling building and is something of an architectural hodge-podge, but you can roam at will and admire the warm lobby with its burnished woods and the once-fashionable ballroom (restored in 2006), which is popular again for Sunday brunch. Opened as a deluxe, five-star redoubt, Astor House was a backpackers' youth hostel by the 1990s; it is now a three-star full-service establishment.

The famous Cathay Hotel, where Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard frolicked, was renamed the Peace Hotel in the depths of the Communist era. Early this decade, it was a wondrous time capsule, with a musty bar, a house jazz band comprised mainly of octogenarian players and a dark, quiet lobby. Located at 20 the Bund, it is now closed for renovation and will re-open as a Fairmont Hotel.

At 18 the Bund, the circa-1922 Chartered Bank opened in 2004 as a shopping mall. Where Communist cadres once trod, Cartier and Zegna now operate shops. The interior was gutted and redone by Italian craftsmen flown in for the job. You are welcome to wander, squeeze off snapshots and spend money.

At the south end of the Bond, near an elevated expressway at 60 Fuzhou Rd., is a bit of the old Shanghai sass: House of Blues and Jazz, a nightclub with a bar and restaurant that's festooned with wall-mounted photos of musicians: the late bluesman John Lee Hooker with his trademark glare; the cocksure young Louis Armstrong, seated, legs crossed, resplendent in argyle socks.

At 5 the Bund, you'll find the best food and best view, from the terrace of M at the Bund, a seventh-floor fusion restaurant that kick-started the revival of the Bund when it opened in 1999. The best food and views of the Bund from across the river are at Jade on 36, the inventive restaurant and bar at the Pudong Shangri-la. From there, you can watch neon lighting flash along the Bund at night. It's a rare anomaly, because, unlike the new Shanghai, high on the shock of the new, the historic Bund still trades on the charms of the past.

David Armstrong is a San Francisco Bay Area-based writer. He covers airlines and airports, hotels and resorts, food and wine, and writes travel destination features.