Bristled with buildings, Shanghai doesn’t boast of must-see sights like New York or Rome; the joys of the city, rather, are on the street level, where everyday life unfolds with bewildering flavours.
In a land five millennia old, Shanghai feels like it was born yesterday. When you’ve had your fill of Terracotta Warriors, musty palaces and gloomy imperial tombs, submit to Shanghai’s debutante charms. You won’t find ancient temples or hoary monuments, but you will discover a funky blend of art deco architecture, bullet-fast Maglev, skyrocketing buildings, French patisseries, European streetscapes, charming 19th-century lilòng (alleys) and cocktails on the Bund.
After 40 years of stagnation, the city, dubbed the Pearl of the Orient and the Paris of the east, is undergoing one of the fastest economic expansions the world has seen. Once a tiny fishing village, Shanghai – the city above the sea – is a thriving metropolitan hub with an incredible history. Here, East meets West, old marries new. With a population of nearly 24 million, various quarters give this mega-city a surprisingly neighbourhood like feel. The incredible diversity of people is reflected in the richness of culture, cuisine, and architecture. Shanghai is a city on the go, so before you get swept away in the flow or jostled out of your place in line, be sure to find a spot to slow down, plant your feet, and take it all in.
Bullet-fast ride to reach fast-paced city
Landing refreshed at Shanghai’s Pudong airport, the journey begins with the magnetic-levitation (Maglev, as it is popularly known) train ride from the airport to the city. This is indeed the perfect metaphor for Shanghai. The train reaches at the speed of 430 kilometre per hour, and the trip takes less than eight minutes. You will be feeling a bit whiplashed, but that sense of disorientation hints at the fast-paced city that lies ahead. As of now, the Maglev doesn’t extend to the rest of the Shanghai — the train line was built as a prestige project to impress visitors, not as a service to locals — so the airport run is the one place you can enjoy the ride that costs 50 yuan or USD8 (single-side ticket).
With links to 110 cities in 48 countries, the commercial hub of Shanghai is the gateway to China for many travellers. Although rich in cultural heritage, the city’s prime calling card is its urban charm. From daybreak in the city’s maze of streets and alleys to a nightcap of jazz and blues, enjoy the quirks and charms of this booming metropolis.
Unlike many Chinese cities that appear to have forgotten that people occasionally like to perambulate, Shanghai is made for walking. Start your own walk in Fuxing Park smack-dab in the colonial-era French Concession, with its shady sycamore trees and stuccoed villas. In the park, you will find grannies in pyjamas belting out Chinese opera, and Mao-suited men taking their caged birds for a stroll. Around the corner at 7 Xiangshan Road is the former residence of Sun Yat-sen, modern China’s founding father. His house, which contains period furniture and books, reminds you of what Shanghai felt like during its first heyday. Afterward, wander the nearby lanes — past elegant mansions now subdivided into several families’ homes, complete with outdoor work stations and billows of hanging laundry — to get a sense of street-level Shanghai today.
Given its much-vaunted 5,000 years of history, China’s museums are, in general, a sorry lot. Exhibits are badly lighted, the English information often a jumble of incomprehensible nouns. But that still doesn’t excuse the pathetic state in which most of the country’s national treasures are displayed. The Shanghai Museum, located on People’s Square, is a welcome antidote to all that is dark and dingy. You don’t try to digest it all in one go. Pick one section, whether it is calligraphy or jades or ceramics, and dig in. The shape of the museum itself mimics that of an ancient bronze cauldron.
Peoples square, located in the centre of Shanghai, that covers 140,000 square metre is surrounded by the municipal government office building, the Shanghai Museum, Shanghai City Planning Exhibition Hall and the Grand Theatre. There are huge green area and trees, encircled by numerous buildings on all sides. All of these buildings make up a beautiful view. In the centre of the square is a smart musical fountain. Crossing through the square is a 100-meter-wide pathway from the west to the east. Many townsfolk go to the square for a walk. The Square is particularly spectacular at night, when steam appears to seep out of the roof of the museum and the light bounces off the glass walls of the Grand Theatre.
A famous classical garden in South China, the Yuyuan Garden was built 400 years ago during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) by a Sichuan minister of finance named Pan Yunduan. Since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, it has been renovated several times and now enjoys state protection. The garden is divided into scenic sections with equally interesting names such as ‘Mountains and Forests in the City’, ‘Magnificent Woods and Beautiful Valleys’, ‘Historical Relics of Heralding Spring’, ‘Water and Rockery Scenery’, ‘Tops in the World’ and the ‘Inner Garden’.
Moving on, Nanjing Road is a walking street that is always packed with people observing the crowd. It is regarded as the first commercial road in Shanghai. Built in 1851, the 5.5 kilometre long Nanjing Road is the most bustling and prosperous street in Shanghai. It is said that there were only four departmental stores along the street, while now the street has turned into the number one site for shopping in the city. Extending from the Bund to Jing An Temple, its eastern end has an all-weather pedestrian street. The large traditional stores no longer dominate the market since modern shopping malls, specialty stores, theatres, and international hotels have mushroomed on both sides of the street.
The Bund – A true symbol of Shanghai
Beijing has the Great Wall, but Shanghai has its Bund. As a living gallery of world architecture, the Bund is an authentic representation of Shanghai. Its dozens of historical buildings light up at night to make a dazzling spectacle.
There are restaurants, bars, galleries and shops. Recover from the crowds with a classic martini at the roof terrace of M on the Bund, located in one of the 1920s-era buildings that still line the riverfront. The M is for Michelle Garnaut, an Australian restaurateur who in the spring oversees Shanghai’s very own International Literary Festival, which has in the past lured everyone from John Banville to Amy Tan. The Hyatt has it in spades when it comes to top views of the city. Head up the Vue Bar on the 32nd Floor to see the city in a new light.
If you didn’t know that the “Core of the Earth” happens to lie a few meters under the Huangpu, then jump on the Bund Tourist Tunnel for a five minute ride you won’t soon forget. More of a bizarre tram ride under the river than journey to the centre of the world, you will encounter what might be the most outlanding audio-visual display the city has to offer, complete with booming voices and flashing lights. A far more engaging, and less crowded option than sitting in taxi traffic, it is a transportation option worth 50 RMB (USD8) for a one-way ride and 70 RMB (USD10) for a round-trip.
While there are a number of ways to cross the Huangpu River, the most scenic is—without a doubt—by ferry. Part of Shanghai’s incredible public transportation system, a couple of yuan will get you from one bank of the river to the other, with a view to boot. Ferries run every 15-20 minutes depending on the time of day and take off from various ports on either side.
The food in Shanghai is eclectic and scrumptious. There are numerous wonderful restaurants with world renowned chefs working diligently in the kitchens creating world class gastronomic experiences. But you don’t necessarily need to visit a Michelin Starred restaurant to experience the Shanghai gastronomic experience. True Shanghai food is found on the streets. The best place to try local eats is Jishi, a tiny place that is always crowded. The English menu is long and relatively incomprehensible. But one should try here tofu skin with mushrooms (fuzhu), cucumber with aged vinegar (pai huanggua), minced dried tofu with wild greens (malantou), red-braised pork with bamboo shoots (hongshao rou he zhusun). If it’s crab season, definitely order the crab with vermicelli sheets (xiefen fenpi). The use of sugar is another uniqueness found in Shanghai cuisine and, especially when used proportionally with soy sauce, the taste created is not so much sweet but rather spicy.
When in Shanghai, dumpling delight is a must. One of the best-known dishes from Shanghai is the xiaolongbao or soup dumpling. Don’t forget to taste Shengjianbao – crispy-bottomed dumplings filled with pork and broth. These dumplings can be found on nearly every block in the city, including Yang’s Friend Dumpling, Shanghai Tang Cafe, Four Seasons Hotel Shanghai.
For a night spot with more bounce, pull up a stool outside one of the shoebox bars on Yongkang Road — a former vegetable market that has become a raucous bar street popular with the fixed-gear-bike-riding expat community.
It is worth seeking out the local markets for their value as well as their atmosphere. Once there, be prepared to bargain and haggle furiously. It is advised to drop the demanded price by 75 per cent, walk away and see what happens. Chinese silks and brocades cost next to nothing at markets. River pearls are sold in the price of rubbles at the Old Town’s pearl market on the Li Shui Road, the women behind the counter will string them while you wait. Head to the outdoor antiques market on Dong Tai Lu Road for old lacquered boxes, colourful china and communist memorabilia. Watch out for fakes, though.
When it comes to brands, there is little that Shanghai cannot offer. Nanjing Road is only one of the places where you can shop till you drop and even that is several miles long. Here you will find labels such as Dior and Cartier, primarily in Plaza 66, Shanghai’s second tallest building. Giorgio Armani recently opened a store at the base of Bund 3, and Bund 18, opening soon, will house other designers. Huaihai Road is the next rung down; Xiang Yang Lu Fashion Market is where you will find the fakes, if you can face being hassled, not to mention jostling with the crowds.
A couple of days in Shanghai is the perfect counterpoint to the acceleration that happens as soon as Maglev takes you back to Pudong airport, where you will recount the past millennia and a walk from streets to skyscrapers as one brief, but memorable visit.
When to go
While China is a year-round destination, the months of May, September, and October are ideal months for travel anywhere in the country. Shanghai is best to visit during the spring.
How to reach
Most international flights to Shanghai land in Pudong International Airport, located 30km outside of the city.
Where to stay
Hotels located within the Inner Ring Road are highly recommended as they circle most popular attractions, business areas and transportation conjunctions of Shanghai.
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