Sophisticated, cosmopolitan and dynamic, Shanghai is an awe-inspiring destination. China’s largest city by population — more than 23 million — features an ever-changing skyline full of skyscrapers. As you stroll along the landmark Bund, it’s difficult to imagine that 5,000 years ago this was little more than a tiny fishing village and textile town.
Shanghai, which means “city on the sea,” grew because of its strategic position on the Huangpu River, a tributary of the mighty Yangtze River that flows into the East China Sea. With its advantageous port location and economic potential, the city opened to the outside world and foreign trade following the 1842 Treaty of Nanking, which marked the end of the first Opium War between the British and Chinese.
European, American and Russian traders moved in and built banks, embassies and offices, most notably characterized in the Bund, the sweeping waterfront mile that’s lined with Gothic, Art Deco and other historic buildings. Today, the 19th-century architecture vies for attention with the sleek, space-age towers in Pudong, Shanghai’s newest district on the opposite side of the Huangpu.
Shanghai’s history tends to be eclipsed by its modern-day magnetism, but you don’t need to scratch far beneath the surface of the designer shopping streets and glitzy malls to find some traditional treasures. Ancient pagodas, temples and gardens provide an oasis of calm in the 24/7 metropolis that makes up China’s most contemporary city.
The Bund, Shanghai’s most memorable mile, is the place to see and be seen for visitors and locals alike. Walk along East Zhongshan No. 1 Road for close-up views of buildings that include the Art Deco Peace Hotel, the towering Bank of China and the Customs House, topped by a clock face and bell modeled after London’s Big Ben. Or check out the elevated promenade for the best views of the rocket-shaped Oriental Pearl and Jin Mao towers, once the highest buildings on the Pudong side of the river (until they were eclipsed by the Shanghai World Financial Center and then the Shanghai Tower). Although it’s a magnet any time of day, the best time to go is at night when the neon-lit Pudong skyline is a nocturnal spectacle.
Designed in the shape of a ding, an ancient circular Chinese cooking vessel, the Shanghai Museum displays a dazzling collection of bronze, sculptures, calligraphy, jade, coins and ceramics. It also has a colorful exhibition of clothing, arts and crafts of “Chinese minorities,” the name given to ethnic groups. Admission to the museum, located near People’s Square, is free; if time is tight, though, it’s worth renting a handheld audio guide that covers the highlights.
The Old Town, in the southeastern part of the city, provides a tantalizing glimpse of 16th-century Shanghai. Behind the inevitable souvenir stands sit beautiful old buildings, temples and pagodas. The bustling bazaar is a fun place to watch locals queue up for dim sum and to wander through the narrow side streets. The area is bordered by the Renmin Lu and Zhonghua Lu roads that follow the line of the original walls built to keep Japanese pirates at bay.
No visit to the Old Town would be complete without taking in the Yuyuan Garden, just off the central square of the bazaar. Created in 1559 during the Ming Dynasty, the garden is split into six areas divided by dramatic dragon walls. Shady paths lead past pools filled with bright orange carp, serene pavilions, rock gardens and a covered walkway originally designed for women to walk on one side and men on the other.
Two priceless white jade Buddhas were transported from Burma to China in 1881 by a monk. Although the original temple built a year later no longer exists, the replacement Jade Buddha Temple constructed in 1928 in western Shanghai provides a beautiful backdrop for the pair of seated and reclining Buddhas.
When it comes to a stylish and historic haunt for a cocktail, the Long Bar at the Waldorf Astoria Shanghai on the Bund is hard to beat. Originally the site of the Shanghai Club, a gentleman’s club and watering hole for British nationals, the bar opened in 1910. (At the time, the 111-foot-long bar was reputed to be the longest in the world.) It has since been restored to its former glory, with sumptuous leather chairs, marble columns, stained glass and archive photos that show what it was like in its heyday.
The site of the First National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921, the Xintiandi area has reinvented itself as a trendy district famous for its renovated old shikumen (stone-gated houses), relaxed cafe society, and individual shops and galleries.
If you’ve seen the Bund from the ground, enjoy a completely different perspective of Shanghai with panoramic views from the 100th floor observation deck at the Shanghai World Financial Center, which reaches the dizzying height of 1,555 feet.
Shanghai Ocean Aquarium is a modern complex next to the Oriental Pearl Tower, displaying hundreds of aquatic species from four oceans and five continents. It features a particularly interesting area with rare and endangered species from various areas of China, including the Yangtze River.
The Propaganda Poster Art Center is a private museum and the only one of its kind in China. It provides a thought-provoking and powerful insight into social history through thousands of idealized posters dating from 1910 to 1990.
Designed by English architect William Doyle and completed in 1910, St. Ignatius Cathedral was the first Western-style cathedral built in China. The vast building can accommodate up to 2,500 worshippers and is known as the grandest cathedral in the Far East.
Shanghai cuisine reflects the cooking styles of the nearby provinces of Jiangsu, Anhui, Zhejiang, Fujian and Jiangxi, which are characterized by a greater use of soy sauce, sugar, rice wine and rice vinegar than other regional cuisines. That said, Shanghai’s 1,000-plus restaurants also serve every other style of Chinese food, such as spicy Sichuan, Cantonese dim sum and Peking, which are more familiar to Western palates. Add the food of virtually every other country you can imagine, and it all adds up to Shanghai being a truly international dining destination.
“Food streets,” such as Huanghe Road and Wujiang Road near People’s Square, serve everything from cheap local eats to Western-style meals. Just wander around to see what takes your fancy.
As the name implies, the Bund Brewery is just off the waterfront. This relaxed and friendly eatery with its cozy wooden interior serves microbrewed Bundlander beer, great cocktails and reasonably priced food. There’s a Western menu, but if you want to try local fare, the waiter will be happy to make some suggestions.
Vegetarians can enjoy a tasty deal at Songyuelou in the Old Town. Popular with locals and visitors alike, it dates to 1910 and is Shanghai’s oldest veggie restaurant. English menus can be found upstairs, and the vegetable-stuffed buns fill a lunchtime hole between sightseeing tours of the nearby City God Temple and Yuyuan Garden.
Situated in the heart of the French Concession foodie district, Cuivre serves up a taste of southern France under the direction of Michael Wendling, who worked in Michelin-starred kitchens before going it alone. The decor is fun and quirky, with dissected bicycles acting as bar stools. Dishes might include beef tartar, mussels with spicy sausage or cod with eggplant confit.
If you’ve got a sense of adventure and some money to spare, consider booking a table at Ultraviolet, an experimental restaurant that calls its dining experience “a story in 20 courses.” The restaurant seats just 10 diners (which means you must book months in advance) and incorporates video projections, music and other technological elements into a mouth-watering feast for more than just the tastebuds.
Lost Heaven has two locations in Shanghai, one in the French Concession district and the other near the Bund. Both serve up traditional folk cuisine from the Yunnan province in a dim, candlelit ambience.
Shopping in Shanghai
Known as the Paris of the Orient, Shanghai is a dream for fashionistas with its high-end shops selling an A to Z of designer names. Those seeking an authentic Chinese souvenir can find Shanghai lacquer items, jade and silk paintings. The best budget souvenirs are wood carvings and Chinese calligraphy, where your name or the recipient’s is written in ink on scrolls, jewelry and other wares. Youngsters will love one of the omnipresent cuddly pandas that come in all sizes.
A word to the wise: China is notorious for counterfeit goods, and Shanghai has whole markets dedicated to fakes. Street hawkers can be annoying when they start following you around with armfuls of knock-off watches, bags, jade jewelry and assorted items and pester you to buy. If you’re tempted, don’t be surprised if that “Rolex” has stopped ticking by the time you get home.
While individuals will have personal views on the rights and wrongs of fake products, anyone who buys them should be aware of the legal issues. The U.S. Customs and Border Patrol allows travelers to bring back one article of each type of counterfeit product (one watch, one bag, etc.), provided they are for personal use and not for sale. It is illegal to sell counterfeit goods, and anyone caught bringing back several, or large numbers, of the same items will have them confiscated and could be subjected to a fine.
Flex your plastic on Nanjing Road, the main shopping street that stretches more than three miles from the Bund to People’s Square. East Nanjing Road, closest to the Bund, is home to some of Shanghai’s grand old department stores and leads into West Nanjing Road with its upmarket malls, designer shops and five-star hotels. When you’ve shopped until you’ve dropped, there are plenty of places to take a break, from familiar fast-food chains to authentic Chinese restaurants.
Shanghai’s other famous shopping street is Huaihai Road, a bit swankier than Nanjing Road; this is the spot to search out luxury brands and browse upscale department stores.
Historic Fuzhou Road has been called Shanghai’s “cultural street” and is fun for a browse if you’re looking for books, music and art (although there are plenty of souvenir shops here too).
–written by Jeannine Williamson