If God allows Shanghai to endure,” an exasperated missionary once said, “then he will owe Sodom and Gomorrah an apology.” By the turn of the 20th century, pursuit of pleasure in this cosmopolitan city was second only to the pursuit of money. For the elite of Shanghai society, life was an intoxicating world of days at the races, tea at the Astor, and long nights at the club.
After a series of more subdued decades, Shanghai began to rediscover its real joie de vivre in the early 1990s. On the back of whirlwind economic development and population expansion, the city’s former dalliance with decadence is now driving a revival of the golden age. With this year’s Expo about to kick off, the “Paris of the East” is worth a visit.
Keep in mind that Shanghai is undeniably modern. And in many ways, this is part of Shanghai’s history; for a century and a half it has been an international city, and today it’s no different. Though you might not see ancient monasteries and sprawling temples across Shanghai, you will see the modern China—a country that’s is hurtling into the future.
8 a.m. – URBAN CHIC?
Wake up in URBN Shanghai—the city’s first carbon neutral hotel with five star facilities (183 Jiaozhou Road; 021 5153 4600; urbnhotels.com). The building is constructed using reclaimed materials, including hardwoods, house bricks and even antique leather suitcases. Though made out of old items, in terms of outlook and design, it’s as modern as they come.
9 a.m. – LOCAL LOWDOWN
Before wandering off into Shanghai’s vast urban sprawl, it’s handy to get a sense of the city’s layout; it is, after all, China’s biggest (and tallest) metropolis. Grab a taxi to the Shanghai Urban Planning Museum, on 100 Renmin Da Dao, or take the subway to People’s Square (人民广场 Rénmín Guǎngchǎng).??On the third floor of the museum, housed in a pretty dramatic building itself, a futuristic city in miniature decorates the floor. Representing a real life work in progress, this Lilliputian model is the envisioned Shanghai of 2020, a vast megalopolis of over 25 million-plus inhabitants living in harmony and prosperity.
10:30 a.m. – A MING MASTERPIECE?
Now for a taste of the past. The compact Yu Garden (豫园 Yù Yuán, Renmin Lu) is Shanghai’s most famous piece of classical greenery. It was created as a private garden in 1559 by one Pan Yunduan, who spent a small fortune and almost 20 years putting together this verdant masterpiece to please his elderly father, a high-ranking Ming Dynasty official.
Having been neglected and damaged in the past, the garden has been restored to its former glory, and now comprises a beautiful maze of pavilions, rockeries, bridges and goldfish ponds. The layout, which contains several gardens-within-gardens, can make strolling here a bit confusing, but stick to a general clockwise path from the main entrance and you’ll eventually arrive at the Inner Garden (内园 Nèi Yuán) and final exit.
11:30 a.m. – TIME FOR TEA
Perched on an artificial lake in front of Yu Yuan is Huxinting Chalou (湖心亭茶楼), Shanghai’s oldest operating teahouse. But it’s the Old Shanghai Teahouse (老上海茶馆 Lǎo Shànghǎi Cháguǎn?, 385 Fangbang Zhonglu; 021 5382-1202), hidden just a block away, that’s offers the true tea house experience. The soundtrack of old gramophone records, the collection of gorgeous antiques and old photos, and the view of Laojie are all unrivaled. The tea menu, as well, can’t be beat.
For food, don’t miss the unbelievably popular Nanxiang Xiaolongbao (南翔小笼包, 85 Yu Yuan Road; 021 6355-4206), outside of which a long line of dumpling-hungry-fiends invariably waits. There’s nothing that says Shanghai like the ubiquitous xiaolongbao—a small steamed dumpling packed with tasty broth and minced pork or crab meat—and this is a perfect place to start tasting them. Try the ground floor for the longest wait and the cheapest bite, or head upstairs where each floor of the restaurant boasts slightly pricier and significantly tastier dumplings.
1 p.m. – ALL ABOUT ART
After traveling back in time, jump into tomorrow. Grab a cab to 50 Moganshan Lu, to see futuristic Shanghai culture. This industrial maze of converted warehouses and factories in Shanghai’s Putuo District now houses the city’s modern art scene, and is generally packed with a Bohemian mix of art aficionados, students and models.
3:30 p.m. – PUDONG PATROL?
Pudong is a feng shui fantasia of glass, steel and construction cranes. The locals joke that residents of Puxi, the more populated area to the west of the Huangpu River, need a passport to enter this ever-growing Chinese version of Manhattan.
Walk northwest on Century Boulevard to Fenghe Road and you’ll come across the unmistakable Oriental Pearl TV Tower (1 Shiji Dadao; 021 5879-1888). With its pink bulb-on-a-needle silhouette, this is the city’s most distinctive tower. Snap a few shots, but don’t go up, since you can have the same view for free at the nearby Jinmao Tower. Do head to the basement, though, for the Shanghai History Museum, an amazing museum filled with life-size recreations of old Shanghai, and some truly bizarre interactive ways to experience the city’s fascinating past.
4 p.m. – GOLDEN PROSPERITY??
The riverbank offers a unique opportunity to watch boats chugging by, and a chance to visualize the opposing riverbank for what it once was—a busy colonial-era port. But it’s the mighty Jinmao Tower (88 Century Boulevard; 021 5049 1234; shanghai.grand.hyatt.com), now overshadowed by the even mightier Shanghai World Financial Center Tower, that will probably catch your eye. But both will soon be overshadowed by the even more colossal Shanghai Tower, which is in the early stages construction on an adjacent plot.
Many architects list Pudong’s Jinmao Tower, home to a Park Hyatt Hotel, as Shanghai’s finest piece of modern architecture.
For refreshment with a view, take the rocket launcher—i.e. the elevator—to the hotel lobby on the 54th floor and pick from among the numerous hotel restaurants offering a clear view over the city. The 53rd floor view of the atrium’s internal swirls is dazzling, and the view from the toilets puts the Hong Kong Felix’s to shame. If you’re hankering for a vertiginous tipple, albeit a pricy one, wait until 5pm and embark on another set of elevators to the 87th floor’s Cloud 9 Bar.
7:30 p.m. – BLING IT ON??
For romantic dining or a little bit of laid-back luxury, the Bund is the best location for viewing Pudong’s full nocturnal splendor. After a half-century of neglect, this 1920s Shanghai institution has been transformed into a luxurious late-night destination where the well-heeled can patronize high-end restaurants, cocktail lounges, boutique hotels, art galleries and fashion flagships.
Completed in 2004, the Three on the Bund complex (3, The Bund; 021 6321 0909; threeonthebund.com) is home to the Evian Spa and Shanghai Gallery of Art, as well as four of Shanghai’s top eateries. Sitting on the seventh floor is the New Heights bar and restaurant, the most casual and affordable option of the quartet, and a reminder of the city’s French influences. It also happens to offer the best view in the house courtesy of its wraparound terrace. Make your reservations well in advance!
10 p.m. – IT’S JUST VAUDEVILLE
Stepping into Chinatown (471 Zhapu Lu; 021 6258 2078) is just like stepping right into the 1920s. You won’t see Big-Eared Du here, but you’ll half expect him to walk in through the grand doors, Zhang Ailing and Zhou Xuan wrapped around his arms. Bawdy comedians, silent movies, burlesque dancers and golden era cocktails unite to make this speakeasy an unforgettable one.
7 a.m. – PARK LIFE?
Despite Shanghai’s cutting edge architecture and modern aesthetic, there’s still plenty of tradition and culture to be found. Embrace the new day with an early morning shot of caffeine, and head down to Fuxing Park (复兴公园 Fùxīng Gōngyuán). Here, Shanghai’s older generation turn out in force daily, practicing synchronized dancing and tai chi, flying kites, spinning tops or maybe just sharing stories and gossiping.
“That’s what I love about Shanghai,” says Liu Bing, a sales executive who enjoys a daily jog at dawn. “The city is famous for high-tech places like Pudong, and soon the Expo site, but it has a lot of old charm left too. There are some beautiful parks and colonial buildings in the French Concession, and if you take a wander around the backstreets, you’ll see people living a life that’s changed little over the last 30 years.”
9 a.m. – MARKET MELEE?
Another good place for encountering a piece of China’s yesteryear is the antique market on Dongtai Road, near Xizang Road, where roadside stalls are laden down with Mao memorabilia, calligraphy brushes and a mind-boggling array of knick knacks. There’s a lot of old junk, but those who arrive early enough are often rewarded with a kitsch bargain or two. A stone’s throw from here is the equally diverting animal market on Xizang Road, where fighting crickets in metal jars share space with bowls of terrapins, caged song birds and a jostling rabble of punters.
11:30 a.m. – FRENCH CONNECTION?
Shanghai’s French Concession, the center of much of the city’s colorful history of the 1920s to 1940s, now comprises the Luwan and Xuhui Districts. The tree-lined avenues and Tudor mansions still endow this area with a distinctly European feel, and make this a great place to escape the high-rise hustle and bustle of more modern Shanghai. For tours of the interiors, we recommend starting with the former houses of Sun Yat-sen (7 Xiangshan Rd; 021 6437 2954) and Zhou Enlai (73 Sinan Rd; 021 6473 0420). Just a block apart, they offer wonderful glimpses into the life of these revolutionary figures. Larger and far more glamorous, Soong Ching Ling’s house (1843 Huaihai Middle Rd; 021 6437 6268; shsoong-chingling.com) is a trek, but has been kept immaculately-preserved.
1:30 p.m. – SHANGHAI EATS?
For true Shanghai cuisine, which is as sweet and decadent as Shanghai’s history, try a meal at Jesse (41 Tianping Lu; 021 6282 9260). A round of thick, sugary Hongshao Rou, Eight Treasure Fish, and Sixi Doufu (dark tofu with mushrooms) will leave you with a taste of Shanghai, and a thirst for more.
3 p.m. – COMMUNISM ON WALLS?
Secreted down in a basement of a collection of high-rises, there are few better museums in Shanghai than the quirky and engrossing Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre (868 Huashan Road; 021 6211 1845; shanghaipropagandaart.com). Yang Peiming’s personal collection of original Chinese communist artwork, which he’s been building for decades, is only surpassed by his personal anecdotes and memories, which he’s happy to share.
4 p.m. ?– TO XIN BOLDLY?
Take a stroll over to Xintiandi in the heart of Shanghai’s downtown area for retail therapy surrounded by local history. Xintiandi is a stylish shopping, eating and entertainment area, full of restored shikumen (石库门, “stone gate”) houses on narrow alleyways, that blends 19th century architecture with a 21st century lifestyle.?The Shikumen Open House Museum on Taicang Lu offers a meticulous re-creation of a middle-class Shanghai home from the 1920s, crammed with period comic books, baby photos, teacups, iron beds and makeup tables. Our favorite part is the tingzijian (亭子间), a small, unheated room which was rented out for extra income, often to aspiring novelists who later earned fame by writing about shikumen life.
6:30 p.m. – DIVERSE DINING?
While Nanxiang Xiaolongbao offers the city’s most famous dumplings, this neighborhood offers what may be the best. Try the advice of local art student Wang Jia, by eating at Herbal Legend restaurant (Xintiandi; 021 6386 6817/8), or follow our editors’ bellies, at both Crystal Jade (Xintiandi; 021 6385 8752) and Din Tai Feng (Xintiandi; 021 6385 8378). Whichever of these you end up at, it’s hard to go wrong here.
8 p.m. – ALL THAT JAZZ?
Take a taxi to the JZ Club (46 West Fuxing Road; 021 6431 0269; jzclub.cn), a great venue for some postprandial relaxation. One of Shanghai’s premiere live music hotspots, the atmosphere in this lounge bar simply oozes jazz and blues.
10 p.m. – SHENG JIAN BAO AT?XIAO YANG?
It’s rude of us to save these for your last night here, but ultimately, you’ll thank us. If you started here, you might miss the rest of Shanghai—finding yourself seated at Xiao Yang’s (小杨生煎馆 Xiǎoyáng Shēngjiān Guǎn) for 48 hours, eating plate after plate of shengjian (生煎). These pan-fried soup dumplings, sometimes bready, often dusted in sesame seeds and chives, and always deliciously addictive, are an unforgettable Shanghai treat. Although they’re available throughout the city, the very local chain Xiao Yang (97 Huanghe Road)—serving them up on metal plates with a queue winding down the street—is a great place to sample these snack delights.
- She’s living the high-life.
- I hear Big-Earned Du used to come here.