The most dynamic city in the world’s fastest- changing nation, Shanghai is an exhilarating, ever-morphing metropolis that isn’t just living China’s dream, but is setting the pace for the rest of the world.
Once a playground for foreign adventurers and socialites, the one-time whore of the Orient is now where home-grown tycoons build soaring monuments to capitalism and the locals party all night. But despite a past as evocative as it is notorious, Shanghai has dispensed with the rear-view mirror, pushed the pedal to the floor and is roaring towards its imagined future so fast that keeping up is almost impossible. New developments spring up weekly, while the rapidly growing middle classes work seven days a week in the hope of graduating to the big-time.
Shanghai is much more Hong Kong than Běijīng; there are no dusty imperial palaces here. Instead, European-style cityscapes and tempting, tree-lined neighbourhoods rub shoulders with the sci-fi skyline of Pǔdōng. Shanghai was where China first met the West and it’s still a frontier town, obsessed with the latest fads, fashions and technology.
But tucked between the shopping malls and the eye-popping modern architecture is the old Shanghai, where temples nestle down alleys, along with street markets and classical Chinese gardens. Shanghai is a city of stunning contrasts, where visitors can go from sipping a cocktail in a designer bar overlooking the Bund, to eating dumplings at a street stall, or gazing at a 10th-century Buddhist monastery, in the space of a few hours. Summer is hot and humid, winter can get cold, but Shanghai never stops.
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’ll discover a funky blend of art deco architecture, bullet-fast Maglevs, skyrocketing buildings, French patisseries, jazz, European streetscapes, charming 19th-century lǐlòng (alleys) and cocktails on the Bund.
1. Barrel down the Bund Beijing has the Great Wall and Xi’an the Terracotta Army, but Shanghai has its Bund, a magnificent riverside sweep of masonry that grew with the rise of Shanghai and impassively watched the city’s decline and renaissance. Nowhere else in Shanghai are the ebbing symbols of Western hegemony so deftly contrasted to monuments of China’s growing clout. The promenade is ideal for putting every Bund building in its proper context; it’s a carnival of kiosks, hawkers, tour groups and the commercial mayhem of China’s tourist boom. Visit at dawn for tai-chi performers or at dusk to see twilight settle magically over Pudong’s skyscrapers.
2. Breeze around People’s Square Far less austere than Beijing’s crypto-Stalinist Tiananmen Square, People’s Square has none of the paranoia of the capital’s notorious rectangle. But even if you’re twitchy with crowds, you will find the square an unavoidable tangle of metro interchange, intriguing museums, dazzling hotels, top vistas and cultural venues.
3. Size up Lujiazui Nothing in Shanghai is more manufactured and aspirational than Lujiazui, Pudong’s most pulsating panorama. and the city’s state-of-the-art answer to Hong Kong’s Central district, as viewed from Kowloon. China’s economic nerve centre, Lujiazui is an ever-evolving scene. The best way to reflect on China’s landmark towers is at night, but any time will do. Weather permitting, toast the towers from the terrace of New Heights in the Bund. Alternatively, savour high-altitude views – stratocirrus permitting – in Lujiazui itself from Cloud 9 or the world’s highest observation deck in the World Financial Center.
4. Savour Shanghai’s dishy deco heritage Shanghai is a snappy museum of art-deco style. The machine-age building form evokes racy 1920s and ’30s Shanghai, when the city first emerged as a modern, cosmopolitan city. The clothing and fashions of that era may have vanished, but art-deco hotels, apartment blocks, private residences, cinemas and banks – made of more durable materials – have survived.
5. Put Frenchtown in the frame The modish French Concession comes into focus with a meander around its leafy back streets. With politics,shopping, old gangster pads and dining, entertainment is guaranteed. Cap the experience off with dinner and drinks at one of the area’s excellent restaurants and bars. Shanghai has its European eccentricity, but little prepares you for the Gothic towers.
6. Fish for fashion around Tianzifang Shoppers and wanderers take note: this engaging warren of stone-gate houses, architecture and hip boutiques is the perfect spot for browsing while soaking in the flavours of the ever-elusive traditional Shanghai neighbourhood. The handsome recipe of lane housing, wi-fi cafes, art galleries and fashion shops fills out this residential community.
7. Drink and dine among Shanghai’s Shikumen Xintiandi hasn’t been around for a decade yet and already it’s a Shanghai icon. An upscale entertainment complex modelled on traditional lilong (alleyway) homes, Xintiandi was the first development in the city to prove that historic architecture does, in fact, have economic value. Well-heeled shoppers and alfresco diners keep the place busy until late, and if you’re looking for a memorable meal or a browse through some of Shanghai’s more fashionable shops, this is the place.
8. Link up with Shanghai’s laid-back lanes Shanghai’s ultramodern skyline is electric for sure, but also impersonal and dwarfing. Don’t fret. For things on a more human scale, where real communities get on with their daily lives, meandering through Shanghai’s collection of lilong alleys and shikumen homes is a helpful antidote. These gorgeous stone-and-brick communities, mainly designed from the mid-19th century to the art-deco era, hog much of Shanghai’s characteristic Concession-era charms, where low-rise tenements line up in neat, pretty rows.
9. Go on an Old Town culture quest With its shaded alcoves, sparkling pools flashing with goldfish, beckoning classical pavilions, rustling bamboo and rocky recesses, Yuyuan Gardens is one of Shanghai’s most eminent sights. This prompts a caveat: classical Chinese gardens were simply not designed to accommodate daily visitor figures topping a thousand. Securing that unique, tranquil atmosphere that brought these gardens fame can be a mission improbable. Set your alarm for an early, pre-crowd visit for glimpses of the gardens’ tranquilising harmonies of light and shade, and rock and water.
10. Delve into the divine At the Jade Buddha Temple , Shanghai’s holiest Buddhist shrine, the tinkle of the tourist dollar clashes with the sacred chanting of monks and birds chirping from Magnolia grandifl ora branches.. Festooned with red lanterns, the halls and courtyards of the saffron-coloured temple glitter with fine effigies and temple ornaments. A visit is a reminder of the growing religious fever sweeping China.