From a humble fishing village to a mega city boasting one of the fastest trains in the world, a flourishing fashion scene and marvels of modern architecture, Shanghai’s culture is nearly as diverse as it’s history. The landscape is a tug-of-war between edgy, glass high-rises and bustling lanes of shikumen-style homes.
Street vendors peddle China’s infamous knock-offs as they stand in front of luxury brand storefronts that proliferate faster than you can pull out your credit card. And even though Michelin-starred chefs compete to snatch up prime property across town, you can still grab a bowl of some of the best noodles you’ll ever taste for less than a dollar on practically any street corner.
The beauty of a visit to this dynamic city is that you can make it what you want: a tour of old alleys, bustling markets and dumpling joints or a luxury retreat laden with million-dollar views, fine dining and clothes made-to-order. Why not both?
Where To Stay
There is no shortage of luxury, name brand hotels in Shanghai, but if you’re looking for something a little more unique, check out the Waterhouse at South Bund — a converted factory (and, at one time Army headquarters). Housing one of the best restaurants in town, this boutique hotel is worth a visit, even if you don’t spend the night.
For the more eco-minded tourist, book yourself a room at URBN. Located in the heart of Jing’An District, this sustainably minded hotel uses recycled and locally-sourced materials to transform a former warehouse into chic lodging. But if you’re hoping for a chance to meld into the city a bit more, check out Shanghai Lane Life’s selection of renovated lane houses tucked into alleyways across the city. Offering wifi and cleaning services, plus the full amenities of living in an apartment, they provide you a home away from home while you explore Shanghai.
How To Get Around
Getting around the city is relatively easy with a super clean, efficient metro system the new Uber English service or simply a good pair of shoes and a map. Taxis are also a feasible option, but avoid the burgundy-colored cars. If you’re up for a little more exercise, there are a handful of florescent orange bikes around town available for loan, but a better option is to check out Wheely Bike Tours and take a guided spin through your neighborhood.
Where To Eat
Head out west — without even having to leave the city — and indulge in Xinjiang’s famous cuisine at Xibo. The food is outstanding and the ambience is date-night worthy. If you’re really out to impress (and be impressed), the Bund is the place to be. There’s no shortage of options on the waterfront, but a consistent favorite among locals and visitors alike is Mr. and Mrs. Bund, a Paul Pairet concept.
For more humble fare, head to one of Di Shui Dong’s locations. Food is served “home-style” and while things can get a little rowdy, it’s a bit like eating straight from your Chinese grandmother’s kitchen. Don’t miss the dry-rubbed ribs — they’re outstanding.
If meat isn’t your forte though, don’t fret. Shanghai’s vegetarian scene is growing and while the selection of restaurants might be humble, the selection of dishes they serve is far from. Try Pure and Whole for a menu that even your meat-eating accomplices will love.
Where To Shop
To take home a custom-made qipao, suit or winter coat, head over to the Shi Liu Pu Cloth Market. This lesser-known tailor market is a great place to pick up fabrics as well as have something whipped up to suit. But give ample time for adjustments, as items rarely fit on first try.
For a taste of the local design scene, wander into Xinle Lu’s Boutique; for quirky souvenirs, pop by Madame Mao’s Dowry. Artisanal pottery that you can’t leave town without is found at Spin Ceramics and classic tchotchkes abound at Yu Yuan Gardens. For all around fun snacking, browsing and buying, wander the lanes at Tianzifang to pick up cloisonné chopsticks, eye-catching photographs or a bizarre trinket or two to take home.
What To Experience
If you happen to be in Shanghai on the weekend, wander into People’s Park to catch a glimpse of the marriage market and watch on as parents and brokers bargain over nuptials. While there, head over the Urban Planning Museum to take a bird’s eye view of Shanghai with their 3D city model and be sure to check out their “then and now” shots of the city as well. Speaking of “then”, jump on one of the Newman Tours to see a Gangster-run Shanghai or follow them through the history embodied at the Jewish History museum.
Where other great museums are concerned, check out the Shanghai Postal Museum for an interesting perspective on the city’s colonial past. When you’re finished, be sure to pop up to the roof for some spectacular views of the city. Then, make your way across town to the Shikumen Open House Museum and tour a traditional-style home before heading over to site the First National Congress to witness the history of Communism in China. They’ve even got wax figures, just to complete the experience.
With a growing art scene, there are no shortage of galleries to visit, but a few great options to start are M50, the Rockbound Art Museum (they also offer guided tours) and the China Art Palace which is housed in the former World Expo 2010 China Pavilion.
In the evening, grab a couple tickets for the Shanghai Acrobat Troupe for some mind-blowing body bending or head down to the House of Blues and Jazz to swoon and croon in a velvet-laden bar. The Wooden Box offers a more beer-and-folk spin on live music and the Shanghai Grand theater often has an amazing line up from ballet to symphony orchestras.
If you have an extra day, jump on the Metro and head out to Nanxiang town, the birthplace of Xiaolongbao — China’s famous soup dumplings. With traditional gardens and waterways, you’ll get a taste (pardon the pun) of old China without having to leave the city limits. And for what might be the most spectacular view in town, head up to Vue Bar at the top of the Hyatt on the Bund — but be sure to get there early as it fills up fast in the evenings.
On your way back home, ask to be dropped off at the Maglev station and take the fastest train ride of your life out to the airport. It’ll be the perfect ending to an unforgettable trip.
Images via Christy Lane Campbell