I went to Shanghai expecting to ‘do a Singapore’. Instead, there was so much to see, to taste and to do that I barely took out my credit card. What makes Shanghai unique is that it is at once a giant construction site of the ‘New China’ and a mirror of the past century. Also surprising is how livable it is, with nice pavements to walk on, gardens and, unexpectedly, many houses.
Getting your bearings
The Huang Pu River divides past from future Shanghai. On the west bank you have the old town, Renmin Square, the French Concession and the Bund (the British settlement). Further west is the modern shopping district of Jingan. Across the river, on the east bank, is the futuristic development of Pudong and beyond it the airport. But with only 48 hours, it is best to concentrate on the west bank and content oneself with gazing across at Pudong from one of the many elegant rooftop bars on the Bund.
The old town
With its winding streets, covered arcades and traffic, this is very like Delhi’s Chandni Chowk — lots of small shops selling everything from plastic drainpipes to gold, with dingy apartments upstairs. But there is little ‘old’ left in the old town — with the exception of the fabulous Yu Gardens (Garden of Leisurely Repose), built in the 16th century. It is wise to begin there. You enter through a shop-lined avenue heavy with teapots, fans and red Chinese lanterns, and arrive at last in a charming walled courtyard with a giant pool. A traditional wooden teahouse occupies the island in the centre and as you blink at it wondering if this is all there is to Shanghai’s number one tourist attraction, you see a discreet board saying ‘Yu Gardens: Entry’. You enter an imposing Chinese pavilion with wooden latticework and discover an even more charming pavilion and water garden just behind. That’s when you learn that in fact Yu Gardens is a labyrinth, a maze of man-made islands separated by carefully constructed waterways, covered passageways and curving dragon-headed walls. Through each gateway and around every corner you will discover a new surprise. Take your time, stop for tea in one of the pavilions and enjoy the brilliant way its architecture seamlessly unites nature, tradition and sculpture.
Visit the Chenxiangge Nunnery with its giant gilded Buddha and the Fuyou Lu Mosque, one of the oldest surviving buildings in the area. Then head south on Fuyou Lu Street and turn right at the end of the street towards the Dajing Lu street market. You will pass narrow streets with partly demolished communist-style row houses. In the midst of the rubble you will find everything that wiggles even slightly and is edible: frogs, snakes and eels are only the recognisable ones! Stop in the park at the end of Dajing Street and stare at the last surviving bit of the Ming-era city wall. New skyscrapers peer over the southwest end of the tiny park, which is where modern Shanghai begins.
Shanghai’s Renmin Square is bound by the elevated highway Yannan Zhonglu on one side, and tall glass-and-concrete buildings housing shopping malls and banks on the other. Stroll down Xizang Zhonglu (try pronouncing it!) and gawk at the Guccis, the Chanels and the Armanis, then cross the street into the park, shut your eyes and listen for the sound of thundering horse hooves — for Renmin Square began its life as the British racecourse. Today it also houses the Shanghai Museum and the Shanghai Art Museum, both well worth a visit.
The French Concession
On the other side of Yannan Zhonglu is the most elegant part of Shanghai, where the rich and pampered live. The French Concession is Shanghai’s SoHo, its streets distinguished from the rest of the city by the tall French ‘plane’ trees, expensive restaurants, gracious villas, and chic designer boutiques. Visit the former residence of Zhou Enlai on the attractive Sinan Lu or just stroll and enjoy glimpses of European villas behind wrought-iron gates.
The Bund, as the British called the area they were given in 1842, lies north of the old city and, as its name indicates, borders the river. Today this area overlooks the spectacular skyline of Pudong and houses elegant restaurants and bars. Perhaps the most quintessential Shanghai experience is an evening stroll along the riverfront promenade. To the left are the 1930s buildings of the Bund, and to the right, across the busy river, is the waterfront of Pudong, the image of the Chinese economic miracle. Don’t miss the Peace Hotel (earlier the Cathay Hotel) at the upper end of the Bund, a fantastic example of Art Deco built by the Bombay-born Baghdadi Jew Victor Sassoon who came to Shanghai and invested heavily in real estate. A man who enjoyed parties, Sassoon used the eighth-floor ballroom of the hotel for a series of parties that were wild even by Shanghai standards.
Food & nightlife
Shanghai abounds in hip bars and restaurants. These are concentrated in the same two areas — the Bund and the French Concession. Spend your first evening at the former and the second barhopping in the latter.
Come darkness and building after building in Shanghai turns into a work of art a la James Turell, its surface a canvas of light. There is no better place to discover this than at one of the rooftop bars on the Bund. M on the Bund is the oldest, but I prefer Laris at Three on the Bund — the décor is smarter and it serves oysters.
For a truly memorable dining experience try Jean-Georges, on the fourth floor of Three on the Bund. Set up by Jean-Georges Vongerichten, the Alsace-born New York chef and creator of Vong, the food — French nouvelle cuisine with a Chinese twist — is exquisite and expensive as is the setting, a sinfully decadent 1930s dining room complete with eel-skin sofas, gold lamps and midnight-black ceilings. After dinner, if you can still walk, head over to the Glamour Bar across the street, supposedly Shanghai’s trendiest bar.
In the French Concession, enjoy a sundowner on the terrace of the Face Bar, set in the gardens of the 1920s Ruijin Hotel. People 7 Bar is worth checking out pre-dinner or before you get too drunk to figure out how to get in. Once inside, titanium, glass and cool white fur make you feel like you just became the main attraction in a 21st-century zoo. In stark contrast, Yongfu Elite Bar is housed in the erstwhile British consulate. The décor is Chinese-British and the garden has a complete Beijing Opera summer outdoor set. Have a reasonably priced dinner at Yin, which serves authentic regional Chinese specialties in a charming cherrywood-panelled dining room divided by old Shanghai style screens. Or try Bao Luo, also excellent for Shanghainese food.
Street food can be found on Yunnan Nanlu, next to Renmin Square. Just point at what others is eating.
Shanghai has a thriving contemporary arts scene. The Shanghai Gallery of Art on the second floor of Three on the Bund has cutting-edge shows. Worth the trek out to it is the warehouse district of Moganshan Lu in Jingan. The area has almost a hundred artists’ studios and galleries where you can pick up works by young artists. Don’t miss Eastlink, one of the city’s most avant-garde galleries with great views over the Suzhou Creek. For photography, visit the Art Sea Studio and Gallery.
Serious shoppers go to Jingan, where the supermalls are set. But for those who prefer small boutiques with well-made clothes, head for Huaihai Zhonglu between Shanxi Nanlu and Chongqing Nanlu in the French Concession. It has loads of chic little stores that are fun to explore between sunset cocktails and a late dinner.
Air China and Cathay Pacific have flights from Delhi via Beijing, while Thai Airways and Malaysia Airlines have flights from Mumbai via Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur. Air India flies to Shanghai from Mumbai via Delhi.
The airport in Shanghai is 30km from the city and you can take a taxi or a shuttle bus right to your hotel. Or take the sleek maglev train (www.smtdc.com/en) to Longyang Lu station and streak towards the city at 400km an hour. Quite literally breathtaking. The only catch is that it only goes upto Pudong: it’s another half-hour ride into the city.
Within the city, take taxis. They are reasonable, metred and plentiful. However, communicating is a challenge: take a card bearing the name of your hotel in Chinese and ask the hotel staff to write down where you want to go in Chinese as well.
Where to stay
Most global chains — Ritz-Carlton, Radisson, Hyatt, J.W. Marriott — are here. All cost about $250 a night. The cheaper hotels cost $50-150 but are badly decorated and impersonal. Almost half the price and twice as stylish are the guesthouse/boutique hotels. Try the Ruijin Hotel (from $150; www.ruijinhotelsh.com). It used to be the home of an English newspaper tycoon who was mad about dog racing. The décor is Olde English with extensive gardens and an excellent Thai and Shanghainese restaurant; it is also home to the trendy Face Bar. Or try the Jin Jiang Hotel (from $250; http://jj.jinjianghotels.com) located in the French Concession. Built in 1929, the hotel has preserved its rich Art Deco interiors.