Get “Shanghaied” in 72 Hours

Written by Guia Sciortino, who is part of indigoeight’s network of pr consultants, and has a passion for Asia. Currently living and studying in China, Guia shares her Far Eastern experiences on our blog. Here she recommends how to make the most of Shanghai.

For most travellers, Shanghai is nothing but a quick stop on a tour across China. After Beijing, Xian, Guilin, Hong Kong or Suzhou, Shanghai is usually just considered the gateway to some fabulous shopping before flying home.

I often hear people say “Shanghai is not the real China” or “there’s nothing authentically Chinese about Shanghai”. To me, these kind of comments are extremely superficial.  While, for a city of this size, there is a lack of historical sites, this is also the case for other cities where the 1960s Cultural Revolution hit the hardest.

Shanghai is one of China’s multiple faces; as they say here, Beijing is the past and Shanghai is the future. And only here can you truly understand how the Middle country 中国 has become the world’s second largest economy. Let’s not forget it was part of the ‘third world club’ less than 40 years ago.

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Pudong, the financial district as seen from The Bund

Since I was a child, the word Shanghai oozed glamour, exoticism and the idea of a forbidden, naughty place. No wonder why years later, when I finally stepped foot in this 24 million people megalopolis, I fell in love and planned to return to find out what makes it so addictive.

Shanghai’s 19th century past as the leading Asian trading post, and its present as the Far East response to London and New York, are intertwined and peacefully coexist. For architecture vultures like me, it’s an endless surprise. Like this incredible relief sculpture I came across the other day:

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A relief sculpture near the French Concession district

And this fountain in Jing’an district:

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So it’s well worth changing your flight ticket and stretching your Chinese adventure by an extra 72 hours, to include this great city. If you’re short on time, make sure the following are on your list:

1) The Bund: By the 1930s, Shanghai had rightfully conquered its position as the most important port in Asia and the most powerful international trading and banking firms had set up shop in town, mostly along the Bund.  Reminiscent of the grandeur of Paris’ boulevards, with a sprinkle of City of London XIX century buildings, what the Shanghainese call ‘Wai Tan’ is the perfect example of this city’s spirit: an open, welcoming, versatile and forward-thinking city.

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The Bund, Champs Elysées meets Chinese high tech architecture

2)  The French Concession: After China lost the first Opium War, in the 1840s the British established a “concession” by means of a treaty with the Qing Dynasty. Other super powers followed suit, including France, which established its territory in Shanghai. In 2016, the French Concession is for chic wining & dining, romantic strolling and reminiscing of the colonial era. Long tree-lined avenues filled with European style villas and buildings, make it hard to believe you are 11 hours from home. Close your eyes for 10 seconds. Open them up! Voilà, you are in Paris.

Dozens of Chinese and expats cruise the picturesque lanes by bike while Shanghai locals buy fresh fruit and veg from a street vendor parked next to a trendy boutique.  Shanghai’s normality in the 21st century is equally astonishing and refreshing and I often wonder where all the 24 million souls in this city are.

3) Old Town: Southwest of the Bund, rebuilt in traditional Chinese architecture style, is Old Town.

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Old Town

At its heart is the famous Yuyuan – the Gardens of the Mandarin Yu – once the property of an illustrious Ming dynasty family.  Its gardens are comparable in beauty to those of Suzhou (UNESCO town, 25 minutes outside of Shanghai).

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Yu Yuan, Old Town

After a stroll through Yu Yuan Bazaar, head to one of the few well preserved Taoist temples in Shanghai – the City God Temple.

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City God Temple

Try to get lost amidst the narrow lanes that lead there. It’s a great spot for street photography; clothes hanging across the street, street food stalls selling all sorts of unknown dishes at the back of their house and old-school bikes everywhere.

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4) Tianzifang, Xintiandi, Qibao:  Glimpses of old China (or replicas of what it used to look like) are everywhere. Take Tianzifang which has gone from heritage residential architecture to hip area packed with bars, crafts shops, art galleries and boutiques with an old Shanghai feel thanks to its characteristic Shikumen houses (stone-framed-door houses).

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Another example is Xintiandi, which translates in “New Heaven and Earth”. This is a sophisticated modern development of traditionally styled Shanghai brick town houses close to the French Concession.  On the contrary, Qibao is an ancient town that has been there for a thousand years. A quick hop on the Shanghai metro and you’ll time travel to the Ming and Qing dynasties era.

5) Pudong:  When the sun sets and the city lights flicker on, Shanghai becomes a very sexy place. Despite its luxury shopping malls and 5* hotels, Pudong is more the playground of bankers and financiers than travellers. However, a stroll on its über-modern elevated pedestrian walkways to take in third millennium views, is a must.

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Three of Pudong’s most majestic buildings including China’s tallest (on the right)
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The Oriental Pearl Tower

Plus you get the best view of The Bund from across the river:

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6) Street Food:   Fangbang Lu is arguably one of the most exciting street food spots. Not too far from Yu Yuan you can indulge in Baozi (steamed buns with savoury fillings), Cong You Bing (egg pancakes with spring onions), Tea eggs (yes, apparently cooking eggs in tea is a thing), Wonton (Shanghai’s answer to Beijing dumplings), among other delicacies. For a few kuai (pennies), you’ll have a very interesting and filling lunch. And you’ll realise how unjustly expensive food is in the West…

7) People watching: Go to any park and watch people practice Tai Chi, Qi Gong or even ball room dancing. It’s not only relaxing but also an incredible insight into this fascinating folk. My recommendation is Zhongshan Park in West Shanghai – every weekend it hosts an array of events. And you know what’s so cool about this place? You’ll probably be the only foreigner.

8) Suzhou and Hangzhou: Shanghai is also the gateway to two incredible UNESCO sites, a 25 and 60 minute train ride away, respectively. So if you get that ‘get me out of here’ urge, you can easily escape. But I’ll tell you all about these lovely cities in another blog post soon.

Thought about changing that plane ticket yet?

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