China's economic showpiece never fails to surprise and rarely fails to delight. Walking Shanghai streets can give you glimpses into a unique and layered past that includes foreign settlements, jazz-age decadence, political intrigue and, more recently, an entrepreneurial spirit that's returning this legendary port to the ranks of the world's great metropolises.
Discover the Art Deco architecture of the Bund and the charm of the former French Concession, take in Pudong's futuristic skyline from a sophisticated Bund restaurant with a cool drink in hand, sample tasty local specialties, dance till dawn, shop till you drop and mingle with the intrepid and forward-thinking Shanghainese. The city's energy is contagious and there's something in Shanghai for everyone.
For many, the Bund is the face of Shanghai. Even as the city transforms itself, growing upwards and outwards at a tremendous rate, the Bund's Art Deco and Neoclassical facades appear much as they did during Shanghai's previous heyday as China's most international city, way back in the 1920s and '30s. Of course, the surroundings have changed radically since then.
There's no better place to take in the spectacular Lujiazui skyline on the east bank of the Huangpu River than from the Bund's river promenade or through a picture window in one of a growing number of luxury bars, restaurants and clubs occupying the upper floors of classic Bund buildings.
Oriental Pearl TV Tower
Rising above the Huangpu River and Pudong skyline like something out of an old science fiction flick, the Oriental Pearl Tower holds a special place in Shanghai's recent history. Before the early 1990s, the east bank of the Huangpu was a low-rise jumble of warehouses and muddy settlements. The erection of the tower, completed in 1995, served as a symbolic declaration of Shanghai's future-forward orientation and grand ambition.
Besides admiring the tower from afar, whether from the Bund across the Huangpu or from the observation deck of a nearby skyscraper, most tourists find that they simply must view the cityscape from inside one of the Oriental Pearls—there are 11 glass spheres, all told, threading the 468 m (1,535.5 ft) spire. Three of the orbs house observation decks served by six high-speed elevators. The highest, known as the Space Module, sits 350 m (1,148 ft) above ground, with a second, lower "Sightseeing Floor" at 263 m (863 ft) and "Space City" sphere hanging at 90 m (295 ft). With all this, you might expect a revolving restaurant—and you'd be in luck: you can dine in rotating high style 267 m (876 ft) above ground. Finally, if you're really lucky and call way ahead, you can stay in the 20-room Space Hotel, lodged between the tower's two largest spheres.
Jin Mao Tower
Situated in the heart of the Lujiazui financial district, the Jin Mao's design is based on the lucky number eight: 88 floors soar upward, divided into 16 segments, each 1/8 smaller than the preceding one. Architecturally a blend of the monumental Art Deco of the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings and the balanced composition of the traditional Chinese pagoda, the Jin Mao renews the long-standing Shanghai tradition of blending Western and Chinese styles, resulting in a dynamic hybrid that beautifully compliments the Bund's colonial-era façades across the Huangpu River.
The interior is as impressive as the exterior, featuring expansive vaulted spaces in the entrance lobby and the stunning Grand Hyatt Shanghai atrium, which spirals upwards from the 56th to the 87th floor. From the 88th floor, visitors can either look down into the atrium or out across the Shanghai cityscape all the way to the mouth of the Yangzi (atmospheric conditions permitting, of course). The 87th floor is home to the world's highest bar, Cloud 9, and its mezzanine Sky Lounge.
The river ferry
Nanjing Road, a pedestrian shopping street running for blocks between the northeast corner of People's Square and the Bund. If you spend more than a couple days in Shanghai, you'll likely end up pushing your way through the crowds beneath the neon signs and signature Shanghai mix of brand-new high rises and late colonial-period architecture.
Though it's a shopping street first and foremost, the real attraction here is the parade of people: hustlers looking for easy tourist marks, Chinese families on holiday, foreign tour groups wandering past in matching outfits, kids playing, Shanghainese office workers, migrant kebab vendors, Chinese pixies pushing cosmetics—you'll see them all on Nanjing Dong Lu if you have a little patience. When you've had enough of the Shanghai shopping scrum, a number of historic buildings, including the beautifully renovated and restored Peace Hotel, are scattered about the area.
People's Square, like much of today's Shanghai, is a showcase. Fortunately, it's also home to beautifully maintained gardens and parkscapes, culminating in People's Park, which occupies the northeastern quadrant of this massive tract of land in the middle of Puxi (the west bank of the Huangpu River).
To the west, the Shanghai Grand Theatre updates the traditional upturned Chinese roof in stunning fashion, while a touch of the past remains in the building on the square's northwestern corner. Today, it's home to the Shanghai Art Museum, which focuses on modern and contemporary Chinese work; before 1949, when the square was a horse track, it was the site of the Shanghai Racing Club.
The square is large enough to spend a good long afternoon exploring. On nice days, Shanghai residents sit, chat, play cards, fly kites and stroll, making for a lively public space, though the expanse of People's Avenue slices the square in two in a ham-fisted fashion that can give the impression that cars trump people in the urban planner's schemes.
The Museum's distinctive upside-down 'droid architecture joins a slew of other imaginatively designed signature buildings dotting the otherwise green expanse of the square (it's far more a park than a traditional square). On the southern side, the Shanghai Museum houses a quality collection of artifacts, from ancient jades to classical calligraphy and paintings in a building loosely designed on the model of a bronze-age cooking vessel.
Shanghai Urban Planning Museum
The Shanghai Urban Planning Museum is not as dull as its name implies. Few cities have changed so rapidly in such a short time as Shanghai, with its tripling of available metro lines in eight years (and plans to grow to 22 lines in the future), its skyrocketing population, its waves of expanding suburbs and its success hosting the Expo 2010. And to think the skyscrapers in Pudong didn't exist just 20 years ago.Shanghai's architecture provides visual evidence of development's inexorible march, cataloguing change as this beast of a city, with its rapidly growing population of 23 million people (not including the "floating population" of several million migrants and expats).
Aside from multimedia exhibits (including video, audio and photography) detailing Shanghai's urban development from its origins as a few lowly temples and rice patties centuries ago to its hyper-futuristic plans for the decades ahead, there are two main highlights: a massive miniature model of central Shanghai which covers an area almost the size of a basketball court and a computer generated tour of the city, set in an immersive, fully panoramic media envirnonment—complete with kitschy music, CGI cartoon characters and a whole lot of candy-coated optimism.
The French Concession is an area of Shanghai located in the present day Luwan and Xuhui districts. In the mid 19th century after the first Opium War, Shanghai became a large center for foreign trade and in 1849 the French Consul to China, de Montigny signed an agreement with a Senior local official Ling Taotai to create a French Concession for French businessmen and traders to live. Over the next hundred years the area became home to many nationalities such as British, American, Russian and Chinese.
It was expanded twice, in 1900 and 1914 becoming the most sought after residential area in Shanghai at this time. During the second world war in 1943, a deal was made with the Chinese government to give control back to China along with French concessions in other Chinese cities, ending all French control in China. This occupation by western culture has given the area a wonderful mixture of both European and Chinese architecture. It may cause surprise to see old large European buildings in the middle of China's biggest city.
Today the French Concession is one of the most popular places in Shanghai to visit. Especially popular with Shanghai's middle and upper class residents, a wealth of cafes, restaurants and shops will have you wandering the area for an entire day with ease. The most famous and wealthy area in the French Concession is Xintiandi, which is known for its Shanghai architecture, its art galleries, designer boutiques, cafes and eateries. The large choice of pubs and clubs at night will provide an entertaining time for all.
Shanghai's trendiest fashionistas, hippies, hipsters and artists are flocking to Tianzifang, one of Shanghai's youngest art districts, to browse the boutiques and lounge about in the many stylish hole-in-the wall cafés.
A decade ago, Tianzifang's art scene began with a single four-story former candy factory being renovated into an artist's factory and art quarter. Today, it's a bustle of locally owned art shops, interior design stores, jewelry and clothing boutiques, bag shops, cozy cafés and restaurants—all tucked into a tiny bohemian oasis. Though Xintiandi and Moganshan Lu must be mentioned for sake of comparison, there's really nowhere else like Tianzifang in the city.
You might occasionally have to duck some hanging laundry and stumble into the back door of someone's house while in search of a toilet, but that's what makes Tianzifang so fun—it's immediate, organic connection to the surrounding neighborhood, not a sterile development drawn up by planners and corporate architects.
In the late 1990s, thousands of Shanghai's old "stone gate" houses were leveled to make room for high-rise developments. Throughout the city, sterile office and apartment blocks replaced traditional neighborhoods where vibrant street culture and tight-knit family life had long thrived. The narrow brick lanes and communal courtyards that define Shi Ku Men—a unique blend of Chinese and Western architectural features—were seen by the government and developers as impediments to progress in a city that, in the wake of economic reform, had little patience with calls to preserve its architectural heritage.Then came Xintiandi).
Xintiandi is now a bustling pedestrian zone featuring upscale shopping, dining and entertainment housed in rebuilt shikumen. Popular with tourists, expats and Shanghainese nouveaux riches, the shopping center features high-end designer retail from names like Shanghai Tang, Vivienne Tam and Hugo Boss and "lifestyle" stores like the BMW Lifestyle Boutique, Arnold Palmer golf shop and Simply Life's furnishings and interior design concepts.
Many visitors to Shanghai only catch glimpses of this delightfully leafy park on their way into the glitzy clubs and karaoke bars that surround it. Yet a day-time visit is the only way to truly appreciate its quiet, almost Parisian charm.
Built over a century ago, the park, like much of the Concession that surrounded it, was originally reserved for French citizens only. Fast forward to today, and the people gathered beneath the gingko trees are a more eclectic bunch: elderly locals practicing tai chi (as always, come first thing in the morning if you want to see them in full swing), middle-aged kite flyers, young expats laying out picnic spreads on the lawn. And on a summer's evening, smartly-dressed couples come to practice their ballroom dancing skills, the sound of the scratchy recording drifting to all four corners of the park.
Easily the nicest downtown green space, family-friendly Fuxing Park is an essential stop on any walking tour of the French Concession, the perfect place to take a break from the bustle of nearby Xintiandi, and a great option if you're looking to do some exercise yourself while in town.
Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Center
Tucked away in the basement level of a nondescript apartment building, the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Center is a remarkable private museum dedicated to documenting the collective spirit of Chinese communism as depicted on thousands upon thousands of striking posters in the years since the 1949 establishment of the People's Republic. A labor of love, the museum was founded by Yang Pei Ming, who grew concerned that both the art of the posters and the complicated history that they document were in danger of disappearing in a China that has increasingly embraced consumer capitalist culture since the death of Mao Zedong in 1976.
Also, it's refreshing to see that it's not all stereotypical "imperialist running dog" bashing and blatant Mao worship—a number of posters depict everyday scenes of women buying stationery, children playing in villages, busy city streets and farmers bringing in the harvest. Yes, the style remains hyperbolic, but the popular Western image of a monolithic communist state softens and begins to dissolve as the visitor recognizes the individual human touch in many of the pieces, as well as the still-inspiring messages of universal brotherhood and justice that shines through in the best.
Jade Buddha Temple
The Jade Buddha Temple was built during the troubled reign of the Qing Emperor Guangxu (1875-1908) and burned down after having been occupied during the 1911 revolution. The temple takes its name from the original two white jade Buddha statues that abbot Hui Gen brought with him from Burma—a sitting statue about 1.95 m (almost 6 1/2 ft) in height and a smaller reclining Buddha.
Today's temple also contains a third, even larger Buddha from Singapore. During the 1911 upheaval, the original jade Buddha statues were removed for safety. Between 1918 and 1928, the Jade Buddha Temple we see today was constructed on Anyuan Lu in the architectural style of the Song Dynasty. Composed of several separate buildings, it is a working temple in which monks live, study and perform rites.
In addition to serving the faithful on a daily basis, the temple houses the Shanghai Buddhist Institute, in which many ancient statues, paintings, a complete set of Qing-era Buddhist scriptures and over 7,000 other rare scriptures are kept.
Former Jewish Ghetto
From 1933 to 1941, Shanghai became a modern-day “Noah’s Ark” accepting around 30,000 Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust in Europe. In the “Designated Area for Stateless Refugees” in Tilanqiao area of Shanghai, about 20,000 Jewish refugees lived harmoniously with local citizens, overcoming numerous difficulties together. By the time the Second World War ended in 1945, most of the Jewish refugees had survived. Dr. David Kranzler, a noted Holocaust historian, called it the “Miracle of Shanghai” and commented that within the Jewry’s greatest tragedy, i.e. the Holocaust, there shone a few bright lights. Among the brightest of these is the Shanghai haven. In the "Tilanqiao Historic Area”, the original features of the Jewish settlement are still well preserved. They are the only typical historic traces of Jewish refugee life inside China during the Second World War.