When people think of Shanghai, they picture glitz and glamour, with many even accusing it of not being the ‘real’ China. Not only is Shanghai as much a part of the ‘real’ China as anywhere else, it also has rural areas and cheap, down-to-earth amenities. One great thing about this city is that you can always go cheaper and you can always go more expensive. It’s easy to find a full meal for ¥10 ($1.46) without sorting through the garbage. Conversely, acclaimed restaurants like Ultraviolet, which serves up a 20-course menu that starts at ¥5000 ($735) per person, offer big spenders an opportunity to flash cash like only Shanghai’s nouveau-riche know how. Additionally, old and new Shanghai come to play in unique and exciting ways throughout much of the city, from half-demolished lane houses in front of shiny skyscrapers, to industrial-era factories converted into art spaces.
If there’s one word that can describe Shanghai, it’s ‘dynamic’. Old restaurants, shops, and buildings are constantly being overhauled for new and renovated models. Where a dumpling restaurant existed yesterday, today it’s a florist’s shop. What used to be a crumbling neighbourhood is now a luxury shopping mall. All this change can be overwhelming at times, but it can also be thrilling to be in an environment that keeps you on your toes. Given this, there’s no shortage of attractions or things to do.
The world’s tallest building award may still belong to Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, but Shanghai’s buildings are not far behind. Opened in 2016, the Shanghai Tower is officially the world’s second tallest building at 2,074 feet (632 metres) and boasts the world’s second fastest elevator, which travels at a staggering 67 feet per second (20.5 metres per second). Gaze out over the Bund waterfront from the world’s highest observation deck or grab a drink from the Park Hyatt in neighbouring Shanghai World Financial Center, and relax in what was (at the time of its construction) the tallest hotel in the world (now the third tallest).
Shanghai is home to countless remarkable nightlife spots that make for guaranteed good nights out. New York may be the city that never sleeps, but Shanghai gives it a run for its money. There are bars for every possible niche you can imagine. Fascinated by speakeasies? Shanghai has them in spades. Want to spend no more than ¥100 ($15) to get buzzed with your friends? Just go to Perry’s or Helen’s or Window’s, or even the convenience store down the street. Not only does Shanghai have a bar or club for everything, but new ones also pop up every day. You always have the opportunity to be one of the first people to try what may become a world-famous nightlife spot.
Shanghai is home to a unique style of lane house called shikumen, which combines Western and Chinese elements. At one time, the style comprised 60 per cent of all Shanghai housing. Today, many lanes are being preserved and turned into trendy shopping and dining areas. The most popular is Xintiandi, a fashion-forward, walking-only entertainment district in the heart of the city. Another, Tianzifang, is the perfect place to get lost among the crowd. Even the city’s hotels are clocking onto architecture trends.
The Michelin Guide came to China in 2016 by way of Shanghai, when restaurants in the city collectively garnered 31 stars from the prestigious culinary compass. Even if fine dining isn’t your thing, the city still offers a wide array of flavours from around the country and the world. Chances are you’ll have a great meal no matter which part of the city you’re in.
Shanghai is a young city by Chinese standards. Up until the 1800s, it was little more than a fishing outpost. While the Opium Wars had a devastating effect on the country as a whole, kicking off China’s ‘century of humiliation’, modern Shanghai has the wars to thank for its very existence. The treaty that ended part one of the war opened Shanghai as an international port city, and opium itself turned it into a depraved and decadent haunt that has never really escaped its 1920s reputation. You can learn all about this history and more at one of Shanghai’s incredible museums.
Shanghai’s museums don’t just focus on history. In fact, the city’s many art museums alone make a trip to Shanghai worth your while. Yuz Museum is housed in an old airplane hangar and highlights contemporary pieces. Rockbund Art Museum is free and always has a unique exhibition going on. Shanghai Museum of Glass will convince you that glass is much more than purely functional. By the time you’ve visited just a few of Shanghai’s art museums, you’ll be convinced that you’ve been an art fan all along.
Take a day trip to one of Shanghai’s many water towns that surround the city. These ancient areas built on canals offer a tranquil getaway from the fast-paced city centre. Some are more commercialised than others, but all offer a beautiful look into traditional bridges and houses that once typified this area of the country. One town, Qibao, is even accessible by metro.
If, for some mysterious reason, you get tired of Shanghai itself, go to one of its nine mini-towns that are modelled after places like Great Britain, Sweden, Italy, Germany and Spain. You can practically do a whole world tour without stepping outside of the city. Of course, when the towns’ real estate failed to attract buyers, these little cities within a city became ghost towns, making them characteristically Chinese – as much as they try to be otherwise. Spend a day by Shanghai’s very own Lake Malaren or take some photos of wedding-gown-donned brides and their grooms-to-be with British cottage architecture as the backdrop.
Once you’ve had your fill of Shanghai, if that ever happens, it’s simple (and cheap!) to get out of town. Whether you want to travel by way of one of Shanghai’s two international airports, via slow or high-speed train or by bus, Shanghai is well-equipped and perfectly located to get you on your way to other destinations around the country. Plus, there are tons of great under-the-radar spots just a short distance from the city.
Worried about not speaking the language when you visit a new place? You don’t have to worry about that in Shanghai! Due to its history of multiculturalism and rising wealth, many Shanghainese speak enough English to ensure that your ni hao (‘hello’) and xie xie (‘thank you’) are all you need to get by. Even large international cities like Beijing require at least a pocket dictionary in order to navigate. All signs in Shanghai are written in Mandarin and English, and the street posts are cleverly marked with block numbers and the cardinal directions, so you never have to get lost (unless that’s what you want to do).