September 22, 2019   12:28am
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Asia Report: Exotic and Alluring Shanghai

Our travel guide Susan says: “Shanghai is exotic and alluring, yet very accessible, making it a great place to visit, even if you’re on your own.”  Honestly, snoety had never put Shanghai at the top of the travel list, but after reading this is reconsidering …The city provides insight into China’s future and colonial past while you enjoy great food, shops and art galleries – a combination that can’t be beat.  Area-wise, it’s relatively compact.  Taxis are plentiful and inexpensive (think $2 -$4 a ride); they can be found at stands and hailed on the street. And there is something fabulous about being able to navigate Mainland China’s most exciting city on your own!

ORIENTATION

Shanghai fronts the Huangpu River.  “Pudong” on the east side is home to architecturally impressive and often futuristic towers that make up Shanghai’s financial center; while “Puxi” on the west side is where you’ll find the historic center, starting with the famous Bund, the embankment of European style buildings from the late 1800’s. Beyond the Bund is the French Concession, full of lovely residential streets, including the trendy retail and dining development Xintandi.   Shanghai’s concentrated downtown still has remnants of its historic Chinese past, with streets worth walking and exploring, although many are rapidly disappearing to make way for more development.  So visit soon!

In planning a visit, 4 nights/3 days is advisable – although more time could easily be spent. Practically any guidebook will provide the basics (such as Frommer’s Shanghai), but favorites which are worth carrying include: Frommer’s Shanghai Day by Day (pocket-size with great walking tours); Time Out Shanghai (good background reading, hip recommendations always) and Lonely Planet Shanghai City Guide. In addition, highly advised is the iPhone/iTouch App, “Shanghai Taxi Guide” (works offline once loaded) where you can enter your destination in English and the translation appears in Chinese to show the driver.  It’s spontaneous, and it works!  Otherwise you must have your hotel write destination(s) in advance for you to show (always carry a hotel card with address in Chinese).

FAVORITE EXPERIENCES & DINING

Some favorite experiences follow; including dining options — planning excursions around food is not a bad idea in Shanghai!

The Bund and environs: “Bund” is an Indian word for embankment and it represents several stunning blocks of neoclassical buildings, replete with decorative architectural elements (impressive by day, glamorously lit in early evening).  A reminder of the days of foreign occupation, the old International Settlement, these were originally trading and bank buildings. Many now house upscale stores (think Gucci, etc.), restaurants and edgy modern art galleries.  One of the first developed is Three on the Bund with multiple restaurants, including the Whampoa Club for inventive Shanghai cuisine with an Art Deco décor and the more casual, contemporary New Heights restaurant and bar (fusion/International cuisine) atop the building for drop dead views with an outdoor terrace (www.threeonthebund.com). But don’t miss the other buildings on this stretch and consult your guidebook for a description of each – more shops, restaurants and galleries within many, all great architecture providing a great sense of Shanghai’s past.

IMPORTANT TIP: Most visitors miss a fascinating part of this area,  the streets behind the Bund where you see the hustle and bustle of real China – workers commuting en masse on bicycles, getting repairs from outdoor bicycle shops, eating at dumpling shops with open windows to the street, and more.  All of this is against a backdrop of neo-classical architecture including the nearby Metropole and Hamilton House.  Within the Hamilton House, in Art Deco splendor, is a restaurant of the same name, with hip, French inspired cuisine (www.hamiltonhouse.com.cn).

• Old Town: For a dose of Old China head to the Yuyuan Garden, created in 1577 with its rock pools, gardens and pavilions.   This tranquil place is surrounded by the very touristy Yuyuan Bazaar, which is meant to replicate the historic garden.  But it is a pleasure to watch local tourists enjoying their visit with family and friends here.   Nearby is Old Street – Fangbang Zhong Lu (follow signs from the Garden), which is very touristy but a great opportunity to buy souvenirs, including tons of Mao kitsch.  The real draw of this area is the neighborhood just beyond which is centered around Dajing Lu – a food street filled with markets and shops selling noodles, dumplings and other local delicacies.  An amazing place to walk – check out the side streets where people are leading their daily lives (tailor with sewing machine on the street, outdoor sinks at house entries meaning no plumbing within, etc.). If you get hungry, a new mall opposite the Yuyuan Bazaar – the Dragon Gate – houses Din Tai Fung, with excellent dumplings (also in Xintandi, see below) (www.dintaifung.com.tw).

• The French Concession: The city’s colonial past is felt walking the tree lined residential streets in this neighborhood with hip restaurants and trendy shops (stores on Changle Lu, Xinlu and Julu Lu are good bets).  History buffs will enjoy visiting Zhou En-lai and Dr. Sun Yat Sen’s former residences.  A must is Xintandi (visit both at day and night) – a renovated retail complex developed from Shikumen (stone gate) houses.   There is a taxi stand at one end, and at the other on the second floor of a rather modern mall is the fabulous Crystal Jade Restaurant – great homemade noodles and dumplings in a contemporary environment (www.crystaljade.com). Within Xintiandi is the much more upscale T8 (www.t8.shanghai.com) as well as Ye Shanghai (www.elite-concepts.com) among other choices.  For shopping there is Shanghai Tang (www.xintandi.com).

Further afield is the not-to-be-missed Propaganda Poster Art Museum in a hard to find basement of an apartment block with an amazing collection of Mao-era Chinese posters from 1949-1979. This is a highlight of a visit to Shanghai! Have a taxi take you directly here from your hotel (the guard at the apartment block entry will direct you further) and from there hail a cab to Xintiandi or elsewhere (www.shanghaipropagandaart.com).

• Pudong: Home to the space-age Oriental Pearl TV Tower, the sophisticated Jin Mao Building and the World Financial Center, among others, Pudong represents Shanghai’s future.  Visit a bar or dining venue in the Grand Hyatt atop the Jin Mao Building or do the same from the neighboring Park Hyatt atop the World Financial Center, for drop dead views back to surrounding Pudong and the Bund beyond (advisable on a clear day or night). At the base of the Oriental Pearl TV Tower is the Shanghai Municipal History Museum for a great insight into this amazing city’s past.

People’s Square: The above is not a comprehensive guide.  There is much more should you have the time, including the justifiably famous Shanghai Museum, one of the best in China, located in People’s Square, not far from the historic center.  Also in People’s Square you will find the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition building for a peek into Shanghai’s future, along with photos of old Shanghai.

WHERE TO STAY

Having been to Shanghai numerous times and trying a new property each visit, my top recommendation is the contemporary Hyatt on the Bund (www.hyatt.com).  Drop dead views of the both the Bund and Pudong skyline across the river are everywhere and especially dramatic from the exquisite Bund/Riverview Suites which offer sweeping panoramas from their floor to ceiling glass windows – definitely worth the splurge.  The Vue Bar and Restaurant (designed by the Japanese firm Super Potato) atop the hotel offers the same amazing views and great environments to boot.   Their ground floor Chinese Kitchen Xindalu serves excellent food (including Peking Duck – order ahead) and is populated by well-heeled locals. The hotel has a great pool and spa to boot. TIP: always request the highest floor possible when booking.

Should you wish to stay in a historic Bund building, Fairmont has renovated the old Peace Hotel, www.fairmont.com (a more traditional choice) as is the even more upscale and newly built Peninsula Hotel also on the Bund (www.peninsula.com/shanghai) or the new Waldorf Astoria Shanghai on the Bund (www.waldorastoria.com). These would be good places for a drink, afternoon tea or light meal to soak up the “old town” ambiance.

NOTE: Staying on the Puxi side keeps you in the thick of things – Pudong has fabulous hotels with equally fabulous views (including the Grand Hyatt and Park Hyatt) but staying there means dealing with tunnel traffic to cross to Puxi which can be a drag, especially in the evening.

Shanghai is indeed a wonderful, intriguing place where the old and new collide in an exciting way.   Please share your Shanghai experiences with us at snoety.com!

Susan@snoety.com

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