Shanghai, arguably China’s most cosmopolitan city, wears its modern history throughout, from the tree-lined streets of the former French Concession, to the architectural splendor of the Bund. A thriving creative scene is evident at myriad galleries and exhibition spaces, while foodies will find that there is much to please the palate — everything from hole-in-the-wall eateries to fine dining — even when you have a slim budget.
Day 1: Architecture, Old And New
Start the day with a wander in the former French Concession, a charming enclave that dates back to 1849, when, in the years after China lost the First Opium War, a significant section of land was conceded to the French consulate by the Shanghai government. Over the century that followed, the district expanded significantly and, to this day, retains a distinctive colonial feel. Few places evoke its rich history as well as Zen Café, located within Zenlifestore, which is also a great place for a coffee (USD4). If you’re feeling peckish, pick up a signature Shanghainese breakfast snack from one of the many street-side stalls. Try sesame pancakes called da bing, or get some you tiao, deep fried dough sticks, washed down with a glass of fresh soy milk (USD4).
Among the many architectural treasures here, check out the free-to-enter Shanghai Arts and Crafts Museum which is housed in a beautiful mansion dating back to 1905; and the Cathay Theatre, an Art Deco cinema that has been restored to its former glory. Then stroll along Wulumuqi Road, where European-style eateries mingle with vintage shops and independent boutiques, and finish up at Tianzifang, a kitschy complex of renovated heritage buildings assembled around labyrinthine lanes.
By now, your stomach should be rumbling, so head to nearby Sijian Restaurant which serves steaming bowls of noodle soup (from USD5.50). Hunger sated, take a taxi north (USD5) to 1933 Old Millfun, an erstwhile slaughterhouse that is now the haunt of Shanghai’s stylish set. The striking Modernist structure, renovated in 2008, is made from poured concrete and features an abstract interior — all sculptural bridges and spiral staircases — that recalls the artworks of MC Escher. It’s now home to cafés, creative offices, shops and restaurants. Budding photographers will appreciate the stillness of the vacant lots.
A 20-minute walk south, the Waibaidu Bridge, opened in 1908, marks the northernmost tip of the Bund, and is an iconic feat of engineering in its own right. As you walk down the storied promenade, two very different faces of the city unfurl on either side of the Huangpu River. On the west bank, grand heritage buildings summon images of the area under British rule while Pudong, on the opposite shore, is symbolic of contemporary Shanghai and is home to China’s tallest skyscraper.
Unwind near sundown by sipping a cocktail (USD12.50) on Pop Bar’s L-shaped terrace. Enjoy unrivaled views of the central business district and look out as the sinking sun silhouettes its glass-and-steel towers. A Shanghai institution, rough-and-ready hole-in-the-wall Jia Jia Tang Bao is a short cab ride away (USD2.50), but don’t arrive too late or they will have sold out of their famed steamed xiao long bao soup dumplings, which are said to be some of the best in the city (USD5 for 12).
Day 2: Art And About
Begin as you wish to continue — in a gallery, albeit one that serves breakfast. Undefine, in the M50 art district, serves hot drinks and pastries (USD6) within a stunning white space, punctuated by wooden beams and artworks. Once you’re fueled up, allow a couple of hours to explore the former textile district. The artists’ enclave is home to more than 120 exhibition spaces, studios and galleries, all of which spotlight Shanghai’s most talented creatives. Chronus Art Center and Island6 usually showcase exciting, interactive works, while the infamous graffiti wall calls out to be Instagrammed.
Bandu Cabin is a great spot for lunch. Sit down for noodles, dumplings and more (USD4), in an eclectic, relaxed environment that is part hip diner, part record store. The service can be slow, but it provides an excellent opportunity to reflect on the art you’ve encountered.
Next, take the Shanghai Metro from Jiangning Road to Yunjin Road (USD0.50) to experience the big-ticket side of the city’s art scene. Acclaimed Chinese and international artists show at an assemblage of major museums, including the West Bund Art Center, Yuz Museum, Shanghai Center of Photography and Long Museum (West Bund). Check ahead online if you’re planning to visit any of the mentioned museums. If you only have time to visit one space, make it the Long Museum — its architecture alone is worth the price of admission (USD7).
As evening falls, jump in a taxi to Yunnan South Road (USD4) and start grazing — it’s one of the remaining streets on which hawker stalls peddle traditional fare. Savor flavors from across the vast nation; must-eats include Da Hu Chun’s Michelin-recommended sheng jian bao, pan-fried buns filled with juicy pork and crisped to perfection (USD4), and steamed bao zi pork buns (USD2).
Finish the day with a postprandial beer or two, courtesy of Boxing Cat Brewery, one of China’s best-loved microbreweries — they opened in Shanghai in 2008. A cab (USD3) to its Fuxing Road location will take only 10 minutes and, once there, you can quench your thirst with their excellent selection of pilsners, IPAs and stouts (from USD10).
Day 3: The Other Side Of Shanghai
Head to Taoyuan Village for a light, quick breakfast with a Taiwanese twist (USD7). Relish the clean, contemporary surrounds before stepping across the street to soak up the calm atmosphere at Jing’an Temple (USD7). Built about 800 years ago, the ancient Buddhist site offers relative peace in the heart of the city and provides a marked contrast to the modern metropolis that has grown up around it. A few blocks south, the former residence of Cai Yuanpei, who was president of Peking University, introduces visitors to the prominent academic’s life and work — worlds away from the city beyond the villa’s walls.
Next, settle into nearby Xibo restaurant for lunch, where halal offerings from western China show just how varied the country’s cuisine is. Try the Xinjiang-style beef “taco” and lamb skewers (USD10). Now for something completely different. Leave the city behind and take the metro from Jing’an Temple station to Qibao station (USD0.50), and walk 10 minutes to reach Qibao Ancient Town, a scenic water town with more than a thousand years of history. Free from traffic and pollution, to walk along its canals, across its beautiful bridges and down its narrow lanes is to imagine what life was like in Song dynasty China. The southern end of Qibao Old Street is a foodie haven, where quail eggs, shaped baos, pickles, seaweed tofu and more tantalize the taste buds (USD8).
End the evening in style, with a drink at Pudong Shangri-La’s sky-high bar, Jade on 36. Take the metro to Dongchang Road station (USD0.70) and ascend to the swanky sipper. The bar boasts staggering panoramic views overlooking the Bund and Shanghai’s urban sprawl beyond. Try one of their signature cocktails — the Shanghai Fizz (USD12.50) comes highly recommended — while you contemplate a fruitful three days in the city.
Shanghai is a huge city, with attractions spread out across its 16 districts and four urban sections: central; semi-urban and semi-suburb; suburban; and remote suburban areas. For those proficient in Chinese, the Didi app, the country’s answer to Grab, will be invaluable for getting affordable rides. Otherwise, cabs can be easily flagged. Be sure to equip yourself with Baidu Maps before you hop on, as neither Google Maps nor Citymapper will work.
The Shanghai Metro, though also an affordable option, requires a little patience. And you often have to walk a distance to reach a station or your destination.
The city is flat and has some pleasant cycling routes, including one along the west bank of the Huangpu River. It’s good to bear in mind that the bike-share craze that swept China some years back has left a few of the bikes in need of maintenance, so rent at your own risk! Mobike’s orange bicycles are the best option, costing about USD0.30 for half an hour, but be sure to check your steed thoroughly before selecting it; you don’t want to have to stop a few minutes into your journey because the brakes don’t work.
- Atour Light Shanghai on the Bund: Clean, modern and with an onsite rooftop restaurant and bar, the Atour Light is within walking distance of many of the city’s main attractions.
- Jinjiang Metropolo Shanghai Xintiandi Hotel: Housed in a spectacular Art Deco building, the hotel exudes ’30s chinoiserie style in the heart of Huangpu district.
- Campanile Shanghai Natural History Museum Hotel: Renovated in 2017, this property offers views of the Suzhou Creek and a warm welcome from friendly staff.
- Meego Yes Hotel: Located close to Shanghai railway station in the north of the city, this property features funky design and offers both dormitory stays and private rooms.
This article first appeared in the October 2019 issue of Smile magazine.