Three Ferraris — a black, a white, and a red one with go-faster stripes — purr down the street in front of me as two young ladies wearing insanely high heels clip-clop past without so much as batting a fake mink eyelash. A moment later, I crane my neck upwards past the sparkly Louis Vuitton, Dior and Bulgari shop fronts, trying to catch a glimpse of the Shanghai Tower, a building that will take its place as the tallest in Asia — and second only in the world to Dubai’s Burj Khalifa — when it opens later this year. Topping out at 125 storeys, its shiny serpentine frame skyrockets past the pagoda-like Jin Mao Tower, soars above the 1,614ft Shanghai World Financial Center (affectionately known as the Bottle Opener, due to the trapezoid hole it sports in its crown) before disappearing into the clouds.
Super-rich, sexy, and screaming with confidence, Shanghai, it seems, is a bit of a show-off. But this isn’t my first visit to the ‘City of the Future’, and I know that’s not entirely true. Sure, the striking architecture and five-star hotels on the Pudong side of the Huangpu River are an immense statement of power and modernity — and one that can’t fail to impress — but cross the water to Puxi, and a more mature, multilayered and charismatic Shanghai unfolds.
In this Shanghai, ruby-lipped brides use the glorious Beaux Arts banks and customs houses of The Bund as a backdrop for their wedding photos; housewives haggle over hairy crabs in bubbling street markets tucked away in the tightly packed lanes of forgotten (for now) lilong communities; gangs of electric motorbike riders glide past Spanish-style villas; and elderly couples practise ballroom dancing under willow trees in the park. Every moment seems to have been torn straight from the cinema screen. And what’s most fascinating about it all isn’t how rapidly the city is changing but just how much stays the same; the grit and glamour that Shanghai was so long-known for is still here, twinkling away, while everything around it changes.
What to do
Just north of The Bund, 1933 Old Millfun (10 Shajing Rd, Hongkou) was originally designed as a slaughterhouse and now serves as a creative hub for local artists and designers. The building itself has an incredibly eerie layout, with winding passageways, randomly placed rooms and a four-storey atrium crisscrossed with ‘floating’ walkways, which were once used to herd animals between levels. It all works to create the most extraordinary interplay of light and shadow, giving the interior the feel of the Citizen Kane set. The superstitious locals still aren’t very keen on the building’s brutal past, so it’s on the quiet side, but photography buffs won’t want to miss this one.
One place that’s booming is 50 Mogashan Road (or M50 as it’s also known), a previously near-deserted stretch of factories and warehouses that’s now a hotbed for Chinese contemporary art. Collectors and dealers come here to spot emerging talent but there are also plenty of affordable finds and cosy cafes to hang out in too.
Flexing its architectural muscle at the southern end of The Bund is the immense Power Station of Art — a former electricity plant, it’s China’s answer to MoMA or the Tate Modern, housing provocative photography, video exhibitions and enormous installations. Don’t miss the fifth-floor terrace cafe for views of tug boats puffing up the river.
For cutting-edge fashion, visit Xintiandi Style, a small mall designed to mimic the neighbouring Shikumen buildings and home to some of the freshest local talent. “The top local designers are all very young,” my Shanghainese friend, Renee Xu, tells me, as we longingly claw a flowing asymmetrical dress in Exception de MixMind. “And they have a very distinct style — this is classic tailoring but it uses the colours from a Chinese watercolour painting.”
Other stores channelling modern-day China through the medium of fashion is: Decoster Concept, a ridiculously cool menswear store selling £250 short-collar shirts and candles in apothecary bottles; Seven Days, which has traditional wooden cabinets filled with delicate mohair hoodies and flowing skirts; and La Vie, where ex-Missoni designer Ji Cheng tempts shoppers with couture cocktail dresses adorned with subtle Chinese symbols.
Over in the former French Concession, the must-stop shop is Madame Mao’s Dowry. Artsy but accessible, it’s the place to plunder black-and-white Mao-era photographic prints, linear white teapots, communist propaganda wrapping paper, and antique knick-knacks.
If you just want to pick up some fabulously kitsch take-home gifts, make tracks for Tainzifang. This small cluster
of streets started with just a handful of artist’s studios but has quickly become one of Shanghai’s most popular shopping districts. Now it’s packed with chic galleries, cafes and boutiques, as well as some slightly weirder offerings — toilet-themed restaurant anyone? Soft drinks served in intravenous drip bags? Maybe not. Worth seeking out, though, are Tea House (T: 00 86 151 2109 4777), for prettily packaged fruit and flower teas, Hi Panda, for panda-inspired fashion, and the French-owned Platane, for gorgeous lifestyle products, from cashmere throws to jasmine-scented candles and floral-printed rice bowls.
Where to eat
“Tonight is going to be like having a food birthday,” Mandarin-speaking guide Mitch Conquer tells me as we huddle under umbrellas on the corner of Shouning Lu. And it was. Skipping over neon-streaked puddles, we visit bulb-lit stalls and hole-in-the-walls serving shiny crustaceans stir-fried in salt and Sichuan pepper, skewers of big-bottom lamb, enoki mushrooms, lotus root, garlic stalks, grilled scallops, as well as bing (a moreish pancake garnished with spring onions) and hand-cut noodles from a Lianzhou ramen restaurant.
If a tour doesn’t take your fancy, there are a few restaurants that can be relied on for top Chinese food, including Yang’s Fry Dumpling (812 Kangding Lu), for xiaolongbao, Shanghai’s famous soup-y morsels; Hengshan Cafe for the glossiest roast duck and the crispiest pork belly; Tao Heung (T: 00 86 21 3363 7999) at the smart new IAPM Mall, where diners use touch-screen technology to order up dim sum; and Lost Heaven, for a stylish sit-down dinner.
Thanks in part to the city’s fast-expanding population of expats, and Shanghai’s voracious appetite for all things new, there are plenty of top-notch international restaurants across the city, too. The latest names on everybody’s lips are the comely Turkish restaurant, Black Pepper; Tomatito (T: 00 86 021 6259 8671), ‘the sexy tapas bar’ — their words not mine, although the menu and staff are pretty damn attractive — and Bistro 321 Le Bec (T: 00 86 21 6241 9100), a fantastique little French number housed in a century-old villa on tree-lined Xinhua Lu.
Stashed away in a shadowy courtyard, Starling is just one of a slew of hip new drinking dens to have hit the city. Part of the Taixing Lu F&B complex (which opened in the middle of June and was packed to its exposed rafters by July), it serves Southeast Asian-inspired alcohol infusions in a cool colonial-style setting — all tiled-floors, swirling ceiling fans, rattan loungers and beautiful people. Also in the square is El Ocho (T: 00 86 21 6433 6511), a low-key space with funky music and a sophisticated vibe; and Logan’s Punch (T: 00 86 21 6246 5928), a warren-like watering hole, where you just know those goldfish bowls of booze are going to get you into trouble. Elsewhere, the Union Trading Company (T: 00 86 21 6418 3077) serves up an unpretentious slice of Prohibition Americana, with Southern-inspired small-plates and down-home hospitality just as much a part of the menu as its classic mixed drinks.
In the summer months, Shanghai has some serious good rooftop action going on. Try Flair, on the 54th floor of The Ritz-Carlton Shanghai, for a vertiginous vista of Pudong, and the ray-gun-shaped Pearl Tower. And Bar Rouge on The Bund for a heart-fluttering view of the promenade. After midnight, things turn a little crazy. If that sounds good to you, aim to get on the guest list at M1NT — which boasts a real-life shark tank — or Cirque le Soir, which is home to vintage-style burlesque and circus acts.
Where to stay
If the so-called golden age of travel is more your thing, then The Peninsula Shanghai hotel will make all your Gatsby-esque dreams come true. The Bund-side location, the elegant lobby, the detailed art deco design, the glittering chandeliers, and the oh-so-discreet and efficient service are the epitome of everything a luxury hotel should be. If you really want to push the boat out, book afternoon tea on the Huangpu River on board The Peninsula’s fabulous Princess 54 yacht.
There’s no doubt China’s financial capital can do high-end extremely well but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to cost you a fortune. The Park Hyatt and The Peninsula both have rooms starting at half of what you’d pay in Paris, New York, or Tokyo — while a stay at The Langham Xintiandi is a positive steal at just over £100 a night. Located in the heart of buzzy Xintiandi, it’s one of those hotels that just gets everything right. Guests are greeted with warm smiles and the scent of ginger flower before being spirited away to luxe rooms complete with designer chairs, top tech and glittering city views. There’s also an excellent spa, a lively bar and two terrific restaurants — don’t miss T’ang Court. Oh, and last but not least, the hotel’s car is a pink London taxi that will shuttle you around town for £5 a journey.
The train from Pudong airport takes just eight minutes to reach downtown Pudong (50CNY/£4.80). From here, you can transfer to the Metro. Taxis are cheap but have your destination written in Chinese. Local listings sites City Weekend and Smart Shanghai have taxi-friendly print-outs.
Pedestrians beware: motorbikes sneak up on pavements and cars can turn on red lights and at crossings.
When to go
Summer is steamy and winter cold and wet. The best times to visit are April to May and September to early-November, with temperatures in the mid-20Cs.
Need to know
Visa: A prepaid visa and a passport with over six months’ validity. However, if you’re transiting and plan to be in China less than 72 hours, you can travel visa-free.
Currency: Chinese Yuan (RMB). £1 = 10.65 RMB.
International dial code: 00 86.
Time difference: GMT +8.
How to do it
Abercrombie & Kent has five nights in a Deluxe Room at The Peninsula Shanghai from £1,470 per person, B&B, including flights with Emirates via Dubai and private airport transfers.
Travelbag has four nights, staying at the The Langham Xintiandi, room only, from £999 per person, including flights from Heathrow with Sri Lankan Airways via Colombo.
Published in the November 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)