Nothing better embodies China’s burgeoning economic muscle than the riverside district of Pudong — a towering, futuristic ensemble of glass, concrete and neon. Yet glance across the chocolate waters of the Huangpu at The Bund, and things look quite different. A delicate melange of gothic, baroque and classical architecture, The Bund is more than colonial legacy; it’s a reminder that Shanghai is a progressive city, proud of its unique and varied culture. For those looking to explore that culture, there’s never been a better time to find a bed here; over the past decade, rapid economic development has ushered in an ever more eclectic range of hotels. Between them, The Bund and Pudong boast the lion’s share of upmarket hotels, yet Shanghai also caters to those travellers on a budget, with chains such as Jinjiang Inn and Home Inn. Don’t expect a concierge, or even much in the way of English, but rooms are typically clean and the wi-fi invariably works. And, for all Pudong’s headline-grabbing, most first-timers find it’s better to be based on the Puxi side of the river — home to the majority of cultural attractions. Here, it’s hard to beat the gorgeous, tree-lined streets of the French Concession for their atmospheric charm and hipster hangouts.
Best for partying: Langham Xintiandi
What’s the perfect way for a fashionista to negotiate the streets of Shanghai? A fixie? A rickshaw? A Bentley convertible? Nice, but not really head-turners, especially in this city of billionaires. The Langham Xintiandi has the answer: a distinctive pink London taxi. Decked out in the hotel’s iconic rose-petal pink, the vehicle even has a name: Pinky or Fen Xiao Xiao (‘Little Pink’ in Mandarin). Executive-level guests get one ride for free, others have to pay for the privilege. A flamingo-coloured cab fits in well with the Langham’s overall feel. Drawing a youthful, trendy clientele, this is a hotel that manages to be fun and luxurious at the same time. Guests are a stone’s throw from Xintiandi — Shanghai’s collection of shops, restaurants and bars housed in renovated traditional shikumen residences — perfect for either retail therapy or late night revelry.
Rooms: £220 a night, room only.
For urban escape: Naked Stables
Shanghai is truly a place that never sleeps, with a pulsating nightlife to match its cultural cachet. Yet even city slickers need a break from urban life from time to time. For visitors looking to recharge their batteries in a bucolic setting, Moganshan is the answer. With its tranquil temples, lush bamboo forests and mist-clad mountains, this clutch of verdant hills has been home to missionaries, colonial-era expats, opium dealers and gangsters — even political and military leader Chiang Kai-shek had a villa here. A two-hour drive from Shanghai, the pick of Moganshan’s accommodation is Naked Stables. An upmarket collection of villas and ‘Earth Huts’ spread along a secluded valley, the emphasis is on healthy eating, relaxation and natural pursuits (spa treatments, horse-riding and pottery). Two days of this laid-back living and you’ll be happy to hit the Big Smoke again.
Rooms: £260 a night, B&B.
For value: Pentahotel Shanghai
With a location slightly outside the centre of Shanghai, this is undoubtedly one of the best value hotels in the city, with great food and facilities at a fraction of the cost of ritzier establishments in Pudong or along The Bund. And what you don’t get in awe-inspiring views is more than made up for by the authentic Chinese colour of the neighbourhood, with plenty of nearby cafes and restaurants. As with all hotels in the Pentahotel group — a German-Hong Kong chain with a growing property portfolio — there’s a funky vibe, with hip decor, rental bikes and English-speaking staff. Doubling up as the reception, the so-called Pentalounge is the star of the show; it boasts super comfy leather sofas, a pool table, daily happy hour and a great mix of Western and Chinese dishes.
Rooms: £50 a night, room only.
Best for views: Grand Hyatt Shanghai
These days, super-tall skyscrapers are two-a-penny in China, even outside the major cities. However, when it comes to sheer architectural elegance, none comes close to Shanghai’s Jinmao Tower.
Located on the 53rd to 87th floors, the Grand Hyatt Shanghai continues the theme beautifully, boasting one of the world’s highest and most stunning atria. Located in central Pudong, the hotel has a definite corporate feel, but chic decor ensures things never feel staid. The hip and well-heeled will definitely feel right at home.
Obviously, most rooms offer jaw-dropping views over Pudong and the Huangpu (corner suites have the best). The Tang Dynasty poems engraved in every headboard are stylish, while The Grill restaurant (56th floor) serves the best steaks in town.
Rooms: £160 a night, room only.
For business travellers: Paramount Gallery Hotel
On first arrival, this slightly quirky four-star hotel is a little uninspiring — the reception is actually located on the 12th floor (the hotel occupies floors 12-20), and the ground-floor lobby isn’t the greatest. Things rapidly improve in the rooms, however, which are some of the largest, most well-equipped and stylish in Shanghai (think dark wood, subtle lighting and art deco motifs). There’s a definite boutique feel to this characterful property, reinforced by the friendly staff. Situated in Shanghai’s commercial Jing’an District, the Paramount Gallery will suit business travellers looking for a high-end hotel experience at mid-range prices.
Rooms: £84 a night, room only.
For shopping: Seventh Heaven Shanghai
Located on Nanjing Road (the Oxford Street of Shanghai), this hotel is right in the centre of the action. The Bund, Yu Garden, the Shanghai Grand Theatre and plenty of shops are within walking distance.
Seventh Heaven, founded in 1932, was one of Shanghai’s fanciest establishments. A recent renovation has restored its glamour — vintage lamps and art deco-inspired flourishes give the place an atmospheric feel.
Rooms: £35 a night, B&B.
For local hideaways: Fish Inn Shanghai Bund
Rather hard to find, this vibrant three-star hotel is located on a lilong — Shanghai’s traditional low-rise buildings, complete with external washing lines and communal atmosphere. The Fish Inn’s close to local attractions (The Bund, Nanjing Road and Shanghai Museum are walkable). Rooms are clean, if slightly small; it’s worth upgrading to a Deluxe with a balcony or patio. The staff are some of the friendliest around and speak great English.
Rooms: £30 a night, room only.
For location: Le Tour Traveller’s Rest Youth Hostel
One of the best hostels in central Shanghai, this little gem is minutes from Jing’an Temple and Nanjing Road. Rooms are large and clean, with wooden floors. This youth hostel has a friendly vibe; the rooftop bar is a great place to hang out. There’s also a communal area with sofas, and most of the staff speak good English. Breakfast, though, is expensive so head to nearby cafes for far tastier and reasonably priced options.
Rooms: £10 a night, dormitory bed only.
Published in the April 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)