Aptly called the “Paris of the East” and the “Pearl of the Orient,” Shanghai welcomes global travelers who come to enjoy its riches. China’s largest city is home to just over twenty-four million people, but do not expect to feel the weight of the crowds when you walk along its shaded alleys. This feat is possible largely due to Shanghai’s smart urban planning and an extensive network of transportation options. A matrix of elevated highways runs through the city and the world’s largest rapid transit system by length, Shanghai Metro, transports over ten million people each day. But the city does not stop there: the world’s fastest commercial rail service also calls Shanghai home. Maglev, short for magnetic levitation train, connects Pudong International Airport with the Longyang Road station near the city center. As the Shanghai Maglev zips through its thirty kilometer journey in less than eight minutes, it develops speeds of up to 430 kilometers per hour. Welcome to the future.
One of five Chinese treaty ports opened to foreign trade in the mid-nineteenth century, Shanghai quickly rose to prominence on the global stage and soon bypassed the other four cities (Guangzhou, Ningbo, Fuzhou, and Xiamen) on its quest for international status. Shanghai’s strategic location —crowning the Yangtze River Delta near its entrance into the East China Sea— turned the city into a prime trade spot and has played a major role in its ascent. Many world powers vied for a piece of Shanghai, with British, French, and American governments looking to wield major influence. This dynamic heritage is still palpable in Shanghai today.
To orient yourself, start at People’s Square, a sprawling public area that holds in its spacious quarters a leafy green park, a contemporary art gallery, MOCA, and a plenitude of dining options such as Godly, one of Shanghai’s oldest vegetarian restaurants. For your first look at the city, come up to Sky Dome, a forty-seventh floor revolving lounge at the Radisson Blu hotel. A bird’s-eye view reveals the splendor of Shanghai. The world’s tallest skyscrapers loom large in Pudong, the city’s commercial center, while residential buildings intersperse with colonial style dwellings in the historical Bund area. While at Sky Dome, try out the high tea, a British tradition that incorporates local flavors, such as xiaolongbao steamed buns, into its service.
Near People’s Square lies Nanjing Road, a fabled pedestrian esplanade that stretches across the city from east to west. Walks alongside East Nanjing Road will take you back in time as you observe the nineteenth century architecture, verdant alleys, quaint storefronts and street side cafés. At the end of the road, a magnificent view of the Pudong skyline opens up from The Bund, a Huangpu River-bound promenade. For a special gastronomic experience, visit Ultraviolet, a “psycho-taste” avant-garde restaurant where the French-born and trained chef Paul Pairet combines flavors of food with multi-sensory technologies of the visual, audio, and olfactory kind.
Veer just a few blocks north from The Bund and you will find yourself in a different city. Shanghai of the distant past awaits, a place where it is still possible to find traces of traditional lane houses, shikumen, get a serving of fresh la mian noodles pulled by hand in front of you at a small wet market, and witness a group of jolly old-time Shanghainese playing a round of cards on a quiet street corner.
If shopping is what you are after, head west instead. West Nanjing Road hosts the full spectrum of the world’s top luxury brands, with flagship Chanel, Prada, and Louis Vuitton stores lining up the sparkling sidewalks. Nearby, five-star hotels bring respite from the city bustle. Jing An Shangri-La, in particular, boasts spectacular floor-to-ceiling views from its fifty-fifth floor Horizon Club Lounge.
Another central Shanghai district is filled with historical significance. The Former French Concession is a favorite with expatriates and hip young urbanites today, but in the nineteenth century it was one of the three foreign power influence areas. The sycamore tree-lined boulevards, and Art Deco apartment homes will immediately transport you to a leisurely French holiday. Visit Xintiandi, a traditional shikumen area turned into a hip shopping and entertainment center, and stop by Tianzifang, a thriving space for artists, designers, and craftspeople to market their quirky creations.
Throughout your exploration of Shanghai, you will find plenty of opportunity to slow down and recharge in the green retreats strung across the urban landscape like beads on a shu zhu prayer string. In the Old City, sixteenth century Yu Garden spreads on five acres and the neighboring Gucheng Park stuns with its maze of lean bamboos stretching toward the sky. Further inland, Jing’an Park welcomes visitors from the nearby namesake temple. It is here, amid tranquil waters and pointed pagodas set against the backdrop of steel and glass modern towers, that the true essence of Shanghai reveals itself as a mega city that remains calm and spacious despite the multitude of buildings.