Whilst Shanghai remains a popular tourist centre, it does not boast the historic attractions of a city like Beijing. Its evolution from a sleepy fishing village 400 years ago to one of the world’s great cities is one marked by periods of hyper growth.
The last was in the 1920s and 30s, which left the city with an attractive architectural heritage. The current period of growth is leaving the city with a new architectural heritage of glass, steel and concrete. This new face of Shanghai sits side-by-side with the old, providing a stunning contrast between old and new.
As a tourist, soak in the enormity of the city and the change that is happening all around you. Peer down the lanes of old Shanghai as you walk past and take notice of the microcosms of community life that remain even in the heart of the city.
Seek vantage points where possible to get a feel for the scope of the city which seems to have no end. Shanghai’s thousands of high-rises and skyscrapers should make this easy. When sightseeing in Shanghai there is no better place to start than where Shanghai’s prolific rise began – the Bund.
Grandly skirting the Huangpu River, the Bund is a promenade of elegant late nineteenth-century buildings and is Shanghai’s most famous landmark. A century ago, this was the heart of the former International Concession, populated by raucous foreign industrialists. Its magnificent yet dignified skyline consists of the formerly Western-owned banks and institutions that once cemented Shanghai’s standing as Asia’s leading financial and commercial centre. The Communist Party, recognising the Bund as a symbol of rampant capitalism and foreign imperialism, virtually shut down the area for 50 years. The revival began in the late 1990s. Since then, some of the world’s most famous retail and hospitality brands have been vying for a piece of what is beginning to look like China’s Fifth Avenue. The buildings are well-preserved and it’s worth taking the time to casually stroll along the boulevard and pay attention to the architectural details. In the evening, get a table at one of the restaurants or cocktail bars on the upper floors for a breathtaking view of the futuristic Pudong skyline across the Huangpu River. The contrast between old Shanghai wealth and new across the river is striking and a memorable experience for all visitors.
For a relaxed view of the Bund, visit Building No. 3, near the southern end of the promenade. Formerly the Union Insurance Company Building, No. 3 was constructed in 1916 in Renaissance style, with lavish detailing. It has been reborn in the 21st century as a retail, restaurant and culture complex, home to the only Evian Spa outside France and showcase stores of Hugo Boss and Giorgio Armani. The Shanghai Gallery of Art, on the third floor, has a reputation for impressive exhibitions of Chinese and international contemporary art. However, for a first visit, go directly up to the 7th-floor terrace for a drink at New Heights.
Shanghai Museum, on the southern end of People’s Square, is a world-class showpiece of Chinese cultural artifacts whose only competitors are the Palace Museums in Beijing and Taipei. Apart from the permanent collection of 123,000 separate items (only just over half have ever been displayed), the building itself is a marvel. From the outside, it’s distinctive for its round top in the shape of an ancient Chinese cooking vessel, or ding. The building also symbolises the ancient Chinese notion of a square earth and a round sky. The spacious marble atrium provides a serene welcome to the 14 galleries, each perfectly displayed to allow visitors to give their undivided attention to each piece. The calm gallery lighting contrasts nicely with the graceful illumination awarded to the splendid artifacts, which allows viewers to feel a connection to the art. This is particularly true in the Jade Gallery and Ancient Chinese Sculpture Gallery. Set aside time to appreciate the Bronze Gallery for its extensive collection of ancient ritual bronzes, some of which date back to the 18th century BC. The Ming and Qing Furniture Galleries are also worth a careful look, especially the two mock Ming rooms. And while you might be tempted to skip the Coin Gallery, at least check out the small room at the back that holds a collection of Silk Road coins that spans over 2,600 years.
The Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center
Like Shanghai Museum next door, the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center doesn’t necessarily draw visitors with an enticing name. Though it sounds bureaucratic, it contains a dynamic and engaging display of Shanghai’s past, present and future. Inside the building, images and models guide you through Shanghai’s evolution from swampy delta backwater to international boomtown. And finally, on the third floor, you can experience the world’s largest city model, showing how Shanghai is intended to look in 2020. It’s an excellent way to get a grasp of the massive scale of the city of Shanghai and its ambitions. The fourth floor highlights a series of key projects for future growth. The Urban Planning Center is in People’s Square, north of Shanghai Museum. Take the Metro to People’s Square. For more information, visit www.supec.org. Admission is 30RMB for adults, 15RMB for students and children.
Oriental Pearl Tower
The Urban Planning Museum is an excellent model of Shanghai. However, it’s best to get up top and see the real thing. The Oriental Pearl Tower is Shanghai’s showpiece landmark – something to put on postcards to represent Shanghai’s mania for everything kitsch. Enjoy it from one of the bars or restaurants on the Bund, but save the 150RMB it costs to visit the top of the building, for a drink or two in the Shanghai World Financial Center (WFC).
Shanghai World Financial Centre
Towering like a giant bottle-opener at 492 metres (1,614 feet), the WFC offers visitors several ways to enjoy getting high. One of the ear-popping elevators can whiz you up to the 94th-floor observation deck. Better yet, continue on up to the VIP Observation Aisle, a glass-bottomed walkway delivering stomach-churning views over Shanghai, including the next-door Jinmao Tower, previously holder of the crown as Shanghai’s tallest building. To calm the nerves, enjoy any of the other perches atop Shanghai in style. There’s a French restaurant on the 87th floor, and the 92nd-floor whiskey cellar in the slick Park Hyatt Hotel. The building is at 100 Century Avenue. To get there, take the Metro to Lujiazui. Also, check out www.swfc-shanghai.com.
Currently the second tallest building in the world, the Shanghai Tower dominates the Lujiazui skyline. It wil be home to the Four Seasons Hotel - on the 84th to 110th floors and will be the tallest hotel in the world. Expect a viewing deck and bar to open on the upper floors to enjoy unrivalled views across Shanghai.
Xintiandi is an upmarket shopping and entertainment area in Shanghai. Based on renovated and rebuilt traditional Shanghai homes and alleyways, the area contains shops and international restaurants. A lovely place to spend a warm summers evening.
Yu Gardens (Yu Yuan)
Based in the original old city of Shanghai, Yu Gardens is a traditional temple and Chinese garden. Hugely popular with tourists, it gets very busy during the weekend. Situated just south of the Bund, the old temples and garden offer respite from the busy city. Attached to the gardens is the Yuyuan markets, a place selling trinkets and souvenirs to the crowds.