Enjoying some of Shanghai’s cultural and architectural attractions as you’re visiting or settling in will help you get to know the city and its history while relieving the stresses that accompany establishing a new home. Shanghai doesn’t boast the world-famous historical attractions of Beijing, since for most of Beijing’s famed history Shanghai was a sleepy fishing village. On the other hand, Shanghai has its own unique attractions that emerged out of periods of hyper-growth and dramatic cultural influxes. The rapid establishment of European communities in the 19th and 20th centuries alongside traditional Chinese neighbourhoods left the city with an interesting architectural juxtaposition. The new period of rapid growth, happening now, is marking the city with grand and innovative towers of glass and steel. For those who appreciate classic art deco or incredible feats of modern engineering, Shanghai is worth exploring.
As a tourist, absorb the enormity of the city and witness the transformation happening all around you. Take special care to stroll down the lanes of old Shanghai and attempt to isolate the microcosms of traditional community life without being overwhelmed by the looming glass towers in the background. There’s no better place to begin exploring Shanghai than the Bund.
Strolling the Bund is arguably one of the world’s grandest urban experiences. On one side, you have a promenade of elegant 19th-century buildings that were the heart of the former International Concession and housed the Western banks that boosted an early Shanghai to international prominence. Across the Huangpu River, the glamorous monolithic towers represent the new Shanghai that is once again a world economic powerhouse. The buildings along the Bund have been well preserved and are now some of Asia’s most coveted real estate. Many of them have top-notch restaurants and bars on the upper floors or rooftops where you can dine or drink with startling views of Pudong.
The Shanghai Museum
Situated neatly on the southern end of People’s Square, the Shanghai Museum houses a world-class collection of 123,000 Chinese cultural artifacts (only half of which have ever been displayed), only rivaled by the Palace Museums in Beijing and Taipei. This is the best place in Shanghai to appreciate the depth and breadth of China’s cultural heritage. The building’s form is based on a ding, an ancient Chinese pot, and its layout is inspired by traditional Chinese cosmology, with a square base to represent the Earth and a rounded roof to represent heaven. There are eleven galleries inside, with well displayed pieces and comprehensive explanations in English. There is too much to see in one visit, so set aside some time to appreciate the ground-floor gallery of bronzes, some of which are over 2,000 years old.
The Alleyways of the Old Town
With most of historic Shanghai only dating back a couple of centuries, the Old Town is an intriguing window into traditional Chinese community life, although sifting the genuine from the ersatz can be tricky. It sits on valuable real estate, and many of the inhabitants consider it dated and run-down. Not surprisingly, it’s gradually being bulldozed by developers in order to build more towers. However, for a glimpse of old Chinese Shanghai, the remaining Old Town backstreets with their bustling lanes, dark alleyways, street kitchens and hanging laundry are the ideal places to explore. The most interesting streets are away from Yu Garden and the Dongtai Lu Antique Market; try Dongjiadu Lu and the alleys north of the Confucian Temple – the only one to have survived in Shanghai. Another interesting street is Dajing Lu, just west of Yu Garden. If you stroll from Henan Nan Lu along Dajing Lu, you’ll find a lot of locals going about their daily business until you eventually run into the Dajing Pavilion, the only remnant of the wall that once surrounded the entire city.
Shanghai World Financial Center
To get on top of the city, take a ride up one of the SWFC’s ear-popping elevators to the 94th-floor observation deck. Better yet, continue up to the VIP Observation Aisle, a glass-bottomed walkway delivering disorienting views over Shanghai, as well as the neighbouring Jinmao Tower, formerly Shanghai’s tallest building. The 492-metre bottle opener-like tower is truly an architectural spectacle and the world’s third largest building. You can easily make a romantic evening out of it at the French restaurant on the 87th floor and the Park Hyatt Hotel whiskey cellar on the 92nd.
Nanjing Lu Pedestrian Mall
This is China’s classic “Number One Shopping Street”, which needs to be dutifully seen and experienced. It’s a sea of humanity, particularly in the evening, energized by neon lights, sounds and chaotic movement. It’s gaudy and men are likely to be offered a massage and other services by Chinese ladies, but it’s still well worth the experience. Compared to stale shopping malls or kitschy markets, hanging around on the Nanjing Lu Pedestrian Mall is an original Shanghai experience.
Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center
Given the scale of Shanghai as a city, there are few better ways to comprehend that scope than a visit to the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center. While its name is a mouthful and sounds like about as much fun as attending a lecture on the benefits of flossing, the Center has an incredible scale model of the entire city that puts into perspective the magnitude of development that has occurred in Shanghai over the past 20 years. A visit is a great way for newcomers to the city to orient themselves in the concrete jungle that is Shanghai. It’s located at 100 Renmin Dadao in People’s Square.
Huangpu River Cruise
Though some consider these types of sightseeing cruises kitschy (they might be right), taking one of these short boat rides in Shanghai is easy as there are many and they leave frequently. There are various levels of ships and cruises, some include dinner and have air conditioning, but we recommend taking one of the simpler boats and riding up top for an unobstructed view of both sides of the river.
Yu Garden is the obligatory Shanghai tourist site and, while clogged with tourists and insanely commercial, is still worth a trip. The site originated as a private garden in 1559 and has since been renovated following damage during the Opium Wars, the Taiping Rebellion and the Japanese occupation during World War Two. Unless you love crowds, don’t visit on weekends and you might even consider grabbing an umbrella and visiting on a day with light rain, as the garden itself has an otherworldly feel to it when it is not crawling with throngs of tourists. Not surprising, since it was originally created as a place of serenity.