There’s always a palpable energy in the air when you’re in Shanghai. As China’s most cosmopolitan city with a population of almost 25 million people, Shanghai is a melting pot of entrepreneurs, go-getters, and growing businesses. By day, it’s hard not to get swept away by the bustle, and by dusk, the skyscrapers light up the entire city, with the glowing Pearl Tower and the Bund’s majestic waterfront promenade being standout sights.
Yet amidst this modernity are plenty of 1920s-era examples of art deco buildings that still coexist with Buddhist temples and ancient gardens. Living options vary from high-rise luxury to charming lilong (lane houses) neighbourhoods — a hint of the city’s penchant for marrying the old and the new.
This merger between past and present also surfaces in Shanghai’s main districts. You can’t claim to have visited the city without a trip to its Former French Concession, a soulful district where European-styled villas and early 20th-century buildings still stand as a reminder of China’s diverse past.
Here’s how to make the best of your time in this cosmopolitan city.
WHERE TO STAY
The Peninsula Shanghai
There are plenty of ways to experience Shanghai’s unique fusion of the old and new, the East and West. The Peninsula Shanghai is perhaps one of the best embodiments. The contemporary yet chic hotel is located on the historic riverfront bund, which combines traditional Shanghai aesthetics with Art Deco-Inspired interiors.
Refined luxury is the key here, so expect to take in views of the famous Bund and Huangpu from the comfort of a stylishly subdued room. Gourmands will also be pleased to learn that the hotel’s restaurant is the two-Michelin-starred Yi Long Court, which is widely regarded to be one of the best Cantonese options in the city.
Address: 32 Zhongshan Dong Yi Road, Bund 32, Hangpu District, Shanghai, China
Amanyangyun sits on the other end of this spectrum. It’s perfect if you’re looking to escape the bustle and indulge in authentic traditional Chinese culture. The grandiose sight sits just outside the city as an imperial restoration project by the famed Aman group. Thirteen Ming and Qing dynasty villas were brought back to life for the 21st-century here.
The regal atmosphere continues within, where late Australian architect Kerry Hill applied his signature mod-minimal aesthetics to the antique villas. The result is a rare glimpse of China’s yesteryears married with the comforts of today.
Address: 6161 Yuanjiang Road, Minhang District, Shanghai China
Intercontinental Shanghai Wonderland
The Intercontinental Shanghai Wonderland is truly a sight to behold. Designed by JADE_QA Architects, the resort was transformed from an abandoned quarry into a luxurious fantasy world away from Shanghai’s bustle. Of the 18 floors, 16 are underground and two are underwater. The latter sees rooms which have their own saltwater aquariums.
The activities make full use of the hotel’s unique location. Guests can choose to either scale the 88-metre cliff face, zipline across to the theme park next door, or kayak around the quarry. The nightly water show has also been said to be more impressive than the Bellagio’s in Las Vegas.
Address: 5888 Chen Hua Road, Songjiang District, Shanghai, China
WHERE TO EAT & DRINK
Shanghai has cemented its reputation as one of the world’s biggest gastronomic powerhouses, so there’s no lack of amazing eats around the city.
L’Atelier Joël Robuchon Shanghai
L’Atelier Joël Robuchon Shanghai is one of the city’s most luxurious dining experiences and it occupies a prime spot on the Bund. Its namesake legendary chef and restaurateur, Joël Robuchon, extends his legacy to this sophisticated spot with a French menu bursting with finesse. Be prepared to indulge in fresh seafood, foie gras, and caviar within the intimate boudoir-esque restaurant.
Opening hours: Lunch — Saturday and Sunday: 11:30am to 2pm; Dinner — Sunday to Wednesday: 5:30pm to 10:30pm, Thursday to Saturday: 5:30pm to 11pm
Address: 3F, 18 Zhongshan Dong Yi Road, Bund18, Huangpu District, Shanghai, China
Wei Jing Ge
Wei Jing Ge at the Waldorf Astoria is one of the best representations of Chinese cuisine. Helmed by Sam Yuen — the former chef for Zhu Rongji and Bill Clinton — the restaurant now serves regional delicacies from Shanghai and Sichuan, as well as Cantonese cuisine. An in-house sommelier is always on hand; there is, after all, a well-curated list of over 500 exquisite wines in the restaurant.
Opening hours: Daily — Lunch: 1130pm- 2:30pm; Dinner: 5:30pm – 10:30pm
Address: 2 Zhong Shan Dong Yi Road, Waldorf Astoria Shanghai on the Bund, Huangpu District, Shanghai, China
Nightlife is a big part of Shanghai’s identity, and it’s here where you’ll find a legion of bars that will cater to everyone.
Sober Company sits on Yandang Road with the promise of a trio of experiences. The slick bar — helmed by bartending whizz Shingo Gokan — stands out amongst its sister cafe and restaurant for its sublime cocktails. If you’re lucky, you’ll be invited into its speakeasy, Tipsy, to embody the bar’s very motto: “Come Sober, leave Tipsy.”
Opening hours: Monday to Thursday & Sunday: 10am to 2am, Friday to Saturday: 10am to 3am
Address: 99 Yandang Road (near Nanchang Road) Huangpu District, Shanghai, China
Located in the French Concession, the all-encompassing spot is best described as a gastropub and microbrewery that morphs into a club when night falls. It’s easy to document your night at this neon-lit, industrial-chic joint; this cavernous space not only has several brewing tanks for its in-house booze, but also a handsome copper wood-fired pizza oven that’s known to churn out some of the best pizzas in the neighbourhood.
Opening hours: Daily lunch:11am to 2:30pm; Dinner — Wednesday to Saturday: 5pm to 2am, Sunday to Tuesday: 5pm to 12am
Address: 2F, Kwah Centre, 1028 Huaihai Zhong Road (near Donghu Road) Xuhui District, Shanghai, China
WHAT TO DO
The French Concession is always worth a visit for being a historic goldmine of Shanghai’s gilded past. Here, the former French territory sees twisting alleyways that lead to sycamore-lined boulevards and plenty of European-influenced architecture. Nicknamed the ‘Paris of the East’, the neighbourhood sees quaint shops and boutiques housed within beautiful Tudor-style houses.
One of the area’s highlights is Wukang Road, which offers a generous number of outdoor cafes, bars and restaurants to experience the French Concession at its best. If you’re still hungry, head over to Anfu and Julu Road for an authentic taste of Shanghai’s iconic xiaolongbaos (soup dumplings). The two streets are known for housing plenty of acclaimed local eateries. Tianzifang is a fantastic spot for a stroll — it’s now regarded as an arts and crafts shopping mecca for tourists eager to bring a piece of authentic Chinese culture back home with them.
An itinerary guide to Shanghai wouldn’t be complete without Shanghai Disneyland. Home to the Enchanted Storybook Castle, the tallest Disney castle of all Disney parks, the expansive theme park offers six themed lands and plenty of magic. The park is conveniently located at the end of Metro line 11.
Address: Pudong New District, Shanghai, China
Shanghai might be a glistening metropolis in the day, but it’s at night when it truly shines. Located on the west bank of the Huangpu River, the famous colonial-era riverfront promenade flourishes into life when the sun sets. The colonial buildings here house bars and restaurants where you can catch a drink at as you watch the technicolour light display on the other side of the river.
Address: Zhongshan Dong Yi Road, Huangpu District, Shanghai, China
Zhujiajiao Water Town
Bolstered by a history of over 1,700 years, ‘Shanghai’s Venice’ — as it’s affectionately nicknamed — is a well-preserved part of the city that used to be a trading area — thanks to its many canals which ferried goods in barges and boats. Like its Italian counterpart, the ancient town in the Qingpu District is distinctive for the traditional residences that line this once-important canal. More than 30 ancient bridges built during the Ming and Qing dynasties still stand today. The Fangsheng Bridge remains the most popular of all amongst visitors as it is the largest stone bridge arch in Shanghai.
A gondola cruise is by far one of the best ways to see Zhujiajiao at its finest. However, a stroll through one of the narrow ancient streets is also a great way to experience local culture and cuisine.
Address: Qingpu District, Shanghai, China
This story first appeared in Lifestyle Asia Singapore.