CITY GUIDE FOR WHEN YOU VISIT SHANGHAI FOR THE FIRST TIME
At the turn of the 20th century, Shanghai was a thriving metropolis to rival Paris, with vibrant nightlife, couture houses, and posh private clubs. One hundred years later—following war, destruction, and redevelopment—it’s once again at the top—literally. It now has Shanghai Tower, China’s tallest and the world’s second-tallest skyscraper. It has the world’s longest metro. Its cocktail bars rival those of New York and London.
There’s so much to see, eat, and drink in this city of 24 million, so to help you make the most of your first time in Shanghai, we’ve rounded up the best things to do in Shanghai—like slurping Shanghai’s best soup dumplings, finding where to buy cool souvenirs in Shanghai, eating at the city’s top restaurants, and getting lost in Shanghai’s charming laneways.
The Bund is Shanghai’s waterfront boulevard, lined in the heritage buildings that showcase the city’s pre-1949 past and across the river from the Pudong skyscrapers of its future. Along the Bund, Shanghai’s street life is in full force. It’s bustling even at dawn, with locals ballroom dancing, exercising, and practicing tai chi and qi gong. Day and night, Chinese tourists, foreigners, and Shanghai locals walk the Bund, snapping photos of each other backed by the skyscrapers. At night, the towers are lit with flashing neon lights reflected in the Huangpu River.
The Longhua Temple is a Buddhist temple dedicated to the Maitreya Buddha in Shanghai. Although most of the present day buildings date from later reconstructions, the temple preserves the architectural design of a Song dynasty monastery of the Chan School.
While the area around Yu Garden is commercialized and the garden itself not as impressive as the classical gardens of Suzhou, it’s one of the few old sights left in Shanghai, and a valuable piece of the city’s rapidly disappearing past. Commissioned in 1559 by Ming Dynasty official Pan Yunduan, the garden was built over nearly two decades by the renowned architect Zhang Nanyang. In the mid-1800s, it was here that the Society of Small Swords planned their uprising against the French colonists, who then destroyed the garden during the first Opium War. After you walk around carp-filled ponds and through the rock gardens and bamboo groves, visit the small museum dedicated to the Society of Small Swords rebellion.
In 1849, Shanghai ceded an area for French settlement to the French Consul. The French consulate built Western-style homes and imported London plane trees to shade the streets. Foreigners shopped, drank, and dined, and some got up to no good, visiting opium dens and brothels. As the concession expanded, British and American expats moved in, eventually followed by White Russians. Today, despite massive redevelopment throughout the city, the French Concession looks much as it did a century ago. Its streets today are comparably quiet and leafy, lined in cafés, boutiques, and restaurants.
The geographical center of Shanghai, People’s Square is an enormous public square in which Shanghai denizens hang out all day, every day. Residents stroll, practice tai chi, and fly kites. Grandparents sit, drinking tea from thermoses and gossiping. Come evening, ballroom dancers hold group lessons. The subway station below people’s square is the intersection of metro lines 1, 2, and 8, and is estimated to be the busiest metro station in China, handling some 700,000 people every day. This is also where you can see the Shanghai Marriage Market. It is a marriage market where parents of unmarried adults flock to the park every Saturday and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. to trade information on their children.
Most Shanghai residents once lived in shikumen (stone gate houses), but now many have been razed to make way for high-rises. Eight acres of these shikumen—some original and some newly built imitations—have been turned into an upscale shopping-and-dining complex called Xintiandi, or “New Heaven on Earth.” The restaurants and cafés here are busy day and night, especially when it’s warm and outdoor seating allows prime people-watching.
SIP CRAFT COCKTAILS
Shanghai has gone through a cocktail renaissance, with dozens of bars now slinging good quality and inventive craft cocktails. For an easy Shanghai bar crawl, work your way around the French Concession or Jing’an, or head down to the Bund for drinks with a skyline view. So where to drink? There are the speakeasies, like intimate, quiet Speak Low where the bartenders deliver drinks like the Sawadee-Cup, Thai-style bubble tea with brown butter-washed rum. Union Trading Company is a neighborhood bar that deals in classic cocktails but also a rotating list of the zingy and new, like Banana Alexander (cream, rum, banana liqueur). In winter, cozy, dim Senator Saloon is where you’ll find expats whiskey cocktails. At the first hint of warm weather, pony up for the Bulgari’s eponymous cocktail at their 48th-floor rooftop bar. It’s a sweet-summery mix of Aperol, gin, lime, and pineapple and orange juices.
SLURP UP SOUP DUMPLINGS
Ask five locals where to get the best soup dumplings in Shanghai (that’s xiaolongbao) and you’ll get five different answers. Everyone has a favorite neighborhood joint, but there are a few clear winners of the best xiaolongbao in Shanghai award. The line outside Jia Jia Tang Bao, just north of People’s Square, is a clear indication it’s worth the wait. Grab a plastic stool and slurp up plain pork soup dumplings, pork and crab, or crab roe, the priciest. Fuchun, the original or one of its many branches, is slightly more upmarket, a restaurant where families go for more than xiaolongbao, but you’re here for just that. If you want half a dozen varieties of xiaolongbao in a lovely setting—there are truffles, the service is great—go to Din Tai Fung.
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