Shanghai is full of contradictions. The skyscrapers stretch so high they end in the clouds, but the city has an abundance of green spaces. The roads are chock-a-block but eerily quiet owing to all the electric vehicles. It has the world’s biggest Starbucks but English is barely visible on signage or menus and even more rare on tongues. The Wifi is fast, but the great firewall of China is so real, your smartphone will feel like a toy unless you get a VPN.
Download one before you arrive and do all your research beforehand. Get WeChat (China’s Whatsapp), Didi (China’s Uber), translation apps and take plenty of cold hard cash (ATMs that take international cards are scarce and almost no one accepts Visa).
Speaking of visas, you’ll need an itinerary to get yours. Feel free to use ours.
It doesn’t get much more hip than The Waterhouse at South Bund, a contemporary boutique hotel set in a warehouse without a lick of paint on its exterior, with public areas that have clearly taken effort to look so chic and minimal. Rooms are bright and cheerful, and though it doesn’t come cheap, it’s much more affordable than other 5-star properties in the area. Plus it has its own rooftop bar with incredible views.
Don’t expect a lot of square footage but Airbnb offers a lot of cosy apartments in the city. Shanghai is vast, so map out where you’ll be spending your time before you home in on an area to stay.
The Waterhouse at South Bund, 1-3 Maojiayuan Rd, Huangpu Qu, call +86 21 6080 2988.
Hu Nan Xiang Cun Feng Wei, in English, Hunan Country-style Restaurant’s white tablecloths add contrast to grungy industrial-chic interiors where the crowd is an unexpected mix. You’ll be seated between groups of surly old grandpas, European expat families and hip young locals. Hunan food packs the flavour and isn’t afraid to bring on the heat, so your desi Chinese loving palette is in for a treat.
Jin Li is a trendy spot for delicious Sichuan hotpot. With the help of your translation app, use the pencil on the paper menu to choose your style/s of broth, tick off the proteins and assorted extras (there’s plenty for vegetarians including every mushroom you could possibly think of) and before long, a steaming pot of soup will be in front of you, with saucers of perfectly sliced raw meat and veggies for you to cook your own dinner.
For a change of pace, head to the upmarket Xintiandi, a cluster of historic shikumen “stone gate” brick houses built in a typically Shanghainese east-meets-west style, now converted to upscale shops and restaurants. Try Cobra Lily for fun modern Asian paired with local craft beers or satisfy your dumpling craving at trusty chain Din Tai Fung in the adjacent shopping centre, and return for dessert at Godiva.
Hu Nan Xiang Cun Feng Wei, 168 Wulumuqi Middle Rd; Jin Li, 52 Nanhui Rd; Xintiandi North Block, Taikang Road.
While you can pick up a cold Tsingtao beer (try the stout) at every corner shop, sometimes a glass of vino is in order, so head to Kartel for happy hour. The specials are a good incentive to watch the sunset from this rooftop bar, it’s one of your best bets for mingling with locals and expats, and you can head in the direction of its downstairs dance floor towards the end of the night.
For those nursing a hangover, splurge on a pot of tea at Huxinting (literally mid-lake pavilion) tea house, a structure nestled on the zigzagging bridge overlooking the ponds at Yu Garden. China takes its tea very seriously; the building is from 1784 and with its traditional decor, stupendous setting and tiny wooden stools, it may well be the most atmospheric cup you’ll ever sip.
Kartel, 5/F, 1 Xiangyang Bei Road; Huxinting Tea House, 257 Yuyuan Road.
The winding alleys of Tianzifang, an artsy touristic market is your best bet for souvenir shopping. Think tea in pastel coloured ceramic containers, mahjong sets, paper cutout portraits from photos in your wallet. Not everything is gimmicky, so treat yourself to a linen jacket at Urban Tribe, a tin of preserved chillies from the specialty stall, a pair of Shanghai’s favourite footwear from homegrown sneaker brand Feiyue. Go with a few expandable bags.
The French Concession looms large, but if your wallet isn’t as supersized as the designer stores at IAPM mall (Huaihai Middle Road) where you should window shop just for the story, Anfu Road provides cute denims from sustainable brand Klee Klee, one of a kind 3D printed jewellery from De Pot and the quirky illustrated homewares of Brut Cake. A bonus is that this hip neighbourhood has both, enough ice-cream vending windows for you to get a sugar fix to keep going and relaxed sidewalk cafes to put your bags down when you need a break.
Tianzifang, 210 Taikang Lu; IAPM Mall, 999 Huaihai Zhong Road; Klee Klee, Anfu Road; De Pot, corner Wulumuqi Road and Anfu Road; Brut Cake, Anfu Road;
If you’re in Shanghai over a weekend, head over to People’s Square Park, a stunning green lung in the centre of the city for a stroll and you’ll come across its Marriage Market where hundreds of middle aged locals stand behind umbrellas bearing their (adult) children’s details and credentials printed simply on A4 paper while a more curious lot browse, taking notes. There are no photos and no quirky bios, Tinder this is not, but is perhaps just as ineffective, as many parents are said to return week after week, year after year.
Less depressing is a 1933 Old Slaughter House, which like its name suggests, used to host cattle for their impending doom but now houses much furrier four-legged creatures. Canil is a dog cafe with cute, friendly pooches you can cuddle to your heart’s content. The brutalist style building is also an architectural delight so charge your camera batteries to 100% for multiple reasons.
Of course it’s not really a trip to Shanghai without a visit to The Bund, the city’s iconic waterfront. Come before sunset to stroll and view the colonial architecture lining the promenade, a cluster of neo-classical and Art Deco buildings leftover from the French and British concessions and stay until dark to see the lights flashing in Pudong.
Canil, 611 Liyang Road, Hongkou Qu.
Sheena Dabholkar is a multimedia journalist and director of LOVER, an online magazine and editorial content studio. She’s enthusiastic about self care and the intersections of design, sustainability and travel. She Instagrams at @thisisweeny.
Photo Credit: Qatar Airways Holidays
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