Shanghai proved to be the best place to end our fabulous 2 month trip around China. We spent a week there and I can assure that Shanghai is probably the coolest city I’ve ever visited. It has everything we imagined and more: outstanding architecture, great food, fantastic nightlife, top quality tourist infrastructure and cosmopolitan upbeat people. Old architecture, including its European heritage is gorgeous, while new buildings are impressive and innovative. Everything is alive everywhere! In Shanghai you can walk about quiet residential areas, relax and look at the Old China, still there wise and elegant. At the same time, your senses will be tempted by the ultra-fancy modern China, where everything is new and shiny. Why choose? There is plenty for everyone to love.
The Old City of Shanghai
Shanghai’s history isn’t as exciting as that of the other major Chinese cities. It was a low level administrative center up until the 18th century when it became a major trade port. The round Old City is the only existing area from that period, though the city walls were dismantled in 1912. There are several streets and ancient buildings with the old Yu Garden and the City God Temple as the main highlights. The authorities demolished most of the surrounding area to make room for your average traditional mall full of shops and restaurants.
Special mention to our Renaissance Yu Garden. Simply spectacular. We got a huge suite, with unobstructed views of down town, a superb pool upstairs and elegant service to match. Worth every penny.
French Concession and the Bund
The port of Shanghai opened to foreigners after Chinese lost the First Opium War to the British. Obviously, the British and Americans came first and established the International Settlement. Many European powers followed suit, with the French creating their own French Concession. “The Bund” (embankment) is the area within the International Settlement next to the Huangpu River. Major banks, trade houses and newspaper agencies had their main offices here up until World War II. The French Concession was more of an elegant residential area. Today, the area is a festival of outstanding neoclassical and Art Deco buildings, brilliantly preserved and illuminated at nights.
Unlike Beijing, Shanghai has a clearly defined city center. Right in the middle of the city the enormous People’s Square and People’s Park house Shanghai Municipal People’s Government, Shanghai Grand Theater and Shanghai Museum. All around the Square there are many monumental palaces from the Concession period and brand new ultramodern skyscrapers. On its northwestern end the gorgeous pedestrian Nanjing Road takes you to the Bund. Everybody is here, enjoying lavish shops, bars and restaurants, walking around to see and be seen. Be sure to take your time and admire the beautiful buildings surrounding the square.
When you think of China’s booming economy and futuristic skyline Pudong comes to mind. The city’s largest district, with a total surface of 1200 km2 that stretches all the way to the East China Sea, Pudong is the new China. Actually the famous skyline, located across the Bund is called Lujiaziu. It is all about skyscrapers, wide avenues, shopping centers and beautiful gardens. The main landmarks are: the Oriental Pearl Tower, the Jin Mao Tower, the Shanghai World Financial Center, and the Shanghai Tower. Lujiaziu is connected to the entire city by several metro lines. However, the best way to get there is by boat. Take the one that departs from the Jinling East Road and arrives at Dongchang Road.
New Pedestrian areas
When walking around large Chinese cities like Chengdu or Kunming, I couldn’t help but notice that contemporary architecture from just 10 years ago is pretty mediocre. Especially when compared to the wonders of today. Things have changed enormously and nowhere quite like in Shanghai. It’s not only about fancy new buildings. Shanghai recognized the importance of its impressive architectural heritage, preserving and adapting it for commercial uses, such as restaurants, hotels and shops. This latest wave of improvements includes new residential – commercial areas with sustainable design, cool architecture, and much better public infrastructure.
Beyond Shanghai – Zhujiajiao
China is full of fairy tale ancient towns. Some, such as Pingyao or Fenghuang are a bit off the beaten track. However, you can reach Zhujiajiao Water Town, just 40km east from the city center, by bus from a small stop near the Shanghai Concert Hall. Being so close to the city I was expecting the worst: busloads of tourists! To my surprise only a couple of its central streets were crowded and I could enjoy my day on my own. I had delicious lunch overlooking the Dianpu River and its several canals crisscross this lovely town. China took my heart away!