High ﬁnance and non-stop entertainment, hectic food markets and reﬁned international cuisine, European-style parks and ornamented Chinese gardens – Shanghai is a glorious mix of contrasts.
But if you really want to actually experience what is on in Shanghai ….
You only need to explore the city’s neighborhoods to see this for yourself.
From the Old City’s tangle of alleyways, temples, and markets and the French Concession’s smart boutiques and stately, colonial-era architecture to the futuristic skyscrapers and decadent nightlife of Pudong.
Shanghai is a city of contrasts, then, but also of experiences.
The city might lack major landmarks and world-famous sights, but it’s the things that you can see, do and experience at neighborhood level that make it such an enthralling and captivating place to be.
Think clashing architectural styles, promenade walks along the Bund, sizzling, aromatic street food, immaculate Chinese gardens and buzzing nightlife.
Shanghai’s green spaces are great spots for watching local life play out, too.
You can watch early risers practicing t’ai chi in Xuhui Park, young couples exploring the bamboo forest in North Sichuan Road Park or groups of friends or strangers playing ‘daguailuzi’ in Huaihai Park.
It’s probably worth reading up on the rules before attempting to join in.
Let’s go 1st into the Old City
The Old City in Shanghai is exactly that: old. You can still see two small sections of the 16th century city wall. The rest was knocked just over a hundred years ago. Visitors can get an idea of what traditional Shanghai might have looked like by way of the gardens and restored temples.
The City God Temple and neighboring Yuyuan Garden are perhaps the best examples of these but are by no means the only ones.
The Old City does get crowded sometimes. However, your best bet is to get there as early as you can, accepting that you won’t have the neighborhood all to yourself and instead embracing the energetic atmosphere.
Duck down laundry-strewn side streets to escape the worst of the crowds, and you’ll get that all-important impression of what local life in the Old City looks like.
The food here is fantastic, too, whether you sit down for xiaolongbao (soup dumplings) or hit up a night market for some sizzling Shanghainese crayﬁsh or a bowl of hand-pulled noodles.
The market on Fangbang Road is a good place to start. But walk around and you’ll quickly stumble across all manner of aromatically alluring street food stalls.
Wash it all down with a cup of steaming tea from a traditional tea house, and you’ll be very pleased for having braved the crowds.
Bonjour French Concession
The French Concession became the Former French Concession when Vichy France gave it up in 1943, but the area still looks very much the same and remains a popular place of residence for foreign nationals living in Shanghai.
With its leafy, spacious avenues and a preponderance of early 20th century buildings, the Former French Concession is certainly one of the most pleasant and aesthetically pleasing neighborhoods in Shanghai.
Most visitors – including you, in all likelihood – will stay or spend at least some of their time here as a result.
There’s no better way to introduce yourself to the neighborhood than by setting off on foot.
Check out the boutique stores and occasional pop-up art gallery on Fuxing Lu, the bustling, outdoor cafes on Wokang Lu and the web of streets that sit between Julu Road to the north and Huaihai Road a few blocks below it.
With its stately villas and trendy restaurants and cocktail bars, the Former French Concession is certainly stylish, but there’s substance too.
You can visit the Former Residence of Sun Yat-sen, a Chinese revolutionary and the ﬁrst president of the Republic of China; the Former Residence of Zhou Enlai, for a time the home of ﬁrst Premier of the People’s Republic of China;
and Fuxing Park, a European-style park popular with mahjong players and locals practicing tai chi.
The skyscrapers of Pudong, not New York
Starting in the early 1990s, and continuing at a rapid rate to this very day, the development of Pudong has transformed Shanghai.
This is the home to the second, ninth and twenty-ﬁrst tallest buildings in the world by way of the Shanghai Tower, the Shanghai World Financial Center and the Jin Mao Tower respectively.
The ﬁnancial district of Pudong represents modern Shanghai at its most glossy and gravity- defying.
That’s not forgetting the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, of course, which holds the title of world’s third-tallest tower.
You can enjoy the best views of Pudong from the Bund (see below) on the other side of the river, but gazing up at these superstructures and being whisked up to look down from their observations are different experiences altogether.
Unsurprisingly, the district is home to some of the most expensive apartments in Shanghai. And some of the hotels here are pretty exclusive, too.
The Ritz-Carlton Shanghai is one of them, and its rooftop bar is not only the highest in the city but the highest in China.
The restaurants sit more on the swanky, international side of the fence (set off for the other side of the river for cheap Chinese eats), while children and grownups alike will love the Science and Technology Museum and the Ocean Aquarium.
Pudong might not be subtle, but its restless energy is positively infectious.
What is The Bund in Shanghai / Nanjing Dong Lu
The Bund is a stretch of waterfront promenade in Shanghai that runs along the Huangpu River. It is famous for its intriguing blend of architectural styles and vibrant nightlife.
Boasting quite brilliant views of modern, high-rise Shanghai on the other side of the river, visitors ﬂock to the promenade so they can enjoy the unobstructed spectacle of Pudong.
Still, they also want to check out the gothic, baroque and neoclassical style buildings that attest to the city’s rich and varied history.
Make sure you wander into the HSBC Building to gaze up at the mosaic that lines the inside of the dome; it’s surely the most impressive you’re ever likely to see in a bank.
For a uniquely local experience, get up early and watch ﬁtness fanatics jogging and doing Tai Chi as the sun begins to creep up over the skyscrapers.
Getting up early might be the last thing on your mind after a night out in the Bund, however; this is one of the most popular neighborhoods for a night out in Shanghai.
The bars might seem to be a bit on the pricey side, but then you do get a great view, after all.
Nearby Nanjing Dong Lu is another good option for a night out. And is where lots of locals like to do their shopping during the day. Also there are plenty of hotels here and in the Bund to suit all budgets.
Right in the middle of Xintiandi / City Center
Locals and visitors alike love Xintiandi, and it’s incredibly easy to understand why.
Rebuilt and restored by way of an extensive renovation process completed in 2002, this small, pleasant, fun-loving neighborhood is a celebration of Shanghai’s past and present.
The highlights are the buildings themselves. Once crumbling and at the point of falling into disrepair, the traditional ‘shikumen’ (stone gate) houses are now enjoying a new lease of life as apartments, cafes, restaurants, bars, boutique stores, and art spaces.
Popular with sightseers, cafe-dwellers, and people watchers during the day, Xintiandi is one of the best spots in Shanghai for nighttime entertainment too.
The bars and restaurants sit contentedly at the swanky end of the swanky scale, and are plenty enough in number for you to enjoy a night out or two during your stay.
To engage more with Xintiandi’s past – and, indeed, that of Shanghai and “People’s-Republic- of-China” more broadly – pay a visit to the Museum of the First National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party.
The Communist Party of China was established in this building, now a museum, in 1921, with none other than Mao Zedong in attendance.
The only thing left for you to do is to book a trip here. If you want of course, it is not mandatory. 😉
As very well once said a good “friend” of mine …