Advertisement

Shanghai city guide: Where to stay, eat, drink and shop in China’s gleaming metropolis

At night, Shanghai’s architecture becomes even more eye-catching  (Getty Images/iStockphoto/Yongyuan Dai)
At night, Shanghai’s architecture becomes even more eye-catching (Getty Images/iStockphoto/Yongyuan Dai)

China’s most international city is a huge, hectic, intoxicating stew. Despite its overwhelming heft, Shanghai is trying to make itself more attractive, cleaner and more fun. During the pandemic, lockdowns hit the city hard, but it’s working to find a new lease of life.

Pedestrian paths have made the Bund district and Nanjing Road more pleasant to walk on, and swish new shopping districts are popping up across the city. David Chipperfield Architect’s new West Bund Art Museum is one of many new museums and galleries cementing the city’s art scene.

What to do

Historic happenings

The former International Settlement on the Huangpu River is a complete confection of colonial architecture that borrows from Gothic, Greek and Victorian pomp; the chunky Custom House and the old banking, telegraph and railway company HQs squatting either side of it almost make you think you’re in Liverpool. Here is where Shanghai’s goods were traded and millions made when foreigners ruled the roost in China’s main entrepôt.

Shanghai’s Custom House wouldn’t look out of place in Liverpool (Getty Images/iStockphoto/Christian Ader)
Shanghai’s Custom House wouldn’t look out of place in Liverpool (Getty Images/iStockphoto/Christian Ader)

Check out the view

Ascend the Oriental Pearl Tower for a panoramic view over Shanghai. The tower looks like a space rocket ready to launch and is one of China’s tallest structures. From up here, you can gaze down on the Bund and get a feel for how far this massive city stretches in every direction.

Read more about Asia travel:

Walk the West Bund

A fascinating Sunday morning stroll takes you through one of the city’s newest districts. Take the Metro out to Lunghau and you can follow the course of the Huangpu river right back into the centre of Shanghai on a two-hour walk (in fact, the whole path runs for more than 40km). On the way, you’ll pass old dockyards with permanently berthed boats, as well as new squares and skate parks on old industrial land. You’ll also find a lot of poodles being walked.

A crash course in JG Ballard

One of the greatest writers of the 20th century was born and raised in Shanghai – and it shaped him tremendously. Jim Ballard became the writer JG Ballard, coming to England after surviving the Japanese camps at Lunghau during the Second World War. That story is told in the book (and Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation) Empire of The Sun. You can see where the Ballard family lived at 31A Amherst Avenue (now 508 Panyu Lu) – the house looks like it was transplanted from Surrey.

Yu Garden, or Yuyuan Garden is in Shanghai Old Town (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Yu Garden, or Yuyuan Garden is in Shanghai Old Town (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Arty discoveries

Two contemporary riverside galleries dominate Shanghai’s modern art scene. Yuz Museum is the brainchild of entrepreneur Budi Tek and sits in a building designed by acclaimed Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto (it used to be part of the Longhua Airfield, which took centre stage in Empire of The Sun). The Power Station of Art is, unsurprisingly, a former power station by the Huangpu river. The Nanshi Electric Plant lit up the city from 1897 but stood redundant once newer power stations were built. It looks like a Christmas tree at night, with red lights firing up the chimney.

Where to stay

Pullman Shanghai South

Set in a futuristic building in the south of the city, near to the exhibition centre and the Shanghai South Railway Station, this modern hotel offers convenience and comfort. It’s not in the centre but the transport links make it easy to get to where you want to go. Rooms are in minimal charcoal and white and there’s a pool, spa and fitness centre. For the price, it packs a punch.

Waldorf Astoria

The Waldorf’s grand lobby (Antonio Saba photography)
The Waldorf’s grand lobby (Antonio Saba photography)

The grand old dame of the Bund offers rooms with views across the Huangpu river towards Shanghai’s skyscrapers that will make your jaw drop the first time you see them. Wei Jing Ge restaurant is set in the old Shanghai Club, where the city really swung in the 1920s, and serves standards such as double-boiled mushroom soup.

Sukhothai

This buzzy design hotel is making waves. Interiors look like something out of a glossy magazine: dark grey and pea-green walls, hard wood floors and island beds. Minibars are free, and the calming underground spa will rejuvenate you with a detox massage. It’s set in an upmarket new development near to West Nanjing Road Station with plenty of designer stores nearby, if that’s your bag.

Where to eat

Efes

Famous across Shanghai, Efes is by far the best Turkish restaurant in the city. The kebabs, chops, dips and flatbreads could hold their own in Dalston or Kreuzberg. You can fill up here on the cheap, and in a city where vegetarian food isn’t as ubiquitous as it should be, veggies and vegans can load up on salads, hummus and pide.

Yi Long Court

The two Michelin-starred project of chef Tsui Wai Fai, Yi Long Court is housed inside The Peninsula hotel. With sweeping views over the Bund and waiters in pressed uniforms, it feels like somewhere for a special occasion meal. The tasting menu standouts include the wok-fried beef with lily bulbs and asparagus, and the shrimp dumpling served in its own mini steamer.

Dine on divine dumplings at Yi Long Court (The Peninsula)
Dine on divine dumplings at Yi Long Court (The Peninsula)

Where to drink

Punch Room

If you want those Blade Runner-esque views on Pudong and the Bund at night, with lights twinkling and skyscrapers standing proud, Punch Room has the picture windows. It also mixes a fierce negroni and has an understated but sophisticated ambiance at the top of the Edition hotel.

Intercontinental Wonderland Hotel

One of the most magnificent (and frankly bonkers) sights in Shanghai’s new architectural free-for-all is the aptly monikered Intercontinental Wonderland Hotel, which squats inside an old quarry. It’s the perfect place to drink in the spectacle of the half-submerged hotel (some of it is underwater) while you sip on a Scotch cooled by one of the trademark rock-shaped ice cubes. There’s a roof terrace, lobby bar and even the underwater restaurant Mr Fisher.

Where to shop

Next to Nanjing Road West Station (spreading south along Shimen First Road and ending at Weihai Road) you can find a new development comprising a collection of designer stores and independent boutiques – all done in tastefully restrained architecture. There are stores from the likes of Champion and Coach and a Starbucks Reserve Roastery – the biggest Starbucks on Earth, in fact.

Nanjing Road in the main shopping district (Getty Images/iStockphoto/Nikada)
Nanjing Road in the main shopping district (Getty Images/iStockphoto/Nikada)

Architectural highlight

The forest of skyscrapers of the Pudong Business District make an impressive sight by day, but in the evening they are illuminated. Even better, there are laser light shows with adverts and messages flashed up onto the huge buildings. Big crowds gather on the Bund to look across the river at this free show, which Ballard – with his obsession with advertising and modern media – would have loved to drink in.

Nuts and bolts

What currency do I need?

RMB (Yuan).

What language do they speak?

Mandarin. Staff in hotels speak English but you might need a translate app on your phone otherwise.

Should I tip?

Tipping is not common in China.

What’s the time difference?

GMT+8

How should I get around?

Shanghai’s Metro is fast, clean, simple and very cheap. Everything is in English – just remember to have coins and small notes handy for the ticket machines. Even cheaper and more fun is the bus. Number 65 trundles right along the Bund for a bargain-basement tour. The unique Maglev train glides at 430kph from Pudong Airport towards the city, and will thrill with its futuristic flair.

Insider tip?

Check out the famous marriage market every weekend afternoon in People’s Park – a bizarre IRL Tinder where parents try to foist their offspring onto other eligible youngsters.

Read more on the best winter sun hotels