Be prepared for the dizzyingly fast pace of Shanghai and be wowed by its futuristic architecture. But take time to discover its quiet spots, too
It’s the most go-getting city, in the world’s fastest-growing nation. Shanghai has soaring new skyscrapers galore and citizens who are renowned for their business-minded attitudes and willingness to embrace the new. But it also has a gentler and quieter side – the French Concession, for instance, with its leafy lanes and grand colonial-era mansions, is a delightful contrast to the downtown hustle and bustle. Shanghai is an easy place to explore, but ensure that you have detailed addresses, in Chinese characters, before venturing out; having directions in Roman script is generally of limited help. The city is divided into two: the modern part, Pudong, on the east of the river, and the older section, Puxi, to the west.
As the most fashion-conscious city in China, there’s ample representation by the French and Italian big guns. Chanel, Dior, Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Prada all have glitzy new stores that attract nouveau riche shoppers. Plus there’s an abundance of local talent, most notably in rising fashion star Masha Ma , who is now cutting it internationally and whose clothes can be found at her flagship boutique in the trendy Xintiandi enclave. The products of local Shanghai designers are also on show at lifestyle store Shang Xia, a venture with French group Hermès.
For inexpensive, quirky and kitsch gifts, try the piled-high stores at Dongtai Road Antiques Market, which sell everything from watches with Chairman Mao faces to cuddly pandas, traditional fans and brocade slippers. Unless you are an expert and able to tell genuine Ming vases from the faux, recently manufactured versions, it’s best to stick to more modestly priced souvenirs – and be sure to haggle! The city is also famed for its tailors: if time permits, drop into Shiliupu Fabric Market on Dongmen Road, where you can be measured for a quick-turnaround suit or dress, or even a Shanghainese-style cheongsam.
It’s hard to believe that only three decades ago, the Pudong skyline did not have a single skyscraper. There are now more than you can shake a (very long) stick at, all offering slightly different perspectives of the glittering neon skyline. Mandarin Oriental Pudong, Shanghai has fabulous vistas of the ever-bustling river; for a slightly higher-up overview of the entire cityscape, past and present, take a trip to the 350-metre-high observation deck of the futuristic, pink-hued Oriental Pearl Tower
China's culture has a history dating back some 5,000 years, which is difficult to capture comprehensively inside one modern building, but the curators at the impressive Shanghai Museum have made a sterling attempt, and the layout and signage are excellent. Given the vastness of the collection, it’s advisable to focus on one area, be it ceramics or calligraphy.
For more modern Chinese culture, in particular the boundary-pushing artists that have been captivating the world art scene recently, take a stroll around the Moganshan area along the Suzhou Creek. Here, you’ll find the city’s largest concentration of galleries, all in converted warehouses. Check out ShanghART for the work of some of the nation’s top artists. Or view contemporary pieces by local Chinese talent at Mandarin Oriental Pudong, Shanghai, which has amassed a collection of some 4,000 works, all displayed throughout the hotel.
The entire former French Concession is a treasure trove for lovers of period-piece architecture. There are art deco buildings aplenty and grandiose mansions built by the affluent European traders who called the city home during the Twenties and Thirties. Amble around, perhaps stopping for a cold drink or a coffee at Sasha’s, a fabled mansion dating from early last century. For a fine example of classical Chinese style, visit the Yuyuan Garden in Anren Street, where the pavilions are linked by a series of fishpond-straddling bridges and walkways. But serenity is not the area’s strong point, so try to arrive before the noisy tourist hordes descend.
Cross the Huangpu River the way the locals do: on a jam-packed commuter ferry that edges slowly across the busy waterway, allowing plenty of chances to gawp at the skyscrapers of Pudong and, as they hove into view, the grand granite edifices along the Bund promenade. Or take an afternoon cruise down the Huangpu River to the Yangtze River estuary, where tiny fishing vessels share the channel with giant container ships. There are also night-time cruises, in which the skipper plots a path along waters tinted purple, red and green by the neon-lit buildings along the shore.
Early risers can join the famed tai chi and dance sessions along the Bund promenade, or team up with the ad hoc groups of exercisers – sometimes still dressed in their pyjamas – who can be found in any square or park. Serious joggers can pace out a four-kilometre run on the promenade that goes right by Mandarin Oriental Pudong, Shanghai, otherwise pick the less-strenuous alternative of taking one of the hotel’s Segways for a spin. Another enticing option is to focus the entire fitness schedule around the hotel, which has a stunning 25-metre pool, state-of the-art gym and a soothing spa that offers Mandarin Oriental’s signature treatments.
M on the Bund was the first independent fine-dining restaurant in the city and, after almost 15 years in business, has become something of an institution. Australian owner Michelle Garnaut offers a fuss-free European-based menu, impeccable service and a terrace that offers stupendous views of the Pudong skyline. Close by is another classy dining establishment, Mr and Mrs Bund, where the carte is presided over by Frenchman Paul Pairet. The popular Gallic favourites, with a contemporary twist, can be paired with the 32 wines offered by the glass. Or try Fifty 8˚ Grill at Mandarin Oriental Pudong, Shanghai, which serves a wide range of grass-fed, cereal-fed and Wagyu beef cuts, grilled over an open fire.
A visit to Shanghai wouldn’t be complete without sampling the exquisite dumplings at Din Tai Fung. The Taiwanese restaurant chain has elevated this simple dish to an art form – all tiny slivers of carefully crafted dough filled with flavourful meat and vegetables. The menu is small and perfectly formed – the steamed xiao long bao pork dumplings are among the most moreish of all Chinese foods.
The residents of Shanghai are well known for their gargantuan appetite for partying and there’s no shortage of hotspots where the glam set can drink and dance until the small hours. It also has a reputation as a city that likes its jazz, and both local and visiting musicians can be seen in action at the House of Blues and Jazz, a mellow, late-night venue located just off the Bund. Rather more raucous music belts out from the post-midnight sound system at one of Shanghai’s most renowned party places, the glamorous Bar Rouge, where entrepreneurs, models and movie stars swap success stories, and potential money-making opportunities, over bottles of champagne. They are all certain to agree that they are in the right city, in the right country, at the right time.