Over the past three decades, Shanghai has been transformed into a mega-metropolis – and it’s still rising fast, with Mandarin Oriental Pudong, Shanghai among its newest edifices. But behind the gloss are traces of its history and culture, arty enclaves, and indie boutiques and cafés, creating an intriguing city that will surprise you at every turn

Find embroidered silk accessories at Annabel Lee in Shanghai’s Bund area

From the moment you touch down in Shanghai, the much-hyped buzz of China’s most cosmopolitan city becomes teasingly palpable. The best time to arrive is at night, when the ride from the airport is a neon-streaked blur of over-arching highways, impossibly tall skytowers and glittering lights. It’s an adrenalin-pumping prelude to this high-octane megacity, and if you feel vaguely like James Bond in Skyfall, it’s not surprising – parts of the movie were filmed in the futuristic heart of Shanghai’s Lujiazui financial area.

Although located close to Lujiazui, Mandarin Oriental Pudong, Shanghai, which is positioned on the newly developed Harbour City waterfront, feels calmly removed from the frenetic business pulse. Take a stroll or hop on one of the hotel’s Segway two-wheelers and roll through the hotel gardens to the promenade. From here, there’s a peaceful perspective of the urban skyline on either side of the broad Huangpu River that bisects the metropolis. Follow the endless convoys of old Chinese barges, colourful tour boats and luxury yachts upstream and you will emerge amid the glassy towers of central Lujiazui. Gazing upwards, it’s hard to imagine that Pudong (meaning ‘east of the Huangpu River’) was mostly farmland and dock houses until the Eighties, when it was designated to become the commercial heartland of ‘new Shanghai’.

You can chart Shanghai’s subsequent ambitious trajectory by its iconic outsized structures. The galactic-looking cranberry and silver Oriental Pearl Tower was the first to spring up in 1994. Since then, a more architecturally impressive trio of super-skyscrapers have emerged, with the almost completed 632-metre Shanghai Tower soon to usurp the Jin Mao and Shanghai World Financial Center. Resembling a twisting dragon’s tail, the Shanghai Tower will be the second-tallest building in the world when it opens in 2014. Until then, the 492-metre World Financial Center (nicknamed the ‘bottle opener’) affords the highest views over the city. Ascend to its 100th-floor Sky Walk 100, where a 55-metre-long corridor allows you to peer through glass floors almost half a kilometre down to the city below.

For Pudong’s glitziest shopping, make your way to the Shanghai IFC mall in the podium between architect César Pelli’s IFC towers. Along with fashion flagships, cafés and a luxe cinema, it has a metro stop in the basement that connects to the world’s largest urban transport system – often the quickest way to get around Shanghai.

The cityscape across the Huangpu River to Pudong. On the far left is the Oriental Pearl Tower; the tallest structure is the Shanghai World Financial Center

Directly across the river on the west bank, in the Puxi district, is the iconic Bund area, representing a juxtaposition of new and old Shanghai. The stately string of stone-fronted heritage mansions is a legacy of the city’s first great developmental era. Built by international trading companies in the early 20th century, the neoclassical, renaissance and art deco buildings were collectively known in the Twenties as the ‘Wall Street of Asia’. Today, most of these fine gems have been converted into upscale emporiums, where Shanghai society comes to dine, party and shop.

You can chart Shanghai’s ambitious trajectory by its iconic outsized structures

Embroidered silk slippers at Suzhou Cobblers

Australian chef-turned-restaurateur Michelle Garnaut kick-started the Bund’s renaissance with M on the Bund. ‘When I arrived in Shanghai in 1986, the Bund was beautiful, but you could hardly see it: it was lit by 40-watt bulbs! When we opened in 1999, with state-owned enterprises as our neighbours, people thought I was mad and that no one would go there for a meal. Today, it’s completely transformed – and it’s stunning,’ she says.

M on the Bund’s expansive stone terrace remains popular for leisurely dining, while sister lounge Glamour Bar downstairs features separate cocktail, champagne and wine bars, plus a weekly programme of literature talks, cultural lectures and chamber-music recitals.

Restaurants and luxury boutiques now occupy prime Bund spots, but there are several tiny stores tucked down the side lanes that will delight shoppers looking for arty souvenirs. Behind a big red door, just off the main drag, Annabel Lee sells exquisite silk pouches, pyjamas and home accessories decorated with subtle, hand-embroidered Chinese motifs. Around the corner at Blue Shanghai White, ceramic artist Hai Chen takes her inspiration from classic blue and white Chinese porcelain, and adds contemporary whimsy to create quirky tableware and furnishings with ceramic insets. Next door, the closet-sized Suzhou Cobblers stocks colourful hand-embroidered silk slippers, as well as clothing and lanterns, inspired by the childhood memories of owner and local designer Denise Huang. ‘I work with old craftsmen from the historic alleys around this neighbourhood, but also add fresh inspiration to the disappearing folk arts,’ she says.

Restaurants and luxury boutiques now occupy the prime Bund spots

Applying a similar attitude to the art of tea making, Song Fang’s delightful aqua-blue tins are emblazoned with Chinese propaganda-style imagery, adding a fun twist to its quality teas sourced from around China. Across the street, House of Blues and Jazz is a classy throwback to the decadent jazz clubs of Twenties Shanghai, complete with wood-panelled art deco interiors and an almost nightly roster of live bands.

The glass-floor corridor of Sky Walk 100 at the top of the Shanghai World Financial Center

Head a bit further north to Yuanmingyuan Road, just behind the Bund, where a cluster of heritage buildings are being converted as part of the Rockbund dining and entertainment development, with British architect David Chipperfield heading up many of the renovations. Here, the Rockbund Art Museum hosts some of Shanghai’s more edgily curated contemporary art in a restored art deco building. While for a glimpse of original architectural history, stroll across the century-old Waibaidu Bridge spanning Suzhou Creek and Hongkou. Now undergoing gentrification, Hongkou was the unofficial American settlement in Shanghai’s Concession era and a Japanese stronghold before and during World War Two.

Call into the museum-like gallery of Spanish artist Tucho in the 1935 Embankment Building, where covetable antiques and Shanghai-inspired contemporary artworks combine with a cute café and residences, as part of Tucho’s Chai Living concept to bring the property back to life. ‘This area has a lot going for it: a long history, close proximity to the Bund and amazing views. The neighbourhood is up-and-coming and it attracts groups of interesting, like-minded people,’ he says.

Next door, the grandiose General Post Office has handled Shanghai’s mail since 1924. Inside is a coffered hall and a postal history museum, while the roof garden has a baroque clock tower and fabulous city views. A short taxi ride away, the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, in a former synagogue, tells the story of how more than 20,000 Jewish escapees from Europe lived in Hongkou during the war.

Back to the Bund, and the starting point of Shanghai’s most famous shopping boulevard – Nanjing Road. Walk west of the Bund and the street becomes more high-end, all glitzy malls and big brands. Midway, Nanjing Road opens onto the expanse of People’s Square, which was once the site of a racecourse in the late 19th century. Numerous impressive buildings are clustered around the square. The Shanghai Grand Theatre resembles a glass pagoda and the Urban Planning Exhibition Center features a giant scale model of Shanghai in 2020, while Shanghai Museum’s 120,000 artefacts are housed in a building shaped like an ancient ding (a cauldron-like vessel). MOCA, the Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art, occupies a former park greenhouse – on the way out, stop for a reviving coffee on the rooftop terrace of Kathleen’s 5 beneath the clock tower of the 1933 Shanghai Race Club, a landmark that once marked the course’s final straight.

Gentlemen’s accessories at Alfred Dunhill, housed in a neo-classical style villa

South of the Bund and People’s Square, the wing-tipped roofs and ancient temples of the Old City are reminders of Shanghai’s original settlement. Although the area was redeveloped to contain the bustling Yuyuan tourist bazaar, a few gems remain. Wend your way across the nine-turn zig-zag bridge (whose corners, according to Chinese beliefs, are non-navigable for evil spirits) to the wood-carved Huxinting Teahouse to sip green tea and people watch. Go back across the bridge and take the stairs to the upper floor at Nanxiang Steamed Bun Restaurant, for tasty xiao long bao dumplings filled with pork meat and hot broth. After refuelling, find respite amid the rockery and ponds of Yuyuan – the Garden of Leisurely Repose – Shanghai’s largest traditional garden, dating back to 1577.

A stroll westwards will take you to Dongtai Antiques Street. Roadside kiosk vendors peddle memorabilia and bric-a-brac, from copies of Mao’s Little Red Book to calligraphy brushes and ethnic-minority fabrics. It’s mostly ersatz but lots of fun and, with careful rummaging and elite bargaining skills, you can pick up great decorative mementos. The stores behind the roadside vendors stock genuine antiques.

Luxurious silk fashion at Shanghai Tang

A short distance from Dongtai Road is Xintiandi, a hip area themed on the old lanes and shikumen (stone-gated) houses. The grey-brick alleys are home to alfresco cafés, bars, restaurants and boutiques. Among them, colourful fashion house Shanghai Tang occupies an entire heritage villa, with a smart upstairs café and terrace jutting out onto the shingled rooftop. Nearby, Shang Xia is a luxury label from the house of Hermès, for which creative director Jiang Qiong Er updates traditional Chinese crafts, from fine eggshell porcelain to Mongolian cashmere coats. Or scope out the cutting edge of China’s emerging fashion scene at Xintiandi Style mall, where local design talent includes Uma Wang, Content and Jenny Ji. In the accessories department, Chi’n is developing a cult following for its patterned plimsolls and flip-flops, and Heirloom, created by two Chinese-American friends, offers sleek leather clutches and totes that sport ironwork clasps inspired by Chinese latticework.

Fashion house Shanghai Tang occupies an entire heritage villa

Locally made contemporary pottery at Spin Ceramics

For cocktails and DJs, visit Qi Bar at Mandarin Oriental Pudong, Shanghai

Running west from Xintiandi is the former French Concession, where the pavements are lined with leafy plane trees imported in the early 1900s. This charming district still has an air of joie de vivre and many of its art deco villas and secret walled gardens have been converted into quaint cafés and small boutiques. Set behind a clutch of shophouses on Huaihai Road, a pair of neoclassical-style mansions, Twin Villas, is now an exclusive shopping haunt, with flagship stores by British gentlemen’s brand Alfred Dunhill and Swiss watchmaker Vacheron Constantin. The twisting lanes and former factory blocks of Tianzifang (also known as Taikang Road) are also popular shopping haunts. Don’t miss Piling Palang for contemporary design and crafts, such as lantern-shaped cloisonné vases and oversized snuff bottles in mint, chocolate and pink. Urban Tribe sells boho-chic clothing, jewellery and teapots inspired by China’s minority cultures, and you can stock up on gorgeous handmade leather-bound notebooks at Xingmu. If the weather is biting cold, layer up in Shokay’s luscious knits, which are spun from Tibetan yak fleece.

Luxury lifestyle store Shang Xia

On Fumin Road, Dong Liang is an indie boutique covering three floors of a renovated lanehouse. Fashion from He Yan, Ricostru and other notable Chinese designers are draped on the racks, while cool specs and clutches from Chaireyes and Plore are displayed in old chests of drawers and on antique sidetables. Across the road, Madame Mao’s Dowry is a treasure trove of Mao-era memorabilia and tailoring and cheongsams. The nearby industrial-chic diner Noodle Bull is owned by Spin Ceramics, whose beautifully crafted tableware and vases are worth the 15-minute taxi drive to its Jing’an boutique. To check out China’s thriving contemporary art scene, hop in a taxi to M50 – a burgeoning cluster of galleries and studios in former textile mills beside Suzhou Creek. Standout spaces showcasing the best in video, installation, painting and photography include galleries ShanghART, OV and Vanguard, as well as M97, a little further along Moganshan Road. OV’s director, Rebecca Catching, has an insider tip: ‘Rub shoulders with Shanghai’s curators and artists over bowls of spicy soybean paste noodles or home-made dumplings at M50’s Bandu Café.’

Contemporary photography gallery M97

On opposite sides of the Huangpu River, two large new art institutions sit on the 2010 World Expo site. The Power Station of Art in Puxi can be pinpointed by its towering brick smokestack. China’s first state-run contemporary art museum, it hosts a regular line-up of local and international exhibitions, such as Andy Warhol: 15 Minutes Eternal. Across the river in Pudong, the striking red China Art Palace charts the development of modern art in China, from the Qing Dynasty to the current day. Its large-format artworks are displayed in cavernous galleries as impressive as the building itself, the centrepiece of the World Expo.

The Presidential Suite at Mandarin Oriental Pudong, Shanghai

The Presidential Suite at Mandarin Oriental Pudong, Shanghai

Make Mandarin Oriental Pudong, Shanghai the last stop on your art tour. Newly opened in 2013, the hotel has some 4,000 commissioned works in the public spaces and guest rooms, championing the contemporary and the local. Or finish your sightseeing with a restorative treatment in the calming Oriental-style Spa – and contemplate the past, present and future of this fascinating and energising city.

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