In the 1920s, Shanghai was a place people went to misbehave. The city gained a reputation as a hotbed of hedonism, with decadent nightclubs, dapper gangsters, and a thriving opium trade. Today, Shanghai has mostly cleaned up its act, but it retains the glitz and glamor that drew people a century ago to try to make their fortunes, along with elegant buildings left behind by those who did. It has also added gleaming modern skyscrapers and a new crop of fortune-seekers (myself included) who are drawn by the booming economy and ensuing sense of possibility. Prepare to fall in love with Shanghai’s leafy boulevards, mouth-watering food, and non-stop energy, destined to drive you both crazy and make you believe you can do anything.
Shanghai boasts an eclectic mix of historic architecture that reflects the city’s unusual history. Most of the Shanghai you see today was settled in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the city was controlled by the French, British, American, Japanese, German, and Italian governments. That’s why, in historic districts, you might see an English Tudor home beside a stucco Spanish-style mansion across from an Art Deco high rise. Shanghai’s former French Concession looks a little like Paris, with wide boulevards and leafy tree-lined residential streets. Foreign firms built stately banks and ornate hotels on a riverbank known as the Bund, and many of these buildings still stand today. Because colonial Shanghai didn’t belong to any one government, it was one of the few places refugees fleeing war-torn countries could land without a passport. The city provided shelter to a sizable population of White Russians escaping the Russian Revolution, and, later, European Jews fleeing the Holocaust. You can still find a few onion-domed Russian Orthodox churches and elegant synagogues today (although some have been, jarringly, turning into nightclubs). You can easily spend a day wandering through the former French Concession, gawking at all the buildings, or if you want a more in-depth romp, take one of the city’s historic tours.
Today, most of us know that the food you order at a Chinese take-out in America isn’t what’s served at restaurants in China, but Shanghai dining reveals some surprises in traditional Chinese cuisines. Fried goat cheese? A specialty from southern Yunnan province. French-style breakfast crepes, stuffed with savory, deep-fried wafers? A Chinese dish called jiang bing, invented by natives of snowy Shangdong province. Deep-fried buns dipped in sweetened condensed milk? A sinful dessert, courtesy of the famously spicy cuisine from Hunan province. China is proud of its 5,000 years of history, and nowhere is this mastery more apparent to tourists than in its cuisine. Chinese food isn’t one thing—it’s everything from soup dumplings to spicy pita sandwiches known as “Xi’an hamburgers” to impossibly flavorful barbecue—but it’s all delicious, and even the offerings from tiny hole-in-the-wall shops will be impeccably prepared.
The one place you can still find vestiges of Shanghai’s hedonistic heyday is in its plentiful bars and clubs. The city has a vibrant nightlife scene, with what can at times seem like more watering holes than grocery stores. Parties begin as soon as the sun goes down and spill out into the street late into the next morning. If you can get past the bouncer, you can dance at glamorous clubs filled with models, or you can lose yourself in trance-inducing beats from Shanghai’s underground DJs at one of the city’s dive clubs.
Shanghai has two main cultural offerings: historic tourism, and contemporary art. The Yu Garden in central Shanghai and the water towns on the city’s edges have been catering to tourists for hundreds of years, and they have it down to a science (contrary to what the name implies, the water towns are not floating cities, but picturesque neighborhoods connected by canals). Here, you’ll find the wooden pagodas and traditional gardens you picture when you think of China. For something more contemporary, Shanghai offers a plethora of galleries and museums, including the Power Station of Art, an outstanding contemporary art museum housed in an old power station. In the Moganshan Art District, old warehouses have been converted into artist studios, some of which you can stroll through while the artists are working.
- To see the best historic architecture, take a stroll around the Bund (just not on a weekend or holiday, when it will be packed), on Wukang Lu, and around Fuxing Park.
- If you want a good self-guided tour, head to Garden Books on Changle Lu, and pick up any of the Shanghai Walks.
- Historic Shanghai offers wonderfully informative tours most weekends; Shanghai Jewish gives a great tour on the history of Shanghai’s Jewish population.
- Don’t wait in line or pay to go to the top of one of the skyscrapers. Get coffee or a drink at the Park Hyatt in the Shanghai World Financial Center for the same views, without an entrance fee or crazy queue.
- For the best spicy food, head to Lost Heaven or Di Shui Dong (visit the Maoming Lu location). Fill up on fried goat cheese at Lotus Eatery. You’ll find to-die-for soup dumplings at Din Tai Fung.
- Don’t leave Shanghai without trying the city’s best cocktail, the Basil Drop, at Citizen Cafe.
- For an upscale night on the town head to Bar Rogue (on a nice night, when the patio is open) or Le Baron.
- Dance to serious drum and bass with grungy hipsters at Dada.
- Go to Yu Garden on a weekday, unless you enjoy mobs of tourists, and even then, it’ll likely be packed. Go early to avoid the crowds.
- My favorite spot for water towns and gardens is Nanxiang, where the soup dumpling was also supposedly invented.
- If you’re looking for a really out-there excursion, go to Thames Town, a fake recreation of London that never really took off.
- You’ll find the city’s best art at the Power Station of Art, Rockbund Art Museum, and the Moganshan Art District.
- The Urban Planning Museum wouldn’t be worth the trip, except for the scale model of Shanghai, which is truly incredible. Power walk through the rest of the exhibits.
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