Promenade along The Bund
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The Bund, a 1.3-kilometre promenade along the Huangpu River, is the most recognisable symbol of old Shanghai. It’s located in the former British Settlement area; a great place to start wandering is at the northern end at the Art Deco Broadway Mansions. From there, a veritable smorgasbord of building styles ensues, encompassing Gothic, Baroque and Beaux Arts among others. Visit just before sunset to witness the sun go down and the incredible light displays playing across buildings over the river in Pudong. If you visit during the day, pop into buildings along the way: the Astor House Hotel (1846) has a fascinating ground-floor museum; the Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank (1923) has a glorious mosaic-tiled ceiling that was preserved from destruction during the Cultural Revolution by a forward-thinking architect who covered it in stucco; and the Peace Museum at the Fairmont Peace Hotel (1929) has historical memorabilia including Art Deco furnishings, newspapers and photos of celebrity guests.
Sample Shanghai soup dumplings
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Soup dumplings, or xiao long bao, are the best dumplings going, filled with a tasty broth as well as a salty little pork meatball. Trying these Shanghai specialties should be at the top of any visitor’s to-do list. The best way to locate Shanghainese-approved examples? Join the queue outside a hole-in-the-wall eatery – the longer the line, the more delicious the dumpling.
Explore the former French Concession
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Between 1849 and 1943 this area, which is south of the former British settlement, was a French Concession. It was established by the French Consul to Shanghai, Charles de Montigny, and by 1900 had doubled in size; it continued to expand until it was handed back to China during the Second World War. Now, with its so Frenchy, so chic architecture, fashionable boutiques, cocktail bars and restaurants, it’s where celebrities, government officials and wealthy Shanghainese make their homes. It retains a distinctly French character, thanks partly to its many cafés and patisseries (a boon to the tourist who can’t do another dumpling), and the plane trees lining its wide avenues. Take a guided walking tour to uncover its hidden gems or just make like a Parisienne and be a freestyle flâneur.
Ride the world’s fastest train
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Covering 30 kilometres in just eight minutes, the Maglev train from Pudong Airport is the best way to get to downtown. Why sit in traffic when you could travel in air-conditioned cabins that hover magnetically above the tracks at a rip-roaring 430 kilometres per hour? The ride is so smooth you feel you’re barely moving.
Meet the parents
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Marriage is an all-consuming issue in China: it’s so important to marry well that some parents just don’t trust their offspring to pull it off for themselves. Every weekend at the People’s Park in central Shanghai, older Shanghainese can be seen gathering, equipped with A4 documents proving their son or daughter’s vital stats. These include university qualifications, employment, income, property ownership, height and build, though curiously no photographs. The parents peruse the other offerings and chat; if they get along they’ll arrange a meeting to discuss the unsuspecting future couple’s future.
Get comradely at the Propaganda Poster Art Centre
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This small but comprehensive museum has more than 5000 posters dating back to the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 to the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s. The posters provide a real insight into China’s recent history – both in terms of events and the artistic style designed to appeal to the masses.
Go back in time
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In Shanghai, traditional city life is fading along with the traditional architecture. The Shikumen Open House Museum occupies a three-storey 1920s shikumen in the Xintiandi area. Its seven rooms are fully furnished with period furniture, clothing and photographs, giving it an authentic, lived-in feel. It gives visitors an insight into a style of living that is fast disappearing.
Shop, eat and drink in Tianzifang
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This rabbit warren of historic lilongs (laneways) in the former French Concession is now a popular shopping and food area, its tiny shopfronts housing traditional arts and crafts stores, dumpling bars, clothing and kitsch. It’s constantly thronged with tourists clutching gimmicky food items (odd-shaped doughnuts on sticks, deep-fried spiral potato on sticks, barbecued octopus…on sticks. You get the picture).
See what the future holds
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To see it from a remove, the scope of Shanghai is almost vertigo inducing – like the view from Shanghai Tower, the second-highest building in the world. The Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center is home to a scale model of Shanghai that takes up an entire floor of the building. The museum’s remit is to show the vast city as it is, with existing buildings as well as structures that are approved but not yet constructed. Other floors of the museum display exhibits about Shanghai’s history and development as well as plans for its future.
Zen out at the Yu Garden
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In a city that worships the new, it’s comforting to come upon the Yu Garden, dating back to the Ming Dynasty. The two-hectare garden beside the City God Temple in the Old City has not emerged from over four centuries of upheaval unscathed, however. It suffered damage during the First Opium War and during the Second World War, but today it’s a national monument and home to gingko trees which are hundreds of years old, ancient rockeries, tinkling streams and airy pavilions. After wandering the gardens, take tea at the Huxinting Teahouse pavilion reached by the Zigzag Bridge.
Experience a one-of-a-kind hotel
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During the French Concession’s expansion of the 1920s and ’30s, traditional Chinese shikumen (also known as lane houses) were built to accommodate the increasing number of Chinese moving to the area. The new Capella Shanghai all-villa luxury hotel occupies one such shikumen, dating from the 1930s. The buildings that once housed many families have been fully restored and converted into luxurious multistorey villas with rooftop terraces. Other buildings have been repurposed as a high-end French restaurant, a patisserie and several shops.