Shanghai is no stranger to change, with a host of powers sweeping in and out. Once christened the “Paris of the East” by 19th century European colonists, the city claimed Old World glamour and a well-deserved reputation as China’s most free-spirited metropolis. The tumult of world war, civil war, and new CCP rulers pressed the city into a short-lived slumber, but when Deng Xiaoping loosened China’s shackles in the 1980’s Shanghai was one of the first to awaken, exploding into a free-market wonder. Skyscrapers leap up faster than Nanjing Road’s designer boutiques can change their window displays, and its young, cellphone-toting inhabitants epitomize the youthful energy of a city only just getting started. Take a peek at the city planners’ blueprints in the exhibition hall, hear Shanghainese boast of the APEC or the World Expo, and you will feel not only Shanghai’s potent presence, but its even more tremendous potential.
Shanghai occupies the southern portion of the Yangzi Delta, bordered by the East China Sea to the east, Jiangsu province to the northwest, and Zhejiang province to the southwest. Although Shanghai Municipality is vast - almost 6000km - most of Shanghai’s sights and residents are found in the much smaller district of known as Shanghai proper or Central Shanghai. In Central Shanghai, the Bund, a 1.5km waterfront promenade, runs parallel to Zhongshan Dong Lu and intersects Nanjiang Lu in front of the Peace Hotel. A veritable circus of shops, fast-food restaurant, offices, and pedestrians, Nanjiang Lu runs west for 6km before arriving at Shanghai Centre, the home of upscale shops, expats, and the Portman Ritz-Carlton.
The former French Concession, anchored by Huaihai Zhong Lu and lined with several Metro stops, runs west from the Bund and has trendy shops and clubs. Zhongshan Lu circles much of the Central Shanghai, changing its name as it slips across the river into the Special Economic Zone of Pudong. The Old Chinese City, circled by Renmin Lu and Zhonghua Lu, is home to the Yuyuan Garden and Bazaar. A confusing array of narrow, winding streets makes traveling on foot the best way to get around this area.
Western Shanghai contains few places of tourist interest and is reputed to be somewhat unsafe. But if the stadium complex and nearby industrial areas inspire curiosity, Metro line #1 has several stops in the area. North of Suzhou Creek and beyond Hongkou Park, the surroundings become more industrial, more like the area around the main train station.
Shanghai’s main sights are architectural, from the sculpted and spirited traces of the international past to towers of glass and steel. Religious sites, museums, and lively neighborhoods are thrown in for good measure. At present, Shanghai is “greenifying,” and most park fees have been abolished. Within various quarters of the city, walking is often preferable to using the overcrowded public buses.
Short on time, but unsure of which sights to visit during your stay in Shanghai? We've picked out the best. Click the links to explore and book tours or local guides.
Good food starts in Shanghai’s rooftop steakhouses and ends in its steamy, packed alleys. Grilled meats from Xingjiang, rice noodles from Guilin, popsicles from Inner Mongolia, and Shanghai’s own small pan-fried buns all meet up in the numerous food courts. Customers can point to what they like through kitchen windows displaying noodles, soup-filled meat buns, wonton soup, and spareribs with rice cakes. The side streets around People’s Sq. host street stalls and sit-down eateries. From Yan’an Dong Lu to Jinling Dong Lu, Yunnan Lu Food Street sees restaurant hoppers until midnight. Chinese fast food can be found on Sha Market Food Street, running south from Jiujiang Lu. Zhapu Lu Food Street, north of Suzhou Creek and east of Sichuan Bei Lu, sells dumplings, buns, and fried pancakes. On Wujiang Lu, right outside the Metro stop on Shumen Yi Lu, vendors pat rounds of dough to make sesame-studded Xingjian-style flatbread.
Dim sum makes its presence felt throughout Shanghai. Succulent prawns inside translucent rice flour skins, taro balls cocooned in sweet dough, and golden fried pigeon are delicious options. For award-winning delicacies in national culinary competitions, head to the Yuyuan Gardens and Bazaar. Open markets sell sticky rice balls stuffed with sweet sesame paste, while century-old restaurants offer duck tongues, among other fancy dishes.
That’s Shanghai is the preferred entertainment magazine for expats. The monthly publication discovers hip bars and restaurants within a week of their arrival, and lists cultural events, movie, and more importantly, where to get down. Most movies in Shanghai are dubbed, but check That’s Shanghai or City Weekend for current listings on English movies. In June, the Shanghai International Film Festival (SIFF) brings in many foreign film. Acrobatic show tickets sell out fast because of tour groups; purchase yours in advance.
The former French Concession hosts the heart of Shanghai’s nightlife, on the streets leading south off the long stretch of Huaihai Lu, from Huangpi Lu to Hengshan Lu. Movie stars and expats pack the classic Xintiandi, near the site of the first CCP congress, while classy bars crop up on Hengshan Lu, and the side streets off Si Nan Lu offer various enduring gems.
Staring is not quite the social faux pas in China that it is in the West, to put it mildly. Be prepared for intense, prolonged scrutiny, especially if you’re obviously a foreigner and in a rural area that sees few Westerners. There is little that you can do to ward off the spectators. Take solace in the fact that you have achieved a special place in the pantheon of Chinese tourist sights. Unobtrusive clothing is recommended; body piercing and brightly dyed hair will make you stand out more. Yelling (in any language) or showing obvious annoyance will just make people stare more. If you speak Chinese, talking to onlookers is often the best way to deal with unwanted attention. Remember that staring usually represents friendly curiosity, nothing more.
At some point you’re likely to be approached by beggars, whether in Shanghai or in poverty-stricken rural regions. With rising unemployment, more and more people throughout the country are going hungry. In crowded areas like trains and bus stations, the elderly, the disabled, young children, and mothers with babies frequently beg for money. The children are quite tenacious, often grabbing hold of the legs and arms of passersby and hanging on. If you do give money, you run the risk of being thronged by more hopeful beggars. Keep a handful of spare change in your pockets to avoid drawing attention to cash. Buying food for beggars is also a food alternative.
Culture shock can’t be measured in volts, but the jolt sent through most westerners the first time they smell a Chinese toilet is roughly equivalent to sticking a fork in a socket. Most Chinese toilets are squat toilets: basically, a hole in the ground. Some toilets are recessed porcelain basins, with running water; some are noxious, stagnant pits. Many stall partitions are at knee-height, few have doors, and none have toilet paper. As the final result, some toilets charge admission. Public toilets are marked with signs, usually in Chinese, but sometimes as “WC” as well. Sometimes, the facilities are separated by gender.
Polluted cities and poor sanitation mean that respiratory flue are common for anyone living through a Chinese winter, and the Chinese tend to be fairly up front about how they take care of their phlegm. No one is shy about hawking back and letting it fly on streets, sidewalks, trains, buses, and even restaurant floors. Increasingly more cities are enacting anti-spitting regulations and hanging “No Spitting” signs, but all of this has had little actual effect. It’s best to get use to the characteristic hawking sound and get out of the way.
China and Taiwan have - how should we say - strained relations. In order to avoid an embarrassing or even hostile situation, take care of how you refer to Taiwan. When on the mainland, avoid mentioning Taiwan at all if possible. Never refer to it as a separate country, as it will likely offend the Chinese.