Shanghai Poignant Past, Prolific Present

by | Feb 10, 2016

Towering, futuristic buildings are indeed quintessential to this sprawling metropolis, but if you are inquisitive about its future architectural demeanour, head to Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall, which features a miniature replica of the Shanghaito- come; a visit will trigger an instant vision about what the “Pearl of the Orient” will look like by 2020.

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As one of the world’s fastest-changing metropolises, Shanghai pulsates with the truly electrifying vitality of two juxtaposed worlds. The city’s cosmopolitan flair is evident at every step – think an architectural bonanza of brilliant skyscrapers reaching for the sky, avant-garde structures where incredibly compelling art works are curated and exhibited year-round, shimmering neon light shows enveloping the city each night, and, of course, some of the most extravagant shopping malls in the world.

Although it seems this booming port city is functioning at the speed of light, it also conjures up an charming old-world character, boasting historically significant Art Deco and Renaissance buildings, particularly around the celebrated Bund and in the leafy former French Concession area and a breadth of experiences that will give you a taste of a bygone era and allow you to get acquainted with the city at your desired pace.

The city of fantastic aesthetics

Over the years, Shanghai has seduced sojourners with an intoxicating East-meets-West fusion with good reason. As you explore the city, you will instantly be struck by its iconic skyline,which comprises astonishingly tall skyscrapers. While the most distinctive of them remains the LED-illuminated Oriental Pearl Tower, the limelight can be easily stolen by Shanghai World Financial Centre, which not only boasts one of the world’s highest observation decks, but is also home to 100 Century Avenue, an elegant restaurant cum sky bar located on the 91st floor, from where you can enjoy dizzyingly spectacular vistas of the cityscape and ships drifting languidly on Huangpu River.

Towering, futuristic buildings are indeed quintessential to this sprawling metropolis, but if you are inquisitive about its future architectural demeanour, head to Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall, which features a miniature replica of the Shanghaito- come; a visit will trigger an instant vision about what the “Pearl of the Orient” will look like by 2020.

While it’s obvious that architecture enthusiasts are in seventh heaven here, art aficionados, too, are treated to a slew of renowned contemporary art museums as Shanghai is flourishing as a creative hub. A visit to Rockbund Art Museum, located in a 1932 Art Deco house on the northern end of the Bund, will reveal fascinating permanent and temporary exhibitions and a diverse range of events while the gargantuan Power Station of Art housed in a 19th-century power station takes pride in having played host of the Shanghai Biennale and, today, still continues to dazzle with its distinctive exhibitions.

For a taste of the past, don’t hesitate to drop by Shikumen Wulixiang Museum, an open-air museum that showcases traditional homes or shikumen from the mid-19th century. After your cultural immersion, head out to the manicured Zuibaichi, a quiet respite far from the madding city crowd. It may not be as famous as the classic Ming Dynasty Yuyuan Garden, but Zuibaichi garden has its share of excellent traditional Chinese landscaping and is peppered with beautiful pagoda-style structures.

Cultural bonanza for young and old

After satiating your aesthetic appetite, it’s time to get culturally intimate with Shanghai; start by touring the city from the sidecar of a vintage 1950s-era Chang Jiang military motorcycle manoeuvred by a driver that doubles as a savvy guide. Organised by Shanghai Insiders, this unique tour allows you to take a spin in sleek-looking vehicles and guarantees a different interaction with the city based on interests such as cuisine, photography, architecture and Chinese culture – a ride to remember indeed! If you fancy performances, let yourself be transported to another world by attending ERA – Intersection of Time at Shanghai Circus World, perhaps Shanghai’s most extreme yet visually compelling acrobatics show. You will be swept off your feet by seemingly impossible somersaults and acrobatic jumps performed by ‘superhumans’ who convey truly inspiring visual poetry through their movements.


To create something with your own hands, participate in a hands-on dumpling workshop organised by UnTour Shanghai Food Tours. There will be kneading and flour galore but learning to make one of Shanghai’s most iconic dish is definitely something to be proud about. If you are a diehard foodie, you would also want to experience some of the city’s lesser-known alleys, where fragrant food stalls and boisterous street hawkers give a glimpse of authentic Shanghai.

Afterwards, head to Duolun Cultural Street, a historic, off-the beaten track cultural street which brims with typical Shanghainese buildings from the 1920s, antique shops, museums such as The League of Leftist Writers Museum, tea shops and life-size bronze statues of eminent Chinese literati that once lived here. Wrap up the evening with a cruise along the Huangpu River that pledges spectacular vistas of the revolutionarily designed district of Pudong and bedazzles with shimmering lights till late into the night.


Time travel for fashionistas

From indie boutiques to sprawling luxury malls, Shanghai has long been deemed a real shopping paradise. When it comes to brands, the city is speckled with infinite options; at Florentia Village in Pudong, the first authentic Italian high-end designer outlet in the city, you will be impressed by the meld of Florentine and Venetian style architecture and the slew of unique luxury brands. For Parisian-chic buys, drop by the upscale L’Avenue, which is a veritable fashion fairyland, instantly standing out with a unique glossy interior and conglomerate of luxury goods.

But while ultra-modern, stylish malls dominate the shopping scene here, at a local level, the city seems to impress effortlessly as well. Check out the lovely Dong Liang, a new emerging multibrand store by home-grown designers, who spice up the scene with an avant-garde clothing line and inspirational brands that almost have a cult status in the Chinese metropolis. And if you are into indie designers, don’t miss C.J. Yao’s creations (you can purchase them at D2C Mall), not because she is becoming truly en vogue in the fashion world, but also because her aesthetic vision clearly captures the contemporary lifestyle of women.

If you feel nostalgic for the past, the 1920s-inspired cheongsam or qipao still has its fair share of loyal fans in Shanghai, especially after Maggie Cheung gracefully wore them in the captivating “In the Mood for Love” cinematic feat. Get one yourself at Jin Zhi near Huaihai Road, an old-school shop run by a fashion-school graduate, who will tailor the perfect dress just the way you fancy it, classic or bold in prints and colours.

To further fuel your old Shanghai obsession, visit the bohemian Tianzifang arts and crafts enclave in the former French Concession district. Here you will find myriad, offbeat boutiques located in original shikumen houses, which offer gifts aplenty: ceramics, fabrics, custom-made jewellery, silk scarves and even contemporary Chinese art sculptures. After your shopping session, fortunately there are plenty tea houses, cafés and brasseries where you can unwind and feel the city’s invigorating allure.

Epicurean decadence for discerning palates

If Shanghai’s dynamism can be measured by its cuisine, the city must be one of the fastest roller-coasters globally. Not many places in the world can boast such diverse food, passionate chefs and the drive to succeed and push the envelope in culinary excellence.

For a gratifying introduction to local food, look no further than Fu1015, the most exquisite of the four successful restaurants under the helm of Chef Tony Lu. The restaurant, housed in a former banker’s home along Yuyuan Road, evokes old Shanghai with its 1920s glamour and is where classic dishes are elevated to cult status without the need for molecular gastronomy. Seafood dishes are a standout here and the marinated hairy crab with yellow rice wine is particularly raved about.

Over at the Shanghainese branch of Family Li Imperial Cuisine, in the Huangpu Park near where the eponymous river meets the Wusong River, you will sample dishes fit for royalty in a space where every table is a private room. The restaurant’s recipes are said to have been smuggled out of the imperial kitchen and, today, dishes are still prepared using traditional and often painstakingly elaborate techniques.

Lest you get too caught up in seeking the best Shanghainese food, remember China’s second-largest city is a window to the entire country’s cooking; you will easily find plenty of excellent Cantonese, Sichuan and Hunan restaurants and the like that offer as authentic an experience as being physically in those lands. A standout is Lost Heaven, which specialises in Yunnan fare with influences reminiscent of the ancient Tea-and-Horse Trail that stretched from Tibet through to Yunnan and the highlands of Myanmar and Thailand. Arrive early at the restored 1920s villa for pre-dinner drinks at the Mask Bar before heading upstairs for a sublime experience.

Colagreco and Mr & Mrs Bund may be stalwarts of Shanghai’s progressive gastronomy, but it is clearly Ultraviolet by Paul Pairet that has dominated in the last year or so, catapulting to No. 24 on The World’s Best 50 Restaurants 2015, just months after snagging third place in the Asian edition. Make no mistake, this is not a regular meal to satisfy hunger pangs but a dining adventure for an exclusive few. Up to 10 guests every Tuesday to Saturday night are taken to a secret venue where a dramatic, multisensory dinner of 20 courses awaits. Not only is the presentation avant garde but elements such as light and music are also creatively introduced to bring out the epicurean emotion in you. After all, the mastermind behind this arousing project is no stranger to elating gourmands, Shangri-La lured Pairet to develop Jade on 36 in 2005 and he went on to open Mr & Mrs Bund in 2009.

For a farm-to-table experience, head outside the city to Fairmont Yangcheng Lake, which boasts the Yue Feng Island Organic Farm. The hotel’s lakeside Wugu (Five Grains) Restaurant is an oasis of tranquillity and the epitome of freshness, offering local dishes based on organic produce from the farm to guests every Friday, Saturday and Sunday for lunch and dinner. Another glasshouse is used as the Wugu Culinary Studio where up to eight guests can pick ingredients from the farm and prepare a meal under the guidance of a chef.


Stays eons from eliciting yawns

In cosmopolitan Shanghai, dreams are made on lavish bedding in rooms that brim with luxurious amenities, technology and very often, an enviable view of the cityscape. Despite the presence of many leading hotel brands, new homes away from home continue to spring up, dissuading even the most loyal of guests from total allegiance to their preferred accommodation.

It’s hard to go wrong at The Peninsula Shanghai, the first new addition to the Bund in 70 years when it opened in 2009. If the shopping arcade with over 25 premium brands and curated activities such as a half day Chinese opera programme by celebrated artiste Xu Jiali doesn’t impress you, there’s always Peninsula’s personalised car fleet, which includes a 1934 Rolls Royce Phantom II and a hybrid BMW i8, and the uber-cool Sir Elly’s Terrace with gorgeous night views of Shanghai.

Over at The Langham Shanghai Xintiandi, it’s glitzy glam amidst 20th-century charm. Located in the heart of the former French Concession, this stylish hotel with bold floor-to-ceiling windows in all its rooms is out to ensure you know Shanghai intimately without stepping out of your indulgent, private space. Farther west in Jing’an District stands the alluring The PuLi Hotel and Spa, its plain façade a brilliant disguise for the immaculate haven within. Located next to Jing An Park, PuLi also lushes up the experience with the only Anantara Spa in Shanghai.

Across the Huangpu River from The Bund, Pudong’s Park Hyatt continues to thrill guests with its mix of dazzling panoramas, sleek, well-appointed rooms and proximity to the financial heart of the city. Situated between the 79th and 93rd floors, Park Hyatt is a magnet for demanding executives as well as those wanting a slice of The Bund without the hustle.

For an eclectic Shanghainese sojourn, check yourself into The Waterhouse at the southern end of The Bund. This Design Hotels outfit with just 19 rooms and suites is inwardly contemporary and gutsy and outwardly time-tested, presenting a stirring juxtaposition for the traveller who appreciates his hotel as a work of art.

North of the Bund, where the Huangpu winds eastward, the Banyan Tree Shanghai on the Bund stands as another extraordinary respite, away from the city centre but still nonetheless a riverfront address. With this Shanghai addition to its portfolio of idyllic resorts, the Singapore brand has carved out an oasis out of conurbation, something very precious indeed.

Quotient TravelPlanner specialises in private customised holidays. A 4D3N Shanghai land package for two persons starts from $8,500, inclusive of round-trip airport transfer, three nights’ accommodation in an Executive Suite at The Peninsula Shanghai with daily breakfast and two 8-hour private tours of Shanghai and surroundings with an English-speaking driver-cum-guide.


© This article was first published in Nov/Dec 2015 edition of World Travel Magazine.

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