Shanghai

Simultaneously the world’s most populous city and its busiest port, Shanghai is arguably the coolest, most important place on the planet these days. Just what creates zeitgeist—be it Paris in the ‘20s, Victorian London or New York in perpetuity—is difficult to distill. But by all measurements, the cognoscenti concur that Shanghai is the “it” city of the new millennium.

  • Category
    Homes
  • Written by
    Bonnie Graves

 

Just what creates zeitgeist—be it Paris in the ‘20s, Victorian London or New York in perpetuity—is difficult to distill. But by all measurements, the cognoscenti concur that Shanghai is the “it” city of the new millennium. 

From the jaw-dropping Pudong skyline to the kaleidoscopic rainbow that is Nanjing Road to the classic China Pavilion, Shanghai sits at the epicenter of culture and commerce. Colloquially known as the “Paris of the East,” to me it feels more like the precocious love child of Paris and Hong Kong, now all grown up and ready for its starring role. Everything old is new again, most especially in China.  

Much of Shanghai’s resurgence is directly attributable to the economic reforms of Communist leader Deng Xiaoping in the 1990s. Its successes now are as emblematic of the “new” China as was the Beijing presented via an Olympic lens.  

The geographical position of Shanghai, situated at the mouth of the Yangtze River, remains as strategic as it was in the 19th century, and foreign capital has flowed in accordance with increased investment opportunity over the last two decades. With the money come the people, and Shanghai’s swelling international population offers an incredible mix of language, culture, food and art—all of which complement the indigen-ous in a way that’s rare. (Nearly 9 million of its estimated 24 million residents are foreign-born.)  

Shanghai is Chinese, make no mistake, but it might not be Mandarin or Shanghainese you hear while slurping your dumplings. Or it might well be English, the lingua franca of power. That’s good news for American tourists, who are welcomed in Shanghai. 

As someone who’s traveled in remote, rural China, I can tell you that that is not for the faint of heart (or stomach). Shanghai is thoroughly cosmopolitan, readily navigable and yes, you can definitely find a hamburger if that’s how you roll. 

"To understand the multicultural energy of Shanghai, you need to have a Chinese ticket-taker wish you ‘mazel tov’ and mean it. Only in Shanghai will you hear Hebrew with a Mandarin accent.”

How to meaningfully plan a visit to the world’s greatest metropolis is a bigger issue than language or currency rates, and simply trolling websites isn’t always helpful. Facebook crowdsourcing is good if your crowd travels, and asking locals for inside intel works, if only you happen to speak the language. 

Failing that, ask some ex-pats for advice. They’re folks like you who took an extended, working vacation, and as such, they’re uniquely equipped to shepherd your journey. In my case, a dear high school friend and her young family relocated from New York to Shanghai for several years; her recommended itinerary includes some of the “must-see” sites but with specific tips for travel-savvy Americans who don’t want to seem … well, touristy. 

For example, toweringly modern skyscrapers are now as integral to Shanghai’s identity as its traditional “Shikumen” or stone gate houses. The Oriental Pearl, the Jin Mao and the Shanghai Tower all offer stunning views and enough nighttime dazzle to explain why the most recent Bond flick, Skyfall, featured Shanghai as a star in its own right alongside Daniel Craig. 

Insider tip: Go to the World Financial Center but avoid the crowded observation deck in favor of stopping at the Park Hyatt, which occupies floors 79 to 93. The view is actually better, and you can relax with a cocktail. 

I also suggest a visit to the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum and the Ohel Moshe Synagogue, where a WWII-era ghetto once thrived. To understand the multicultural energy of Shanghai, you need to have a Chinese ticket-taker wish you “mazel tov” and mean it. Only in Shanghai will you hear Hebrew with a Mandarin accent.

All of China’s vast regional cuisines collide in Shanghai, its largest city by population, and knowing how and where to sample it is important. Having a local friend’s expertise comes in handy, as she’s become a bit obsessed with xiao long bao—a type of soup dumpling that originated in the Nanxiang area outside the city. 

These “XLB” dumplings, usually filled with pork and/or crabmeat, are ubiquitous. Insiders know that what is critical is not just that you eat them, but rather how you eat them: take a tiny bite off the corner, slurp out the brothy contents in one noisy gulp, then dip in the special ginger sauce, then finish in a second bite. No dainty nibbling if you want to be native. 

If you’re looking for something a bit more luxe, check out Lost Heaven on the Bund in one of Shanghai’s “must-walk” neighborhoods. Lost Heaven features the cuisine of the so-called Ancient Tea-Horse Trail, from China’s southern Yunnan province across into Thailand, Myanmar and Laos. Its superb food is complemented by a serious wine list that will keep grape-juice lovin’ Californians very happy.  

Guidebooks and websites will steer you to other popular tourist destinations like the Yuyuan Gardens in Old Town, walking tours of the French Concession district and the landmark Expo Axis, which spans the site of the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai and which is, in a word, amazing.  Consider your passions when considering your itinerary. 

If you’re an architecture buff, organize your trip around both classic and contemporary buildings in Shanghai, which features the world’s largest concentration of Art Deco buildings, for example. (Sorry, South Beach!) 

Museum lovers and history hounds won’t want to miss gems like the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Center for a glimpse into Mao’s China and its impact on modern lithographers like Andy Warhol. 

Or if you’re into fashion, consider going to the South Bund Fabric Market, where hundreds of stalls of tailors with extraordinary textiles will custom-design just about anything you bring to them. Rebecca prizes her collection of hand-fitted silk shirts that cost about $30 each. 

Fashion hounds might also want to ferret out the “fake” markets where knockoffs that are indistinguishable from the real-deal abound. These are the pros, and Prada is pricey. That’s all we’re saying, and we’re sticking to it. 

Shanghai is about 14 hours non-stop from Los Angeles, with many tempting layover options if time permits. All the major hotels are represented, and transportation to and from the airport is easy. All that remains is for you to catch the Shanghai Express—it’s a city that, once visited, becomes the place where daydreams (and dumplings) will return you for a lifetime of memories.

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