China’s biggest city is the steel-and-glass megalopolis of the future, complete with gleaming skyscrapers, futuristic orbs and an underwater train straight out of The Jetsons. Luckily, Shanghai’s ultra-modern sheen is tempered by traditional shikumen, or warehouse gates made of stone; Art Deco architecture, charming teahouses and parks; and a friendly, come-one-come-all vibe. We strung together a weekend itinerary that will allow first-timers to discover the multiple personalities of this riverside stunner.
Also read: Shanghai city guide
Shanghai’s nostalgia for the days when it first blossomed as an international port is palpable. In the early 1900s, the city was a magnet for traders, sailors and adventurers. Emigrating here was easy — no visa was required — and Shanghai soon became the most populous, wealthy city in China.
Reminders of Shanghai’s debonair past are everywhere. Imposing Art Deco and neoclassical banks and hotels stretch for a mile along Zhongshan Road, otherwise known as the Bund; European-style villas grace the broad, leafy avenues of the former French Concession. Here, jazz clubs, vintage furnishings and 1930s-era antiques have never gone out of style.
Dip into Shanghai’s old-world charm with a retro-glam meal at Fu 1088 (375 Zhenning Rd; +86 21 5239 7878), a warren of private dining rooms in an antiques-laden villa at the edge of the Jing’An district. Classic décor and a tinkling piano are the perfect backdrop to elegant Shanghainese dishes with a modern twist like smoked cod, slow-cooked pork belly and crab roe on toast. Bookings are essential, and some dishes must be ordered in advance.
In keeping with the 1930s theme, follow up your first meal in the “Paris of the East” with a digestif and jazz standards at JZ Club (46 Fuxing Rd; +86 21 6431 0269; jzclub.cn). This popular, multi-level performance venue swathed in red velvet curtains, cushions and lamps showcases talented Chinese and international musicians. The sweet sounds of the saxophone floating up to the mezzanine on smoke curls in this dark, sultry club will get your Shanghai weekend off to a swinging start.
There’s no time to sleep in when a city as big and varied as Shanghai awaits. Leave the 1930s behind and board the driverless underwater train that whisks visitors from the Bund through a pulsating laser show to Pudong. On the eastern side of the river, skyscrapers bloom like Chinese mushrooms — a physical manifestation of China’s new economic might.
At the Shanghai World Financial Center (100 Century Ave; swfc-shanghai.com), a gleaming tower that unapologetically resembles a giant bottle opener, you’ll find a scale model of the city’s photogenic skyline, complete with simulated fireworks. But the real draw is the cloud-high, glass-floor viewing platform. Begin at the observation deck on the 94th floor before proceeding to the 97th and — once you’ve steeled your nerves — check out the view from 100 stories up, poised a vertigo-inducing 474m above the street.
Back on terra firma, return to the Bund side of the river for a calming stroll through Yu Garden (218 Anren St; +86 21 6326 0830; www.yugarden.com.cn), a five-acre oasis of ornate Ming dynasty pavilions, fish-filled ponds and rock sculptures. Top off the Zen experience with a pot of flowering tea in a 16th-century teahouse floating on a lake: take Jiuqu Bridge, designed in a zigzag shape to confuse and keep out evil spirits, to Huxin Pavilion and grab a seat upstairs at one of the marble-topped tables. Enjoy views of the gardens, and watch the bundle of dried tea leaves and flowers at the bottom of the glass pot slowly unfurl as your tea infuses.
When the sun goes down, the stately buildings along the Bund and their futuristic neighbors across the river in Pudong light up to create a stunning nighttime cityscape. The glamorous skyline provides the perfect backdrop for Shanghai’s fine-dining scene, which is one of the best in the world. Dress to impress, strap on your dancing shoes and hit the town to see what this cosmopolitan playground has to offer.
Fuel up for a night on the tiles with unique, peppery Yunnan cuisine at Lost Heaven on the Bund (17 Yan’an Dong Rd; +86 21 6330 0967; lostheaven.com.cn). This multi-story treasure trove is full of warm tribal décor from China’s mountainous south-western province, and the dishes are perfect for sharing. The cocktails are superb, but you’ll want to head back to the main drag for post-prandial drinks with a side of ravishing river views.
In warmer months, rooftop revelers are spoiled for choice on the Bund, but in the winter there are still plenty of bars and lounges from which to admire the city lights. The most expansive views on the Bund can be found 33 floors up at the Hyatt’s VUE Bar (199 Huangpu Rd; +86 21 6393 1234; shanghai.bund.hyatt.com). Resident DJs spin for the champagne-swilling crowd in this two-story lounge decorated with wine barrels and plate-glass panels.
If you prefer a more classic ambience, the Long Bar (2 Zhongshan East 1st Rd; +86 21 6322 9988; waldorfastoriashanghai.com) may be more to your taste. At this Bund-side parlor, bartenders shake cocktails behind a 33m-long piece of mahogany. Originally the site of the Shanghai Club, a British gentlemen’s private club, it looks as fresh and elegant today as it did in 1910 thanks to a recent facelift modeled on period photographs.
Sundays were made for dim sum, and a nice variety of Shanghainese and Cantonese bites can be enjoyed at Ye Shanghai (338 Huang Pi Nan Rd; +86 21 6311 2323) near pedestrian-only shopping mecca Xintiandi. While you’re there, visit the Shikumen Open House Museum (Lane 181, Taicang Rd; +86 21 3307 0337; shanghaixintiandi.com) to get a feel for the courtyard-style homes that were popular throughout the city in the 1920s. More history is on display around the corner at the Museum of the First National Congress of the Communist Party (76 Xingye Rd). This former residence witnessed the birth of China’s governing party in July 1921. The exhibition space contains period furniture, relics, photographs and lifelike wax figures.
Xintiandi has been styled and buffed into an idealized version of a shikumen enclave, but a 20-minute walk to the south-west will land you in the wonderfully disheveled Tianzifang neighborhood off Taikang Road. Built in the 1930s, this former residential district, with its tangle of narrow lanes and stone archways, is now home to myriad small eateries, galleries and vintage boutiques. Poke through shops selling unique artwork, handmade jewelry and vintage biscuit tins, or perch by a coffee-shop window for some prime people watching.
When it’s time to zip out of town, take the fast track with the magnetic levitation (maglev) train to Pudong’s international airport. Capable of reaching 430km/hour, this is the world’s quickest commercial train service. Given that in a weekend you will have only scratched the surface of this sophisticated, stylish city, you’re likely to be booking a return trip with equal speed.
This article originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of Smile magazine.