Once known as the ‘Paris of the East’ this previous colonial port city is now a thriving cosmopolitan and economically forward-thinking hub for development. You would not be mistaken for thinking it the capital of China and in terms of its technological advancement – maybe you’d be right.
Getting to & around Shanghai
Served by trains, buses, planes and boats this is an easily accessible city. Regardless of your method of entry, you can quickly get into the City Centre by using the highly developed transport network that is the benchmark for any modern city. As relative locals, we used China’s extensive railway network, arriving into Shanghai Railway Station where we quickly transferred to the metro network which spreads under and around the majority of Shanghai. At ¥3 or ¥4 per ticket, this is an inexpensive and efficient method of exploring Shanghai (and our preferred method of travel in any major city).
This iconic stretch of waterfront buildings harks back to the confusing semi-colonial era that defined the development of Shanghai into the cosmopolitan economic powerhouse that it is today. With representatives of many major European and American national designs, these buildings may have different purposes today but their architecture act as a strong reminder of the many nations that contributed to Shanghai’s development and, to be frank, meddled in its affairs in the past 200 years. By day, these buildings have a mainly commercial use but open their foyers for tourists to see the grandeur with which they were built. By night, this area is lit for the throngs of tourists and locals alike who are drawn to the area to enjoy as they walk along the waterfront and see the dazzling light display of the Pudong Financial District skyscraper gallery.
Top Tip: We went down to the Bund on Saturday night and the crowds were extremely large, especially on the walk up to the waterfront. It is worth persevering with these and exercising patience as you slowly make your way to the promenade area as, you can still get an optimal spot for the requisite Pudong photos and even a selfie or two!
Pudong Financial District
Located across the Huangpu River from The Bund, the Lujiazui Pudong Financial District boasts many of the iconic skyscrapers that define the skyline of modern, commercial Shanghai. On a typical weekday, this area bustles with business people going in and out of the glass towers housing many of the world’s famous financial institutions. At the weekends, even larger crowds of tourists wander with their necks craned back to marvel as the tops of the towers are masked by the clouds. By night, this area is alight as the towers dance through colourful displays best viewed from across the river on The Bund.
Connecting both sides of the river, you can use the Bund Sightseeing Tunnel, which takes you slowly under the river as it charts the history and development of the area. Alternatively, a far cheaper and quicker route is to hop onto the metro at East Nanjing Road for the one stop to Lujiazui station where you’ll emerge right in the centre of the hustle and bustle.
Shanghai Oriental Pearl TV Tower & Urban History Museum
One of the iconic buildings in the Pudong district skyline owing to its distinctive shape and design, the Shanghai Oriental Pearl TV Tower is a key tourist attraction for Shanghai’s visitors. Visitors have a choice of a number of attractions including the tower visit to walk across the glass floored observation deck, eat at the elevated restaurants or visit the Urban History Museum in the basement.
Given that we visited the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, we opted to just pay for the Urban History Museum as recommended in the Lonely Planet guide. This proved a good choice as we wandered around and learnt about the development of modern day Shanghai from it’s traditional trading port roots through semi-colonial development into the modern commercial centre we see today.
People’s Square & Gardens
Located at what is generally viewed as the centre of Shanghai, the People’s Square and Gardens represent some of the green space that is a must in any large cosmopolitan city that wants to compete on a global stage. The park itself is very popular with both tourists and locals, with an art gallery, lake and tree-lined avenues to explore. Tall buildings surround the park, but are sufficiently separate to not spoil the experience.
The People’s Square is not at all what we expected – anyone looking for an equivalent to Beijing’s Tiananmen will be greatly disappointed. Instead, this square sits before core government buildings in the centre of the city and provides a tree-lined, grassy relaxing surround to the Shanghai Museum. A number of food stalls are dotted around the periphery for you to take advantage of to sate any hunger concerns as you wander the core of Shanghai.
East Nanjing Road
This wide concourse links the People’s Square to The Bund and wouldn’t be misplaced (save for the Chinese signs) from any Western capital city. With many designer shops and malls backing each side of the road, this is a haven for the fashion conscious and for the tourist longing for a glimpse of something more familiar. Highlights include the oldest Pharmacy in Shanghai, the first Department Store and the M&M World with its M&M’d pandas and terracotta warriors defending The Great Wall of M&Ms – definitely worth a visit if you’re passing.
Top Tip: This road is fairly long but flat throughout and can be traversed at a relatively steady pace as you mingle amongst the crowds. For those who find walking difficult (or are feeling particularly lazy!), there are a number of road trains driving slowly back and forth along the pedestrianised zone. We didn’t use so have no idea of cost but there are many companies to choose from – you may just have to battle the Chinese users for a seat though!
The French Concession
If a further reminder of Shanghai’s European heritage were needed, look no further than the French Concession for suitable stimulus. Located South-West of People’s Square, this area boasts many of the European Consulates and a range of chic restaurants and shops that would not be out of place in a suburban European Capital. By day and by night, this area remains busy with Western and Chinese visitors alike and yet the crowds are sufficiently thin so that the crowding that defines the centre of so many of China’s great cities is not an issue.
If you’re looking to relax and pass the time with good food and drink, then Ferguson Lane boasts a number of upmarket restaurants and bars around a small, side-street cafe where, if you spend long enough day-dreaming, it is possible to forget you’re in China. The meals and drinks here are distinctly Western, with rice rarely on the menu and cutlery rather than chopsticks are the tools of consumption.
If you prefer some of the more traditional Western-style eateries, then Dongping Road a little further East is the place to go. Situated around a square on this quiet road, we found a Dominos’ pizzeria (restaurant, not just takeaway), Greek, Thai, Italian, French and German just to name a few.
Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre
The location of the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre (SPPAC) is as nondescript as its name but both fail to prepare you for this hidden gem and the insight it provides into the development of modern China. Located in the basement of a tower-block on a typical Shanghai development on an unremarkable road, this private museum represents the effort of a single individual to preserve for future generations a record of the methods by which communism drove the development of China in its earliest years of power.
With dozens of posters from across the years, SPPAC walks you through the changing landscape of China as the policies and politics of the day changed.
Given that I’d never seen a Giant Panda and I am living in the home of them, we opted to take the opportunity to go and see the ones closest to us. A visit to Shanghai Zoo cost us ¥40 each and was well worth the expenditure as we spent a whole day exploring and seeing the range of animals kept there.
Now, I know there are a number of people who would argue that the method by which the animals were kept isn’t proper as the enclosures are smaller and less enhanced than those we’re used to in the West. However, I would propose that there is no significant difference between what we saw and the zoos I would have visited as a younger child some 20 years ago. Whilst progress is slow, there is evidence of the ongoing improvements to the facilities there and we saw little if any situations where the enclosures were over-cramped or devoid of any stimulus.
During our day there, we saw a wide range of animals including monkey and apes, elephants and rhinos, pandas, zebras and giraffes, lions and tigers alongside a multitude of birds and other small animals. The collection would not have been out of place at any of the large-scale zoos present in major cities around the world.
We went on a cooler, quieter Monday and this was reflected by the small number of people in attendance there. That said, we were never alone for very long and the main attractions like the Giant Panda were still busy as Chinese tourists flocked to view their national icon.
Some other photos that show what Shanghai was like during our visit:
Our three-day exploration of Shanghai was nowhere near enough to truly explore this city. With our very reasonable rail fares and relatively close proximity, this is somewhere we’ve already booked to return to – check out our blog for updates as we explore further!