There is no typical guide to visiting this city, and the impossibility of making it fit into a pattern is what makes it so memorable, after all. Unlike many of the popular tourist destinations, it’s hardly possible to make a list of monuments of which the Internet says they’re a must. Instead, Shanghai is all about discovering the bewildering variety, unfolding on the street level. And although it’s called the Paris of the East, you’ll find that more than the architecture and the degree of civilization, this city tells a story of individual evolution, social progress and flowering life. It’s time to start believing in coup de foudre if you’re headed here, since the impression on this whole high-spirited, jocund city will find a way to your heart.
What to see
First, let’s get some perspective. No more than twenty years ago, the city had nothing spectacular to make it stand out, while today you’ll visit the result of a boom – which makes it barely recognizable if you’ve got the past as term of comparison. The Bund is one of the first places you should go to, and that’s because it does give you perspective. The city gets divided by the Huangpu River in two main districts: Puxi (west) and Pudong (east), and this is where the impressive skyline which overlooks Pudong shows its striking skyscrapers rising proud towards the sun. While one the Eastern side of your panorama sprawls the living proof of years devoted to technology and progress, on the Western part of the city not much seems to have changed.
What’s really stunning about the view here is that just by turning around you get to see both the past and the present of colossal cultural meaning. And while the image may seem to speak of contradictions, it essentially is about what the ancient values of the locals stand for. Combine the1920s of Art Deco and Neoclassical facades and the view of the Old Town with the restlessness and spiritedness of the newly risen buildings. What will strike you the most is the almost symbiotic way in which these two components of a very much awake sense of culture complement each other instead of diverging.
The panorama is even a little trippy at night, with all the hallucinating neon lights giving it a psychedelic effect. But the Bund is just the start for anyone who is here for the local culture, and the next stop should be the Old Town. Not only the lanterns and the authentic architecture, but the people here seem to invite you to explore their culture some more. For the first time here it feels like being teleported into an old movie with pastel colors and warmth in people’s eyes.
Shanghai is going to get under your skin whether you make any effort or not,but the way I’d recommend visiting the city gravitates around its extensive culture. For instance, one of the first stops would have to be walking around The French Concession.The area used to be a French quarter up until 1940s, but it was during the 1920s when it became the premier residential area of Shanghai. This is the exact part of the city where it would be hard to make a clear cut distinction between this district and Paris.
The European features of this place are so well preserved that you’ll feel the city glory from during the 1930s: tree-lined streets, boutiques with a vintage air and strong, sweet personality, bohemian cafés with blues music to make your day better. It’s impossible not to realize that Shanghai is not only a city resulted from many influences and occurrences, and you clearly shouldn’t expect to find it all homogeneous and unitary. Instead, it kept a part of each puzzle piece which made it so diverse and miscellaneous, giving it splendid diversity and irresistible magnetism. While many cities try either to bury or integrate their influences into a unitary whole, Shanghai is a history museum on a natural scale; with the distinction that all the exhibits and details are not kept at a place of honor, but rather reveal themselves as a series of places of honor.
It was the beginning of a long-lasting, passionate love affairs in the most vibrant cities in China the day that Eastern and Western cultures met. And ever since, they’ve blended into a new, magnificent view of the city, constantly drawing the world’s attention. Being here sometimes feels like any other place you’ve visited would have a lot to catch up and even more to learn from the dashing, accelerated development in Shanghai.
Fuxing Park seems to celebrate the fact that the city remembers how much people enjoy to take long walks. It is the natural response to open-spirited and strong personalities who happen to have some free time. Here you can dance next to the locals who bring their own music to have some fun in public places. In case you’ll be wondering, not only isn’t it prohibited, but it’s a very common social practice.
And if you’ve got plenty of time and your feet are not sore yet, you should try Dongtai Road. Antiques stretching all over the street, curio shops sowing off with their exhibits from the 1920s, couples holding hands asking what to buy this time. Plus, some of the people aren’t even trying to sell anything, they’re just collectors who are so proud of their cultural heritage, that wish to share it with the public. If you’re lucky enough to pop into someone who’s also an English speaker, you’re going to have a very pleasant experience. As about the shops, there’s a good chance to find some nice, authentic souvenirs to bring home with you.
If you happen to visit for a longer period of time, or just move here, know this: if you’re not from New York (and in some cases even if you are) there’s a high chance to be left behind. It’s not uncommon for people here to work for every day of the week, 10 or more hours a day and still party every night until the morning. The rhythmicity of this city can be a little too much, and when this happens, the best local way to unwind and free your mind is Hanghzou.
This provincial city is no more than a two-hours drive South from the cluster, and you’ll discover it as an Asian replica of Venice. The myth says that there are 14 trees for each local, which makes it even more appealing for anyone who’s trying to escape from the insane, constantly animate, jungle. Plus, if you’re accustomed to waking up at early hours, you won’t even feel the heat at noon, especially if you rent a bike at the West Lake and wander around for some hours – the scenery soaks is, the leafy streets become more welcoming with every step (wheel?) and this entire oasis of natural, placid environment is going to help you recharge your batteries sooner than you’d think.
How to travel
Because the metropolis has over 23 million people, transport can be something confusing even for someone who doesn’t live in a very small town. You can’t help but notice all the people on bikes going here and there all day long, so this would be one of the many options. Is it safe? Mostly, but if you’re trying to get somewhere during rush hours and you’re in a hurry, it’s maybe better to rent a bike than go to a taxi.
Otherwise, taxis here are great. If you’re not a fan of high speed though, you may not enjoy it as much because most of the taxi drivers do get to awfully unlawful speed at some point. Of course, you can’t expect them to speak English, it never happens. No matter how much you try, they won’t understand a single word. Instead, once you’re inside a taxi, you should start looking for the number on the back of the driver’s seat.
Dial and you’ll be connected to a call center, tell the operator what your destination is and hand the phone to the driver – they’ll translate it for you, they’ll also tell you the price of your ride in any special currency you’ll mention to the operator. Compared to the way speaking to the taxi driver works in most of the big cities, this local artifice is very close to a technological breakthrough. It’s a great idea saving you a lot of problems on the way.
Maglev Train, of course, is the ride from the international airport to Shanghai, and it’s a magnetic-levitation train that you’ll love, with over 430 km per hour speed. It takes you less than eight minutes to be ght in the middle of the city. Of course, the line doesn’t extend to the entire city of Shanghai, but the subway is still the fastest and the most comfortable option if you’re trying to het somewhere. Then again, this is only a good alternative for you if you don’t actually mind the overly crowded moments during rush hours. It’s clean, intuitive, there are all kinds of directions in English and it’s impossible for you to get lost unless you’re a sleepwalker.
Where to eat
There are many reasons for which you won’t be sleeping your nights in Shanghai, but roaming the streets of the city instead. Be it because of the jet-lag, the early day at work after which you decided to spend some time out, the fact that it’s so vibrant and you can’t stand being asleep for too long; in the end, it doesn’t even matter.
As long as you’re outside at night, you should try the street food. Unlike other places on the globe, it’s not associated with poor options. It’s true, after 10 p.m. most of the restaurants are closed, but this would only be a problem if the street food wasn’t so tasty. The entire experience is unique, especially if you’re not accustomed to Chinese food. There are two types of people in Shanghai: you either adore the street food or you couldn’t even stand to be near it.
Regardless, I think trying it is part of the local experience, and some of the best places where you should go and feast are: Fangbang Xi Lu (authentic view, delicious food), Kangding Lu (it’s open until 3 a.m. most of the days, so it’s the ideal place for when you’re done partying and you’re starving), Xinzha Lu (the noodles and rice are the best in town!).
As about the rules of street food, they vary from a district to another. But chances are that you won’t find one earlier than 9 p.m. But what’s even more interesting about them, is that there are not only some specific times and places where you should eat, but there are specific dishes that you should try too. Particularly the ones made on the street.
- Cōng yóu shao bing is an onion oil pancake: oval shaped flat, crusty bread, which you can either serve sweet or salty.
- Chili Tofu is nothing more than small pieces of spongy tofu, with cilli toppings – not recommended if you don’t like spicy food.
- Liu Shi Roasts the Pear is a dish with eight round layers in a square shape, inside of which you’ll find roasting pears, best served with a local juice. The combination is divine.