City of life
FOR CLOSE ON a decade now, China's premier mover and shaker has been reclaiming its stake on the future. Revolutions, cultural or otherwise, tend to slow a city down - or at least take the edge off its nightlife - and for the past decade Shanghai has been making up for lost time. Perhaps that much-vaunted 'Shanghai chic' is still a work in progress, but don't try telling that to the locals; they're determinedly turning their city into the place of superlatives it should have been all along. The result: a neck-craning melange of things old, new and borrowed. And, like any great city, the real attractions are not the kind of things you can put in a list of things to do - such as taking some time out to get lost in the narrow streets of the concession quarters.
Nobody is going to dispute that Shanghai's greatest attraction is a legacy of the bad old days when Shanghai had a certain reputation. And there's also the fact that the long awaited face-lift (a wash would suffice for some the buildings) the area deserves has yet to happen. But from Pudong, or from the river, the Bund's hodgepodge of architectural styles takes the prize for Asia's best riverside cityscape. Start with a wander around the interior of the Peace Hotel - formerly the Cathay and apparently little changed in anything but a name - at the northern end of the strip and then continue south past the grand frontages.
Bund Tourist Tunnel
(5888-6000, 9am to 9.30pm daily)
We know, it's a tunnel, but - trust us - there are tunnels and there are tunnels. While some might prefer to be traditional and take a Huangpu River Cruise which, of course, provides views of Shanghai's superlative riverside architecture, it is also possible to take a futuristic trip under the river and gaze back on the 1930s from the other side. Of course, there is also the ferry over to Pudong at a fraction of the price.
Back in the 1980s, when foreigners first started trickling back into China, to their bemusement, the bare shelves of the department stores on Nanjing Donglu were still regarded as the best stocked in China, and the street was known as China's No 1 Shopping Street. Today, the shelves are again heaving and Nanjing has regained its swagger. Whether it's still No 1, though, is debatable. Shanghai's once most prestigious boulevard has arguably failed to keep pace with the rest of the city and there's a good case to be made that Huaihai Lu is shouldering it aside. That said, it is worth taking a stroll along the stretch of commercial bustle from the historic Peace Hotel on the Bund all the way to Renmin Square.
Yu Gardens & Bazaar
Smack in the heart of the old city, which hugs a hoop in Renmin Lu not far from the Bund, there is the ornamental Yu Gardens, with its attached Yu Gardens and the Temple of the City God. There are charming viewing pavilions, a zigzag bridge (in other words ghost-proof: ghosts famously have problems with tight corners), an ornamental lake full of carp and perhaps the city's most famous dumpling outlet - look for the queue.
(2890-7777, 8.30am to 5.30pm)
The world's fastest train service theoretically connects Pudong International Airport with downtown Shanghai, but its critics call it a fast track to nowhere. Treat the world's only magnetic levitation railway as a tourist attraction, on other hand, and the smooth-as-air experience - the world's fastest, with a regular run speed of 430km per hour - takes on an entirely other dimension. For the technically minded, it is giant magnets, apparently, that keep the train suspended above the 'tracks.'
(2853 Longhua Lu)
Hong Kong, Taipei and Singapore are all better cities to get a glimpse of Chinese urban religious life, but that doesn't mean you have to skip Shanghai's Ming Dynasty era temple. It features on most itineraries. It's notable for a strikingly ornate, 44-metre pagoda and a massive bell that weighs more than 6,000 kilograms.
Off the chic shopping boulevard Huaihai Zhonglu, 'New Heaven and Earth,' as the name literally translates, is the Paris end of Shanghai - a buzzy development that blends with the concession-era architecture in a way that suggests that perhaps not all that is best in the city will inevitably fall to the wrecking ball. There's a museum to the area's traditional shikumen residential architecture and a branch of Starbucks with al fresco seating.
(201 Renmin Dadao, 6372-3500, 9am to 5pm daily)
Dominating the Renmin Square area is the sprawling Shanghai Museum, opened in 1996 to much fanfare. With about 120,000 permanent exhibits, excellent English labelling, and even audio commentary (for a hefty deposit), the museum is one of the country's best. If you have limited time, be selective as there is an awful lot to see.
Shanghai Exhibition Hall
This Soviet-era hall doesn't usually make it into the Shanghai Top 10, but it's a quirky reminder of the city's not too distant past and one often forgotten by the Starbucks' generation. Built on the site of a mansion belonging to one of Shanghai's richest foreign tycoons, Silas Hardoon, the hall, which rarely exhibits anything nowadays, is a brash celebration of socialist success. Today, it's overshadowed by the Shanghai Centre and the Portman Hotel.
Shanghai Botanical Gardens
(111 Longwu Lu; open 8am-5pm daily)
The Shanghai Botanical Gardens is a favourite picnic destination in the southwest suburbs. It's renowned for its 5,000 square-metre greenhouse. A lush profusion of greenery, which became something of a jungle during the Cultural Revolution, when it was left to its own devices, the gardens stand apart from the manicured style that prevails in other Shanghai gardens.