The best things to do on a layover at Shanghai’s Pudong airport, from street eats and vintage bike tours to dizzying heights
If you’re laid over in Shanghai, here are some fun activities to get you out of the airport and give you a taste of the city, its cuisine and people, whether you are there for four hours or half a day
Shanghai’s Pudong airport ranks as the fifth busiest airport in Asia and the ninth busiest in the world. According to Airports Council International, the airport moved more than 66 million passengers in 2016 – about nine times Hong Kong’s population.
With anything less than three hours to kill your best bet is to stay at the airport. Foot massages, lounge passes and hourly hotel rooms are available, but if you have more than a few hours to kill between flights, there’s nothing better than to venture into central Shanghai.
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Here are a few suggestions on how to make the most of your layover in the Paris of the East.
Four to six hours: eat your way around the city
The high-speed Shangahi Maglev train flies through the 30km from Pudong to the outskirts of central Shanghai in fewer than eight minutes. From there, connect to the city’s extensive – and bilingually signposted – metro network and you can be wandering through the historic Jing’an temple on West Nanjing Road (Jing’an Temple Station, lines two and seven) or slurping broth from xiao long bao at Yu Garden on the edge of Shanghai’s Old Town (Yuyuan Garden Station, line 10) within 30 minutes.
Go on a culinary walking tour with UnTour (untourfoodtours.com), who offer a small group experience as opposed to the flag-waving loudspeaker tours so often found in China.
The three-hour Night Eats tour in the Old Town area is perfect for those craving a decent meal before flying on. It covers a dozen tastings ranging from freshly prepared deep-fried water snake and five spiced crayfish in Shouning Lu Seafood Street to hand-pulled spring onion-oil noodles, and salt and pepper pastries that have been voted Shanghai’s best.
Nine hours: wander the leafy streets of the former French Concession
While swathes of old Shanghai has been demolished in recent years to make way for new developments, much of the former French Concession has retained its colonial heritage. Start by exploring Wukang Mansion (previously known as Normandie Apartments), built in a French Renaissance style and one of Shanghai’s most iconic heritage buildings. While many of the flats remain private dwellings to this day, the striking wedge shape of the building, designed by Hungarian-Slovak architect László Hudec, and the period features in the public lobby area, are well worth a closer look.
Across the road is the former residence of Soong Ching-ling (shsoong-chingling.com), one of China’s most influential public figures in the 20th century. She was Sun Yat-sen’s second wife, vice-president of China and vice-chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. Originally built by a Greek shipping magnate in the 1920s, the three-storey white villa became Song’s residence in Shanghai from 1948.
Sample the best Shanghainese food in town around the corner at Old Jesse, a local favourite recommended by Jamie Barys, co-author of Glutton Guide Shanghai (who also cofounded UnTour). “Order the scallion oil codfish head, soft braised tofu with hairy crab and the double-boiled chicken soup,” advises Barys – perfect for when you’re feeling under the weather after a long flight.
Meander through the London plane tree-lined streets of the former French Concession, browsing for emerging Chinese designer fashion in Dongliang (dongliangchina.com) concept store and handcrafted sunglasses and watches from Kate Wood (katewoodoriginals.com). If rest and relaxation are what you are after, treat yourself to a 45-minute head and foot massage at Zen Massage (zenmassage.cn).
A short cab ride away is Tianzifang, a renovated residential area comprising narrow alleys and lanes now also filled with boutique vendors, restaurants and open-air bars. Popular with tourists, the area is filled with examples of shikumen buildings, hybrid Western and Chinese structures prevalent in colonial times that are similar to narrow terraced houses, with internal courtyards and arched stone doorways. Before returning to catch your next flight, fill your belly with Korean bo ssam (pork shoulder lettuce wraps) and sushi tacos at East Eatery (east-eatery.com) in the heart of Tianzifang, or opt for fish soup noodles at the popular Ah Niang Mian, a pleasant stroll away through leafy streets flanked by grandiose villas.
12 hours: see the old and new sides of Shanghai
A visit to Shanghai would not be complete without seeing both its old and new sides.
Start by whistling through the former French Concession and Old Town on a vintage bicycle with Culture Shock Bike Tours (culture-shock-tours.com), whose guides take you to hidden villas from the 1920s and through labyrinthine alleys soon to be torn down.
A microcosm of old world Shanghai can be found at Fuxing Park, a French-style formal garden favoured by Mao that is filled in the morning with middle-aged and retired locals dancing and practising calligraphy. “Sharing places and experiences that are not easily accessible to everyone, be they expats or visitors is one of the most rewarding parts of my job,” says Culture Shock Bike Tours general manager Mike Assef, and the four-hour experience is definitely worthwhile.
Gain an overview of the city at the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Centre at nearby People’s Square. The sprawling model of Shanghai, spanning the third floor of the building, gives an indication of just how much the city has grown from when it comprised five square kilometres in the formerly walled Old Town.
Time permitting, every Shanghai itinerary should include a visit to the iconic Bund waterfront. Thanks to the efforts of Expo 2010 in Shanghai, the promenade has recently undergone extensive refurbishment and is the ideal place to admire the city’s renowned skyline. To appreciate the view away from the crowds, order a prosecco and sorbet cocktail at the VUE Bar at the Hyatt on the Bund (hyattonthebundsh.com) or splash out on dinner at the always spectacular Mr & Mrs Bund (mmbund.com). It’s run by chef Paul Pairet, and serves classic French dishes with touches of molecular gastronomy, including meunière truffle bread, jumbo shrimp in a citrus jar and long short-rib teriyaki.
Cross the Huangpu river through the Bund Sightseeing Tunnel to take in the sights of Lujiazui, Shanghai’s shiny new financial district. While it’s the quickest way to get from the west bank to the east, expect an underwhelming experience complete with outdated lighting effects.
Shanghai Tower (shanghaitower.com), the city’s newest attraction in Pudong, is also the tallest building in China, the second tallest in the world after Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, andhas the fastest lifts in the world that travel up to the 118th floor observatory at an ear-popping 18 metres per second. The panoramic views at the top more than make up for the long queues for tickets (not to mention the psychedelic tunnel ride), especially on clear days when the city appears to stretch in every direction as far as the eye can see.