We visited Shanghai nine years ago on a guided tour, as part of a two-city swing along with Beijing. Being a guided tour, we really weren’t able to go around much, and our itinerary took us to too many shops, and we spent too much time on the road. Still, I got to like Shanghai, and I told myself that I will find a reason to be back, to tour the city on my own. The recent opening of Disneyland in Shanghai gave me that reason (or excuse).
This time around we stayed at the Howard Johnson Plaza, one of the more affordable western chain hotels right in the center of Shanghai. Sticking to a reputable western brand, I at least felt some guarantee that the front desk will be trained to deal with non-Chinese speakers, as judging by our previous visit, the language barrier in Shanghai can be quite considerable. And arriving from a red-eye flight in the wee hours of the morning, the last thing one needs is a misunderstanding at check in.
As it turns out, we couldn’t have chosen a better spot. The hotel’s front door practically leads to East Nanjing Road, Shanghai’s largest, busiest pedestrian-only shopping street. I consider this area the heart of the city, both in terms of geography, and in having practically everything you need. Shops and restaurants line both sides of the rather long street, and most are open late into the night. I also use this area to “center” myself while navigating the city, as I find it easier to get my bearings in the vastness of Shanghai if I consider my position relative to Nanjing Road.
To the East of East Najing Road is the Huangpu River, and on its western bank is The Bund. Looking like a piece of Europe that grew in China, The Bund is known for its long row of colonial era buildings facing the river. We did make a quick stop here before, on an evening, but this time around we walked all the way there from Nanjing Road in daylight. This narrow strip is Shanghai’s, or perhaps even China’s, most “fashionable” spot.
Right across The Bund, on the eastern bank of the Huangpu where the river gracefully bends, is Lujiazui, Shanghai’s business district. The skyline of Lujiazui is perhaps the most photographed icon of shanghai. Nine years ago, the Oriental Pearl Tower dominated the horizon on this side of the river, but it since has been surpassed by other taller, and equally distinctive structures like the oddly (or interestingly) shaped Shanghai Tower, and the World Financial Center (aka the Bottle Opener). Climbing up the upper sphere of the Oriental Pearl Tower gives a good bird’s eye view of the sprawl of the city, and thankfully, unlike before, the weather on this day was perfect, with no hint of fog or mist to obscure the view.
South and west of Nanjing Road is the expansive French Concession. As the name suggest, this was the occupied by westerners, mainly the French, during the time when the Qing dynasty was in the decline and western influence in China was at its height. The tree-lined avenues in this area provide a cool, if romantic, backdrop. Within the French Concession lies Xin Tian Di, a high-end, shopping area made out of renovated old houses known as Shikumen. With expensive shops and luxury names scattered around, Xin Tian Di is the place to be if you want to look “trendy”.
Further west of Xin Tian Di, still within the French Concession, is Tianzifang, another haven of shops in clusters of old brick houses. Unlike the elitist Xin Tian Di, Tianzifang is more bohemian, like a rebellious little sister of the former. Here you’ll find an eclectic mish-mash of bars, small restaurants and quaint shops. If you find Xin Tian Di too stiff for your tastes, then Tianzifang might be a good alternative to hang out on.
South of the Nanjing Road lies the Old Town. This was the location of the old, walled city of Shanghai. In contrast to the serene, tree-lined streets of the French Concession, the Old Town is a dense concentration of shops of whatever kind. Streets here are packed with people, and while relatively clean, it can be quite chaotic, with people crossing everywhere. Traffic signs are not only just suggestions here, but mere decorations. Still, people who take delight in buying knick knacks of every kind will have a field day in this part of the city, with rows upon rows of shops. The must sees in this area are the Yu Yuan Garden, and the Zigzag Bridge. Be prepared to box your away among the horde of tourists though.
If you have a child that’s interested in the sciences, particularly in the study of pre-historic life, then a few hours at Shanghai’s brand new Natural History Museum will be worthwhile. With life-size fossil replicas, and some pretty realistic reconstructions of dinosaurs, the place could be pretty awesome for a young mind. The museum may be undoubtedly geared more for locals, but it is friendly enough for non-Chinese speakers to be enjoyable and educational. The museum has its own station in the metro system, so it is pretty easy to get to.
So how was Shanghai this time around? Well, no doubt I enjoyed my stay much better this time. The city itself changed quite a bit. The trip from the airport was now much faster, courtesy of a very extensive expressway system that wasn’t quite what I remember it was nine years ago. The Shanghai Metro, which kept adding and adding lines as years went by, worked perfectly to a T. However if there is to be any disappointment, then it would be the language barrier. It’s the one thing that I felt hasn’t improved much since then. Communicating to locals here is much more difficult than say Tokyo, or Seoul, and people who are not used to making their way through unfamiliar places could find this a limiting experience.
Still, Shanghai…at least to me, is a beautiful city, and this trip only made me appreciate it even more.
*Photos taken October 2016.