A Guide To Shanghai – The Truth About Travelling In A Communist Country
August 3, 2015
So you’ve headed to the waterfront and stared out at the stunning skyscraper studded skyline of Shanghai… now what though?
This bustling city with over twenty one million inhabitants is perhaps best known for being a booming centre of business but it’s definitely not just a city of suits! With more and more tourists heading to Shanghai each year to see the beating metropolitan heart of mainland China, what should you expect to see and do in this vibrant city?
Slightly Overwhelmed By The Hustle And Bustle?
If you’re initially overwhelmed by the hectic atmosphere of the busy city then you should definitely head to some of its more tranquil spots. These hidden sanctuaries make you forget that you’re in such a large city and can often transport you to another time completely.
Yuyuan garden (pronounced yew-yun) is probably the best example of this escapism. Built during the Ming Dynasty in 1577, this building was home to a famous government officer Pan Yuduan. The five acres of land is split into different gardens and houses for entertaining guests, old living quarters for the owner and homes for his concubines. Walking through these gardens makes you feel as though no time has even passed, with the buildings having been so well preserved or restored you’d think it was still 1577! As a bonus you can see exactly how people of this era lived whilst enjoying the plants, wildlife and sculptures. It’s only 30-40CNY (the equivalent of £3-4) to enter and you pay on the door. Its best to head here first thing to avoid crowds and takes around two hours to explore.
Top tip: The courtyard in the final section of the garden was cleverly designed to act as a giant foot massager. Take off your shoes and walk along the different squares of cobbles for an authentic Chinese foot massage!
Alternatively why not take a boat trip along the Bund to appreciate the skyline and views of both sides of the river? These boats can be busy but, if you go fairly early in the morning (before about 10am) you’ll miss the crowds that hit later in the day.
However, for a more immersive experience, travel around “Shanghai’s Venice” in the Zhujiajiao district (which is pronounced jew-gee-ah-gee-ow if you want to attempt it!) A boat trip around these narrow stretches of river and underneath bridges will take you past locals, more scenic routes and show you a very different side of Shanghai to the glossy waterfront presented along the Bund. Certain tours will also take you to cultural stops such as Quanhua Art Hall and Y-Art Gallery along the way, making it well worth your 80CNY (£8) ticket!
Enjoy The Spectacle
Something that China arguably does best is to put on a show (anyone remember the 2008 Olympics?) Whether it be hypnotic lights that flash alongside buildings, the New Year’s festivities or impressive theatre performances – you always know you’re in for a treat!
A spectacle that’s easy to miss is the Shanghai acrobatic troupe, as their theatre is hidden within the maze of alleys and small roads of a residential area. However, your taxi or guide will know exactly where it is and it’s worth the forty five minute drive from the city centre. Prepare to be amazed by circus style feats (without the animal cruelty) as performers contort themselves into impossible shapes, attempt dazzling acrobatic feats and even ride upside down in motorcycles…
If you find you haven’t got time to attend the show in the evening then keep your eyes peeled as you transfer from the airport (or port) to the city. The maze of roads will make spaghetti junction look like a breeze to navigate and the neon lights that light up the roadways make you feel as though you’re flying through a slow paced roller coaster…
The brave amongst you have to go to Nanjing Road and face the crowds. It’s the busiest street in Shanghai… and one of the busiest in the world! Imagine Oxford Street in London during Christmas time and you start to understand the sheer volume of visitors! Don’t let that put you off though if you want to experience the real hustle and bustle of fast paced city life. This pedestrianised street has some of the best shops in the city as well as a century old outdoor market in the centre. The 3.4 mile long stretch also hosts five star hotels, first class restaurants and a range of speciality goods such as silk and tea.
With the explosion of wealth in Shanghai over the last thirty years, shopping has become more and more popular and Nanjing road isn’t the only arena to explore this. After all, the locals of Shanghai aren’t jokingly called “little capitalists” by their neighbours for nothing.
Market browsing is best achieved in Old Shanghai where you can haggle for anything and everything. Shanghai is famous for its silk so if you want to buy some make sure you go to a reputable seller rather than a corner stand that may try and trick you into buying polyester. The Shanghai Carpet Factory may be out of your price range if all you want is a few scarfs but if you have the cash to splash on beautiful tapestries, clothes or carpets then here is your best bet. If in doubt when visiting a silk dealer, if the price seems too good to be true – it probably is!
China is famous for its knock offs of famous designer clothes and bags and if you’re interested in these you should head to the Science and Technology subway station where you’ll find a fakes market. Still keep an eye out for a bargain though – a fake is a fake after all. And of course, you can always visit the Science and Technology museum afterwards!
Top tip: The vendors will always expect you to haggle by at least half of the original price, so if the prices start high then don’t worry. Most vendors will have fairly good English or will at least understand English numbers so you can always write prices down if there is a language barrier.
Catch Some Skyscrapers
Skyscrapers dominate the Shanghai skyline and the Bund will always be the most iconic part of the city. The old colonial buildings that face the river are opposite the modern pillars of steel and glass on the Pudong side of the river, providing a perfect Chinese example of ying and yang.
Our top tip has to be to watch the lights slowly turn on in the early evening but also to watch them turn off. Between 11 and 12pm the lights are turned off (to preserve electricity) but these buildings are still silhouetted against the skyline and make for some fantastic arty pictures (if you have the time and aren’t too tired).
However, don’t just take pictures of what you are looking at – explore some of these skyscrapers as well! The Oriental Pearl Tower (iconic for its silhouette of speared pearl baubles) has an observation platform near the top – 259m from the ground. For those of you with vertigo or a fear of heights, relax in Mingzhu Park next door with a Green Tea flavoured ice lolly and look up at the building instead!
Soak Up The Culture
As well as the modern features that tower over the city, there is a lot of history and culture to soak up in Shanghai.
Head to the Jade Buddha Temple for a glimpse of the famous sculptures made entirely from rare white jade. There are two Buddha statues inside, one seated and one lying down, and the seated one is encrusted with jewels and is said to weigh a thousand kilograms! The temple currently has around seventy monks living there and if you visit on a Sunday you’ll be able to witness them praying. There is even a vegetarian restaurant attached to the site which serves snacks such as take away wontons to tourists if you get peckish.
If you feel like you want to see something a bit different then why not visit the French-Chinese quarters? Known as the “Shanghai French Concession” the French area of town is a bizarre mix of western and eastern cultures. Pick a small European restaurant in its streets for some international cuisine and you’ll feel as though you’re sitting in a leafy suburb of Paris. There’s a thriving arts and crafts neighbourhood here as well as hip cafes, bars and odd bursts of European pop culture. It has to be seen to be believed.
The foodies amongst you should then head to Old Shanghai for a taste of the local cuisine. Shanghai is famed for its liquid dumplings (where you can literally drink the inside with a straw) as well as its steamed crab and dim sum. Stick to chain restaurants if you don’t trust the food from street vendors but even these will provide satisfying and tasty local specialities.
Shanghai has something for everyone, and is one of Asia’s busiest and most vibrant cities. Take a trip there and you’ll surely be amazed and awed at its size, culture and grandeur.
Will you put Shanghai on your bucket list? Have you visited there before?
Let us know in the comments below!
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