From dancing fountains and replica temples to haunted bridges and sacred rocks, China’s most populous city is full of surprises. Felicity Cousins goes exploring.
1. The Bund
The Bund runs along the west bank of the Huangpu River and is lined with grand marble buildings from colonial times, when the stretch was home to the headquarters of Shanghai’s financial institutions. Locals now view the Bund as the Champs-Elysées of Shanghai, and designer stores and high-end restaurants have all settled here over the years. Walk along the promenade and you’re likely to find locals hiding from the sun under umbrellas and children playing with balloons and eating ice cream.
The area has prime views across the river to the new financial centre of the city, Pudong, whose cluster of imaginatively shaped skyscrapers includes the Oriental Pearl Tower (also known as the TV Tower) and the new Park Hyatt Shanghai. This houses one of the world’s highest restaurants, 100 Century Avenue, on the 91st floor.
If you want to explore Pudong, there is no better way to get there than under the river through the Bund Tourist Tunnel. This fairground-style 647-metre ride is a psychedelic journey complete with strobe lights, flashing laser beams, pumping techno music, and blow-up paper people who appear from the tracks as the wind races down the tunnel. It costs ¥30 (£3) one-way or ¥40 (£4) return.
2. People’s Square
From the Bund you can walk along Nanjing Dong Lu – one of the busiest streets in the city, all neon lights and big-brand shops – to People’s Square. This area was the original heart of the city, the central point being the Park Hotel, which was built by the architects who designed the Louvre Museum in Paris. People’s Square used to be a racecourse when the British introduced horse racing to Shanghai. Now the area has been turned into a peaceful oasis, Renmin Square, which houses some of the city’s better museums. The Shanghai Museum (shanghaimuseum.net) is on the south side of the park and is well worth a visit. Walk through the gardens to the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Centre. When I did, the fountains were dancing in time to some piped classical music.
3. Urban Planning Exhibition centre
If you want to learn about Shanghai’s past and its ever-surprising future, then don’t miss the Urban Planning Exhibition Centre. Inside are astonishing photographs and videos tracing the rapid progress the city has made from the trams of 1908 to the super-modern Pudong of today.
On the second floor, taking up the entire level, is a fascinating model of how the city is expected to look in 2020. It’s frighteningly futuristic and the miniature white buildings are neat and tidy, with no sign of the old back streets or traditional teahouses. However, walking around this clean plastic vision gives you a good idea of the shape of the city. There is also an Imax cinema experience that takes you on a virtual tour, flying down the city’s pristine, amazingly traffic-free streets, and swooping in between skyscrapers and over gleaming monorails. Open daily 9am-5pm, entry ¥40 (£4).
4. Old Town
After seeing this squeaky-clean vision of Shanghai’s future, it’s a good contrast to visit what is left of the city’s past – a past that is under increasing threat as the cranes and builders draw ever closer. The old town is south-east of the Shanghai Museum and People’s Square, in the direction of the river. Even during the colonial era this area remained wholly Chinese, and was known as China Town. Today, it is the only part of the city where you can still see tiny alleys (hutongs) and traditional Chinese homes.
For souvenirs, head to the touristy Yuyuan area, which is filled entirely with replica temples and teahouses, and watch fast-fingered chefs making xiaolongbao (pork dumplings). It’s a mesmerising display as each chef repeats their tasks with lightning speed and accuracy. I ate them at the Lubolang Restaurant, across the square from the Zig-Zag bridge, under which huge koi ruffle the waters. The bridge, which was designed in a jagged shape to ward off evil kneeless spirits, leads to an expensive traditional teahouse.
5. Yuyuan Gardens
Not far from the chattering hoards of shoppers are these delightful ancient gardens. You won’t quite escape the crowds, but the atmosphere is more relaxing than in the alleyways on the other side of the walls. Created in the 16th century, the gardens were designed in typical Chinese style with miniature rockeries representing mountain ranges, walls decorated with dragons and small temples linked by bridges over pools of carp.
The gardens have gone through several changes over the past 400 years, but their peaceful essence remains and wandering through the temples (with original Ming Dynasty rosewood furniture) is a treat. It’s here you can also see the famed Exquisite Jade Rock. It was originally intended for the Summer Palace in Beijing but the ship sank on its way and when the rock was recovered it was brought to Shanghai instead. The Exquisite Jade Rock is peppered with holes so if water is poured in it creates a fountain effect. Entry is ¥40 (£4).
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