East China Explored: Shanghai, Hangzhou and Suzhou

30 May 2019 by Business Traveller Asia Pacific
Shanghai Bund skyline panorama - Credit: iStock/yangna

Classy drinking and dining spots abound in the cities of Shanghai, Hangzhou and Suzhou, as do innovative event spaces.

Shanghai is adept at trading on its swashbuckling past, in particular the 1920s and 30s when Europeans and Americans operated their own concessions, building houses, offices, hotels and clubs in the architectural style of Britain, France and the United States.

In fact the Chinese port city’s most famous attraction by far – The Bund promenade – was built by the Brits. This series of stone edifices has remained largely intact, at least on the outside. Inside, things have taken a modern turn: some of the buzziest restaurants, bars and clubs are located within the buildings, many with terraces that offer stunning views over the Huangpu River towards the soaring financial district skyline of Pudong.

Mercedes Me Shanghai

There’s certainly no lack of places to go in the evening if you’re entertaining clients or simply looking to have an enjoyable night with friends. One new entrant is the Mercedes Me showroom on The Bund. The concept, which has already proved hugely successful in Beijing, is to take a basic car showroom and turn it into a glamorous and trendy venue, where visitors come for a drink, a meal or a coffee and – perhaps – think about making a down payment on a luxury limousine.

Shake, on the third floor of a restored downtown building, is themed along the lines of the kind of supper club Shanghai had during its earlier raucous era. Diners can enjoy the Asian-themed tapas before the late-evening live music begins, usually with a funk or soul theme.

The Xintiandi area, where the city’s resurgent nightlife began, now boasts the super-cool Highline restaurant-cum-bar, which also offers an outdoor terrace. The Cut, located in a mall, also offers fancy cocktails and a terrace view of the city.

For more casual get-togethers, Shanghai has a great choice of craft breweries, which offer a wide range of ales and simple, pub-style food. Two of the standouts are Boxing Cat Brewery and Liquid Laundry.

The compact size of Shanghai allows for an ambitious itinerary. Even when staying on the less-fashionable Pudong side it’s easy to reach the downtown Puxi area via tunnels and bridges.

The city’s generally mild weather (though summers can be searingly hot) permits terraces to be used for much of the year, allowing visitors to enjoy cocktails while taking in the dazzling neon show. The restaurant-terrace pioneer was M on the Bund, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year and is the brainchild of Australian restaurateur Michelle Garnaut.

It was the location for the first cover shoot of Vogue China and, in keeping with its cutting-edge reputation, the magazine’s millennial version, Vogue Me, recently held a glitzy bash at the very latest, and trendiest, Shanghai spot, Columbia Circle. The nation’s most promising young singers, dancers and musicians performed on stage at the achingly hip venue.

Other renowned companies, including BMW, have held bashes in the imposing building and grounds, which once housed a private club for expatriate Americans. For many years it languished, until a major renovation saw it fully restored – and adapted – for modern usage. A cluster of trendy restaurants, bars and coffee shops are housed in the complex, with various event options.

Columbia Circle is a one-off, originally designed by an American for Americans, but there are plenty of other restored mansions in the French Concession area that have been turned into restaurants and event spaces. Even almost-derelict warehouses on the fringes of the city have been tarted up and reopened for modern-day usage. One of the prime examples is Moganshan art district, also known as M50.

Hangzhou skyline at night - Credit: iStock/swyz

Say hello to Hangzhou

Hangzhou’s glorious lake is listed as a World Heritage site and the city is due to host the next Asian Games in 2022, and yet it is best known around the world as the home of digital shopping behemoth Alibaba.

The pioneering company’s presence in the city, the home of billionaire founder Jack Ma, China’s richest person, has been a significant factor in the recent explosive growth in high-end business-oriented hotels. If you are a retailer selling goods online to the world’s fastest growing consumer market – whether from China, or overseas – a visit to Hangzhou is essential.

Grand Hyatt Hangzhou

Hangzhou is easily accessible from Shanghai thanks to bullet trains that take around half an hour to make the journey, and the choice of hotels is impressive. The Hyatt group is well represented in Hangzhou. As well as the Park Hyatt Hangzhou, the former Hyatt Regency was recently upgraded to a Grand Hyatt, offering 388 rooms, more than 3,000 sqm of event space, including a rooftop terrace, and an award-winning Chinese restaurant, 28 Hu Bin Road, which showcases regional fare.

An alluring non-chain option is Xihu State Guest House. What it might lack in international service credentials is more than compensated for by the spacious individual villas, expansive green grounds and proximity to the lake. There is the option of booking stand-alone villas in the grounds, or spacious rooms in the main building. It’s also much quieter than the bustling downtown area.

A new addition to the hotel landscape is the Conrad Hangzhou, a 324-room property located in a 50-storey tower; and due to make its debut later this summer is the 344-room Kempinski Hotel Hangzhou.

Such is the increasing importance of Hangzhou that the city is certain to continue growing at an explosive pace given the Alibaba connection and the 2022 hosting of the Asian Games – only the third Chinese city to be chosen, after Beijing and Guangzhou.

Shangri-La Yuanqu

Spending time in Suzhou

Suzhou, the famed water town near Shanghai, has also developed a respectable collection of hotels. There is no shortage of cultural attractions in this pretty town which, like Hangzhou, is located within half an hour of Shanghai thanks to China’s high-speed train network.

Among recent openings in the city is the 303-room Shangri-La Yuanqu, housed in a retail and residential development, and featuring sweeping views of the nearby Jinji Lake.

Another renowned international chain, W, now has a presence in Suzhou. The W Suzhou uses traditional elements in its modern design, including seats inspired by the rock formations of the classical gardens found throughout the town.

Other options are the 437-room Intercontinental Suzhou, located on the waterfront promenade of Jinji Lake in the thriving Suzhou Industrial Park commercial leisure and residential district and, from next year, the Niccolo hotel on the upper floors of the 450-metre-high International Finance Centre.

City nightscape of Suzhou industrial park - Credit:iStock/JaCZhou

The city itself has a wealth of cultural attractions, including its UNESCO-listed classical gardens, some of which date back 2,000 years. Other spots with a long history include Shantang Street for crafts, Pingjiang Road with its stone bridges, nearby Luzhi Water Town, named after a famous Tang dynasty poet, and the massive Taihu Lake which has 90 islands. The general Sun Tzu, known for his classic treatise The Art of War – which is used in contemporary management training – wrote the book while living on Qionglong (Dome) Mountain.

A more contemporary attraction is the Suzhou Museum, designed by IM Pei, who was also responsible for the Bank of China in Hong Kong and the glass structure in the courtyard of the Louvre Museum in Paris.

Mark Graham

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