Once a tiny fishing village, Shanghai is a thriving metropolitan hub with an incredible history. Here, East meets West, old marries new, and the running joke is that the city is constantly under construction. With a population of nearly 24 million, the various quarters give this mega-city a surprisingly neighborhoodlike feel. The incredible diversity of people is reflected in the richness of the culture, cuisine, and architecture. Shanghai is a city on the go, so before you get swept away in the flow or jostled out of your place in line, be sure to find a spot to slow down, plant your feet, and take it all in.
While every season has its charms and challenges, spring and fall are simply stunning. The weather just begs you to come out and stroll around the sun-dappled streets of the former French Concession or find a rooftop perch from which to take in the city. As the weather becomes more unpredictable, it’s wise to check the forecast, but don’t worry, if you get stuck in the middle of a downpour, umbrella sellers have a knack of appearing out of nowhere to peddle rain gear.
Shanghai has two airports, Pudong and Hongqiao, both of which are now connected by metro (Line 2/Green). When flying into Pudong, you can chop considerable time off your trip downtown by jumping on the maglev and either taking the metro into town from there or grabbing a taxi to your final destination. Buses also run from both airports to various points in the city center at frequent intervals (cost is 12-30 RMB, or less than $5), just check the signs at the airport. Taxis are an easy option, but it helps to have your destination printed in Chinese if you don’t speak any Mandarin.
Shanghai has a fabulous public transportation system, making it quite easy and affordable to traverse the city. Explore Shanghai is a handy way to find stations as well as calculate time and cost. You can pick up a Shanghai Public Transportation Card at the service counter in any metro station for a refundable deposit of 20 RMB. These cards, once topped up, can be used to pay for buses, metro rides, ferries, the maglev, and even taxis, saving you from digging for loose change as you travel. Taxis are also easy to catch and relatively affordable. Download Hi Shanghai before you go—it offers “taxi cards” for each listing that you can show to your driver.
Start the morning off at the Bund. Get there in time to catch the sunrise and stroll along the promenade to see the fan dancers, the backwards walkers, and the groups practicing tai chi. There’s something magical about this waterfront stretch in the mornings. Take in the beauty, the culture, and the history of the city, all while gazing at the growing skyline across the river.
A veritable melting pot of cultural influences, the restaurant selection is as diverse and vibrant as the city’s residents. From Michelin star–rated chefs to mom-and-pop, hole-in-the-wall eateries and food carts lining street corners after the sun sets, you can easily eat your way through the city several times over. And while you can dine on authentic Turkish, Russian, or Argentinean feasts, don’t leave the city without sampling China’s various regional cuisines. From sweet to spicy to salty to… well, bizarre, the diversity of the country is reflected in its food, and really, you haven’t experienced China until you’ve tried the stinky tofu.
Check the listings in Smart Shanghai because hardly a day goes by without a show—ballet, theater, art exhibitions, or music. And for a soulful evening as iconically Shanghai as it is global, consider attending one of the nightly Chinese Acrobatic Shows or catching live jazz at the Cotton Club or House of Blues and Jazz.
Along with fabulous music festivals in the spring and late summer (Midi, Strawberry, JZ), Shanghai also has numerous “international” cultural gatherings such as the Shanghai International Fashion Cultural Festival (March 2014), the International Film Festival (June 2014), and the International Fitness Festival (Nov 2104).
A few words of Chinese will get you far and are usually always appreciated. For your own sanity, avoid the metro at rush hour. When at any market, always bargain—always. You don’t need to tip in Shanghai. Dip your dumplings in vinegar, they’re better that way.
Christy is a freelance travel writer and owner of a small Branding and Communications business, Black Bear Ink. When she's not exploring new places or getting lost in her backyard, she's practicing the art of storytelling on Lane Letters