Header photo courtesy of Zhang Kaiyv (via Unsplash)
“Shining, shimmering, splendid”—such is the city of Shanghai, one of the most developed metropolitan hubs in China, with towering skyscrapers, dazzling illuminations, and an impressive skyline. But have you noticed its history and well-preserved traditions, tucked in alleyways and in the older parts of the city? While two days are barely enough for you to explore Shanghai in its wonderful entirety, a quick whizz through the classic, the modern, and the very best of the “Pearl of the Orient” might just be perfect for your sweet weekend getaway.
With its European-style buildings, vintage shops, and a laidback atmosphere, the former French Concession area is a good place to start for those who wish to ease into the idea of Shanghai being a converging point for the East and West, as well as for the past and present. The French Concession was established in 1849, gradually expanding in the early twentieth century, and was passed over to the pro-Japanese parties in Nanjing in 1943. The area has been gradually redeveloped since the turn of the century, and it runs across today’s Huangpu and Xuhui Districts, lining the streets with elegant historical buildings and trees. While some roads can be occasionally busy, the French Concession is a rare oasis in the bustling Shanghai as it allows people to explore the region at their own pace—you might even spot local couples riding bicycles leisurely along the way.
One unmissable spot is the Wukang Mansion, a French Renaissance building located at the intersection of Wukang Road and Middle Huaihai Road. Designed by László Hudec, an esteemed Hungarian-Slovak architect, this wedge-shaped building has been home to many famous residents, including celebrities from the era of the Republic of China.
There is no excuse to leave souvenir-shopping for the last day when this golden opportunity lies just a few metro stops away. Prepare to squeeze your way through narrow but charming alleys in Tianzifang, a cluster of shops and stalls selling classic goods ranging from arts and crafts to local foods. On the other hand, there are also bars and pubs that sell dirt-cheap alcohol and shisha, so that tourists can get their fix of homely flavours and fun. This quarter can be disorientating with all its crowds and hidden paths, so you should probably stay close to your company after a few drinks.
After leafing through your fair share of magnets and key chains, the next destination is the Shanghai Old Street area, full of traditional stores and restaurants built in antiquated styles from the Ming and Qing dynasties. Although some parts are now a bit worn-out, others are better maintained. Upon entering the area, it is not hard to imagine the ‘Old Shanghai’ from a hundred years ago, prosperous and teeming with life—no wonder the Old Street remains a popular neighbourhood for locals and visitors till this day.
Towards the west end of the Old Street zone is the area surrounding Chenghuang Temple, occupied by grand Chinese classical buildings, which are now mostly local businesses selling gold, jewellery, Chinese medicine, and more. Be sure to try the steaming hot xiaolongbao (小笼包) from Nanxiang Mantou Dian (though be warned of the queues), or if you do not mind splurging a little, make your way to Lubolang, a restaurant that had served Very Important guests like Queen Elizabeth II in 1986 and former US president Bill Clinton in 1998.
For your stroll after a nice meal, head to the prestigious Yu Garden. Constructed in 1559, Yu Garden initially belonged to Pan Yunduan, a governor in the Ming dynasty. Unfortunately, the garden had then gone through repeated damage during wars over the past few centuries and was only repaired and opened to the public in 1961. While the beautifully maintained vegetation and ponds make Yu Garden an idyllic spot to visit both day and night, the garden is only illuminated in the evening, creating a splendid, ceremonious sight that contrasts with the more peaceful landscape during the day.
Powerhouses and contemporary art are two things that are not commonly associated together, but the Power Station of Art might prove otherwise. Standing tall by the Huangpu River, the Power Station of Art was once the Pavilion of Future in Shanghai World Expo 2010, and had functioned as the Nanshi Power Plant before 2010. Reopened in late 2012 as the first state-run contemporary art museum in mainland China, Power Station of Art has since been the host of the renowned Shanghai Biennale, with bi-annual themes such as ‘Social Factory’ (2014–15), and ‘Bodies of Water’ for this year and the next.
On the opposite riverbank is another museum that had opened on the same day as the Power Station of Art. More than just an Instagram photo op with its glorious façade, China Art Museum is one of the biggest art museums in Asia, with nearly 70,000 square metres of usable floor space housing about 14,000 artworks. Formerly used as the China Pavilion for Expo 2010, the building was revered as the ‘Crown of the East’ for its height, grandeur, and distinctive design. Like the Powerhouse, it became a museum soon after the Expo, and now displays mostly Chinese modern art in its collections. Permanent exhibitions include the multimedia version of ‘Along the River During the Qingming Festival’ (清明上河图) (1085–1145), a famed painting by Zhang Zeduan in the Song dynasty, as well as ‘The Bright Moon Rises from the Sea’, which tells of the origins and development of Chinese modern and contemporary art.
With less than 24 hours left in Shanghai, it is finally time to visit the Bund (外滩). Having spent much of the trip traversing the older parts of the city, the spectacular skyscrapers along the Bund may first appear mismatched with the traditional sights you have seen earlier. However, this postcard-genic skyline is the very demonstration of how far Shanghai has come since its war-torn days and the uniqueness of the city for preserving both history and modernity. After a little wander and perhaps a delectable afternoon tea at M on the Bund, head to the Shiliupu Wharf to board the Huangpu River Cruise, one of the best ways to take in the full glory of the waterfront. Hopefully, you would be able to catch the sunset during the 50-minute-ish ride, with the Shanghai World Finance Centre, Jinmao Tower, Yangpu Bridge, Peace Hotel, and more beginning to light up in the foreground.
On a side note, while there are many cruises available, remember to book in advance as there are usually not enough seats (unless you do not mind standing throughout the journey). Also, beware of scams that lead you to take public ferries instead of cruises. As scenic as the ferry rides are, they only cost ¥2 for a ticket, and not ¥200 which some scammers may try to charge you with.
Finally, you could become part of the incredible skyline yourself by entering the Shanghai Tower or the Oriental Pearl Tower. Situated in the commercial district of Lujiazui, the Shanghai Tower rises above all other skyscrapers as a 632-metre, 128-story giant. In fact, it is the second-tallest building in the world, and is home to the highest observation deck in the world, over 500 metres above ground. Even if you have a fear of heights, being able to enjoy a bird’s eye view over the glimmering ‘Paris of the East’ makes the experience well worth it. Another conspicuous landmark in the area is the 468-metre-high Oriental Pearl Tower, characterised by two big spheres and an antenna spire. This tower has a revolving buffet restaurant at its 267-metre level, and multiple observation decks, with one that has a glass floor on its edge for you to walk 259 metres above the earth below—this one is truly not for the faint-hearted.
Since observation decks usually close quite early (usually just after dinner), rooftop bars like Flair at The Ritz-Carlton, Pudong or nightclubs like Bar Rouge on the opposite bank may suit those of you with leftover energy, who wish to drink and dance the night away.
Visas: You will most likely need a travel visa to visit China, so research and plan ahead to ensure you have got one well before your journey. If you are a citizen of Hong Kong and Macau, you would need to have a valid Home Return Permit.
Transport: Having a physical or electronic Shanghai Public Transport Card could make travelling around the city much more convenient.
Opening times and special arrangements: Most museums and tourist attractions have specific arrangements and precautions due to COVID-19, and some are closed on public holidays or certain days of the week, so always keep an eye on their websites or social media for updates.
Emergencies: In case of emergency, the police can be reached at 110, the fire services at 119, and the ambulance at 120.