Travel

A Weekend in Shanghai: With so much on offer, where do you begin?

by Matthew Walsh

Contributing Writer

If you’re dreaming of an escape from city life, then a 25-million-strong Chinese metropolis might not be the first place that springs to mind. But if you’re happy to explore beyond its admittedly crowded tourist sites, Shanghai offers pockets of tranquility backed up with charmingly dressed-down neighborhoods, awe-inspiring architecture, and some of the best food in Asia.

The best time to visit Shanghai is in spring, a bright and breezy sweet spot between the city’s smog-shrouded winter and shirt-soaking summer months. Frequent direct flights make the three-hour hop from Narita and Haneda airports into Shanghai Pudong International Airport every day. You’ll pay around ¥50,000 for the privilege.

Strict visa requirements for most travelers, however, make Shanghai a less whimsical travel destination than other East Asian cities. Allow at least three weeks to obtain a tourist visa or make Shanghai a stopover between Japan and a second destination outside of mainland China to qualify for the 144-hour transit visa, which can be applied for when you land in Shanghai.

To get into central Shanghai from Pudong International, either hitch a 70-minute ride on the airport shuttle bus for no more than 30 yuan (¥500) or take the 10-minute maglev ride to Longyang Road Station (50 yuan, ¥835) and transfer onto the subway for the rest of the journey. Official taxis from the airport to the city center cost around 200 yuan (¥3,300); ignore the unlicensed cab drivers who approach you at arrivals.

A brief stroll through time

Shanghai’s modern history — from colonial treaty port, to communist industrial hub, to economic powerhouse — makes it feel wealthier and more cosmopolitan than other Chinese cities, if occasionally a little aloof. One of the best ways to connect with Shanghai’s complex past is simply to wander through its streets and lanes, starting at the city’s waterfront promenade, the Bund.

If you can bring yourself to rise early — say, around 7 a.m. — and get yourself to the northern end of the Bund, your reward will be unparalleled views of the Lujiazui financial district with only a few tai chi practitioners for company. A symbol of Shanghai’s rapid economic development, Lujiazui was a nondescript residential area as recently as the early 1990s. Today, it’s home to the comically rocket-shaped Oriental Pearl Tower, the elegantly tiered Jin Mao Tower, and the Shanghai Tower, the second-tallest building in the world.

Stunning skyline: The view toward Lujiazui, Shanghai
Stunning skyline: The view toward Lujiazui, Shanghai’s global financial center. | MATTHEW WALSH

Turn around, however, and the architectural delights couldn’t be more different. The Bund’s collection of 19th- and early 20th-century landmarks once accommodated the consulates, banks and trading houses of the city’s colonial masters. Highlights here include art deco masterpieces like the Waldorf Astoria Shanghai on the Bund — famous for its charming, wood-paneled Long Bar — the Fairmont Peace Hotel and the Bank of China Building.

As the morning wears on and the Bund fills with tourists, you’ll want a change of scene. If you’re there on a weekend, one choice is to walk west along one of the darker, less grandiose streets off the Bund until you get to People’s Park. From around midday on Saturdays and Sundays, the park plays host to one of Shanghai’s most remarkable sights: the so-called marriage market, where the parents of the city’s singletons sit beneath umbrellas, displaying their children’s names, ages and salaries on placards, and try to match up their unwed sons and daughters. The vibe is less “arranged marriage” and more “Mom’s running my online dating profile.”

Alternatively, wander south past the Yu Garden tourism complex — a tacky tourist spot of limited appeal — and amble through the areas of Laoximen and Xiaonanmen. Both contain fine examples of shikumen, lane houses built in a combination of Chinese and Western architectural styles with distinctive gates at either end. Some of the specimens here date to the 1920s and ’30s.

Lane neighborhoods crisscrossed much of central Shanghai until the 1990s, but many have long since fallen into a state of chronic disrepair. Government-backed urban regeneration plans have listed many residences in Laoximen and Xiaonanmen for demolition, and many original residents have moved out. Despite the tracts of empty housing, the areas are still worth a visit; keen photographers will enjoy the chance to capture snatches of the slower-paced, more community-based living styles that once characterized much of Shanghai.

Getting around

Shanghai’s subway system is cheap and efficient. Single-journey fares start at 
2 yuan (¥33), but if you’re staying for more than a couple days, put a few dozen yuan onto a prepaid transport card, available at any subway station. The cards can also be used on most of the city’s buses.

Taxis in Shanghai are also cheap and plentiful, but the popularity of Chinese mobile payment and ride-hailing apps such as DiDi can make it difficult to flag down cabs in the street. The same goes for the city’s vast network of shared bikes — a great option if you’ve got a mobile-ready Chinese bank account, but not so convenient if you don’t.

You’ll probably need refreshments by this point, so jump on the subway to Shanghai’s former French Concession area, home to European-style mansions, art deco apartment blocks and all manner of quaint coffee shops. The 1984 Book Store on Hunan Road is catnip for Shanghai’s creative types, with its decent brews, sunlit garden and cabal of feline friends hanging around. It fills up rapidly on weekends, though, so a safer bet is Ban She — an airy, restored lane house off Nanchang Road — or the small but welcoming Capable, over on Jinxian Road. Spend your afternoon exploring the tree-lined boulevards of Xuhui and Jing’an districts, and don’t be afraid to duck down into the city’s roadside lane neighborhoods.

Shanghai’s golden era fell in the 1920s and ’30s — a time synonymous with fast living, good jazz and stiff drinks. Today, there’s no shortage of venues promising a one-night return to the glory days. Shanghai Brewery, on the throbbing Donghu Road, sells a variety of its own beers in art deco-themed surroundings. And in a city whose restaurateurs too often chase gimmicks over quality, the “secret” bar Speak Low nails both; enter through a shop named Ocho on Fuxing Middle Road, locate the hidden door and climb the stairs to a classic cocktail joint staffed by shirt-and-bowtie-clad waiting staff.

While away the rest of the evening with some jazz, funk and soul at Shake on Maoming South Road. If you’re part of the high-rolling clientele staying on the Bund, check whether your hotel bar has a house band.

Well stuffed

The people of eastern China have something of an obsession with stuffing ingredients inside various forms of dough, and perhaps their finest achievement is the xiao long bao — delicately steamed dumplings filled with meat, seafood and scalding broth. A local version containing a mixture of crab meat and roe — known as xiehuang tangbao — is tastier than the traditional pork variety. Jia Jia Tang Bao does them best, but it’s unlikely you’ll be disappointed with the local chain-restaurant fare. Lao Sheng Xing and Zun Ke Lai are both solid options.

For a hearty breakfast option, consider the humble shengjianbao, a steamed bun filled with pork, scallions and soup, liberally sprinkled with sesame seeds and pan-fried. Shengjianbao sellers are easy to spot: Their wide, blackened pans are a feature of cheap roadside restaurants throughout downtown Shanghai. A standard portion, or liang, consists of four dense-looking dumplings; dip them in vinegar, carefully nibble a hole in the top and slurp out the soup to prevent them from spurting the boiling liquid across the table.

Don
Don’t scald your tongue: Delicately steamed xiaolongbao dumplings at Lao Sheng Xing. | MATTHEW WALSH

If dumplings aren’t really your vibe, try Wei Xiang Zhai, a noodle joint on Yandang Road, just off one of Shanghai’s premier shopping streets. The tiny, decades-old restaurant is showing its age, but on weekends is still crammed with Shanghainese slurping at steaming noodles slathered in sesame sauce (ma jiang banmian) or chewing on deep-fried pork chops (zha zhu pai). Wei Xiang Zhai is noisy and unpretentious; expect to jostle your way to your table and be rushed out the door after the last bite. A leisurely brunch this is not.

Other Shanghainese favorites include fatty pork in a glistening savory sauce (hong shao rou), fragrant yellow croaker fried with scallions, and — if you can bear the odor — fermented tofu. Jian Guo 328, a solid mid-range eatery in the heart of the former French Concession, serves up the lot with a little more finesse than its competitors.

Accommodation

Comfortable Airbnb options are available near the former French Concession and the Bund for between ¥4,000 and ¥6,000 per night. Unless you’re targeting one of the Lujiazui financial district’s luxury hotels, you should make sure to stay in Puxi — the area of Shanghai west of the river. Hostels are plentiful in downtown Puxi districts like Xuhui, Jing’an, and Huangpu.

Foreign visitors are required to register with the local public security bureau upon arrival in China. Certified hotels and hostels will register your name on your behalf, but if you book an Airbnb, remember to ensure that the proprietor offers this service. Although residency rules are rarely enforced, a lengthy chat with Chinese law enforcement is nobody’s idea of a relaxing holiday.

Nonetheless, you’ll eventually tire of the slightly cloying sweetness of Shanghainese dishes and want to branch out. Most streets in the city center will have somewhere flogging fiery Sichuanese dishes, but reorient your taste buds farther east and consider the delicacies of Hunan province — Sichuan’s more complex, well-rounded cousin. Guyi serves up spicy smoked meat and veg in classy, white-tablecloth surroundings. It has the added advantage of being located on Fumin Road, leaving you within striking distance of some of the city’s best watering holes.

For Western and Japanese options, take a stroll down Dagu Road, or head to recently opened expat utopia Found 158, which boasts all manner of restaurants, bars and live music venues.

Well-earned peace and quiet

Let’s face it: If you’re seeking perfect solitude, Shanghai’s not going to fit the bill. However, you can get closer than you might think. Wandering down the quiet residential lanes that branch off the main roads in the French Concession is a good way to reset.

Shanghai hustle: Elderly residents of Shanghai sit out on the street in the shikumen (lane house) district of Xiaonanmen.
Shanghai hustle: Elderly residents of Shanghai sit out on the street in the shikumen (lane house) district of Xiaonanmen. | MATTHEW WALSH

Central Shanghai is woefully short of green space, a fact that, depending on the weather and time of day, can make Fuxing Park either paradise or hell on earth. Paradise is when you can sit on the grass, watch elderly residents practicing ballroom dancing or playing mahjong under the trellises, and idly wander over to snap the statues of Marx and Engels peering out over the well-kept flowerbeds. Hell is when half the city converges on the same patch of land on the same Saturday afternoon. Head there early to beat the crowds; from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on any half-decent spring weekend it’ll be packed.

For guaranteed green space, cross the river to the manicured, slightly soulless Century Park. If you’re still searching for that rural idyll, Chongming Island boasts forests, wetlands and lakes, with guesthouses and resort hotels to suit all budgets. Take Bus No. 2 outside Shanghai Science and Technology Museum metro station — the fare shouldn’t cost more than 12 yuan (¥200).

Matthew Walsh is the deputy head of features at Sixth Tone, a Shanghai-based online publication.

Getting around

Shanghai’s subway system is cheap and efficient. Single-journey fares start at 2 yuan (¥33), but if you’re staying for more than a couple days, put a few dozen yuan onto a prepaid transport card, available at any subway station. The cards can also be used on most of the city’s buses.

Taxis in Shanghai are also cheap and plentiful, but the popularity of Chinese mobile payment and ride-hailing apps such as DiDi can make it difficult to flag down cabs in the street. The same goes for the city’s vast network of shared bikes — a great option if you’ve got a mobile-ready Chinese bank account, but not so convenient if you don’t.Comfortable Airbnb options are available near the former French Concession and the Bund for between ¥4,000 and ¥6,000 per night. Unless you’re targeting one of the Lujiazui financial district’s luxury hotels, you should make sure to stay in Puxi — the area of Shanghai west of the river. Hostels are plentiful in downtown Puxi districts like Xuhui, Jing’an, and Huangpu.

Foreign visitors are required to register with the local public security bureau upon arrival in China. Certified hotels and hostels will register your name on your behalf, but if you book an Airbnb, remember to ensure that the proprietor offers this service. Although residency rules are rarely enforced, a lengthy chat with Chinese law enforcement is nobody’s idea of a relaxing holiday.

GET THE BEST OF THE JAPAN TIMES
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5