Whether you love luxury or are budget-savvy, Shanghai is a great city to visit. From the gorgeous architectural beauties that line the Huangpu River, the sprawling and vibrant urban park, to the pedestrianized shopping strip, down to that shop-around-the-corner serving delectable age-old recipes of steaming meat buns, Shanghai is chock-full of surprises just waiting to be discovered.
Shanghai is the most populous and most developed city in China and is supposedly an expensive city. However, it is not as expensive as Beijing, the capital city. The 2011 Cost of Living Survey conducted by British manpower resource distribution solution supplier ECA International ranks Shanghai as the ninth most expensive city in Asia and 47th in the world, next to Beijing. Caojiong Zhang, export manager for Northern Pacific, Glen Raven Inc. moved to Shanghai for work and to get to know his homeland better. “Also the lifestyle [here], the pace suits me better.” To experience this lifestyle of Shanghai is indeed a good reason to come for a few days or perhaps, even for longer. But how expensive is expensive?
Then and Now
Shanghai was once a fishing and textiles town that grew in importance not only because of its favorable port location but also because it was one of the first ones that opened to foreign trade. Thanks to the Treaty of Nanjing, Shanghai was already recognized as the largest and richest city in Asia as early as the 1930s. It is also acknowledged as the birthplace of everything considered modern in China; it has an ever-changing cityscape with developments happening in every zone, including that at the Shanghai Hongqiao Economic and Technological Development Zone, and a culture that is up-to-date with the latest in fashion and technology.
In this age, getting to Shanghai is easy. It is now being served by two airports: Pudong as the main international gateway and Hongqiao catering mostly to domestic flights. Moving around the city is also easy as one can rely on the Metro for fast, cheap, airconditioned, and fairly user-friendly travel. Most of the signs and station arrival announcements are now in English, and self-serve automated ticket booths are everywhere, thus allowing non Mandarin-speakers an easy mode of purchasing tickets. The best way to get around town is through a combination of trains and taxis.
Huangpu River runs through Shanghai and divides it into two major districts: Puxi and Pudong. Puxi is home to old Shanghai, while Pudong, the skyscraper-laden financial and commercial district on the east bank of the Huangpu River, is recognizable to many, as its newer, sci-fi-reminiscent skyline is usually seen on postcards. Both districts have beautiful collections of buildings and structures of various architectural styles. Shanghai is that perfect intersection point for a visual and experiential feast on modern meets traditional cultures. Interestingly, about a hundred kilometers west of Shanghai or a 45-minute ride on the bullet train, one sets foot on Suzhou, revered as Venice of the East.
The Puxi Loop
highlight the stunning contrasts between traditional Chinese and Western cultures, Puxi showcases how Shanghai was able to weave them together into a character uniquely its own. Even with the rampant redevelopments, the old city retains some buildings of traditional styles. A good example would be that of the City God Temple, right at the center of Old Shanghai. This place is a breathtaking showcase of Chinese architecture and was historically a place of worship for Taoists (quite ironic when one sees the current state of commercial activities). An elaborate, traditional Jiangnan-style garden called Yuyuan Garden is found in this area as well. Restored during the Opium Wars and also called the Yu Garden, this was once a private garden from the Ming Dynasty.
Besides enjoying the remarkable architecture here, you can get all kinds of souvenirs at City God Temple—from traditional-looking pieces as well as the more modern cultural baubles that carry the face of Mao Zedong—at prices you better bargain for. There are also restaurants and food stalls that sell traditional Chinese fare as well as fusion cuisine. They say that the must-eat in Shanghai is xiao long bao, a small steamed bun usually confused as a dumpling that comes with boiling hot broth with ground meat, then enveloped in a thin shell. While there are plenty of restaurants here that serve this dish, some have found ways of jazzing it up, serving bigger buns that can accommodate a straw to safely sip the broth. Snails are also a big hit here. If you have a sensitive stomach and yet want to be adventurous, make sure to bring your own medicine. It is always better to be ready.
Puxi is also home to a number of architecturally distinctive buildings that have sprung up in Shanghai. Notable examples of contemporary architecture on the Puxi side include the Shanghai Museum and the Shanghai Grand Theatre in the People’s Square area. The People’s Square is the center of downtown Shanghai, a stop of the Metro Station (so getting there is easy), and separates Nanjing Road into West and East. From the People’s Square to anywhere in this tourist destination, be prepared for a flood of people. The good news is that there are lots of shopping and eating places all around. On your way to the Bund, try Zhan Lao Da Fang, a brand established in 1899 that serves meat buns that are worth the long queue.
The terminus when you walk the entire length and more of the Nanjing Road towards the east is the Bund, perhaps the most famous tourist spot in Shanghai. A must-see, it has dozens of historical buildings of the early 20th century architecture and highlights the fact that Shanghai has one of the world’s largest number of art deco buildings. This riverfront, which once housed numerous foreign banks and trading houses, has undergone a major reconstruction and reopened to the public in March 2010. It is also from the Bund that one sees the view of the Pudong’s futuristic skyline.
If you intend to stay at the Puxi side and do not really care for the brands at Nanjing, head out to the Shanghai South Bund Material Market. Ride the Metro and get off at Nanpu bridge. From the station exit, make a left and then another left on the traffic light. You are looking for Luijabang Road, which should be on your right after about 200 meters. The Shanghai South Bund Material Market houses three floors of tailors and their materials like silk, cashmere and wool. There are also tons of bargain clothes that are all-original and not mere knock-offs of Western brands, as well as tailor-fit clothes made for you overnight at this market. The area around Luijabang Road is also a quaint, old-style Chinese neighborhood perfect for plain exploration. It is also near the World Expo Site.
purchase tickets and a service will take you to the embarkation area at the end of the promenade. In addition to the historical buildings of the Bund, the tour also highlights Pudong’s display of skyscrapers, many of which are ranked among the tallest in the world. Three of these are the Oriental Pearl Tower, the Jing Mao Tower, and the Shanghai World Financial Center. The Oriental Pearl Tower is one of the tallest structures in Asia, providing visitors with city views and an addition of free light shows at night. The Jin Mao Tower is the second tallest tower in Shanghai, only a few storeys shorter than the tallest, Shanghai World Financial Center. The latter is the tallest skyscraper in China and the third tallest in the world. After the tour, you can also head out to Pudong and shell out a few hundreds of Chinese yuan to have access to the viewing area of the Shanghai World Financial Center or perhaps for coffee at the Park Hyatt Shanghai, which occupies floors 79 to 93 of the building, making it the second highest hotel in the world.
Suzhou: A Side Trip
Suzhou is one of the oldest cities in China and is also often called Venice of the East, thanks to its abundance of canals. Famed for its beautiful gardens, gorgeous stone bridges, and majestic pagodas, Suzhou has successfully managed to retain much of its traditional Chinese look and essence. It is one of the top 24 historical and cultural cities in China, with the classic gardens of Suzhou earning a place in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
To get to Suzhou, head to the Shanghai Railway Station (not to be confused with the South Station) and get yourself a ticket to Suzhou. The bullet train is the fastest way to get there and for the time you will be able to save, is reasonably priced. If you need to be back to Shanghai on the same day, it is better to buy your return ticket once you arrive in Suzhou
destinations you want to go to in Chinese, either stored as a file in your phone or printed on paper. There are more than 60 gardens in Suzhou to explore, but if you’re pressed for time, you must at least see the Lingering Garden. This Chinese landscape garden design masterpiece integrates art, nature, and ideas to create ensembles of great beauty and peaceful harmony.
If you are rather pressed for time, then head out just to Tiger Hill, the most popular destination in Suzhou. It is known for its natural beauty as well as its historical sites. The hill is named such because it apparently looks like a crouching tiger. The Yunyansi Pagoda stands on this hill and is the symbol of ancient Suzhou. With its seven floors and eight sides, this brick pagoda was completed in 961 AD and was put in the protection list of national historical relics in 1961. The hill has been a tourist destination for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, as is evident from the poetry and calligraphy carved into rocks on the hill. There is also an amazing exhibition of penjing, which are potted landscapes and miniature trees and rockery created in the Chinese art of growing plants and trees that are kept small by skilled pruning to create the complex illusion of age (Japan’s bonsai is derived from penjing).
There is an old street that runs along the grand canal called Shan Tang Jie. The old Shan Tang Jie was originally built in year 825 and has thereby experienced about 2000 years of the elements. You can choose to explore this charming village, walking on century old pavements and boarding a boat along the canal. There are arts and crafts stores as well as dining establishments.
Like most cosmopolitan cities, coming to Shanghai is never a bad idea as no matter what season; there will always be tons of things to do and places to see. If you can plan in an extra day for Suzhou, so much the better. The entire experience of modern China juxtaposed against ancient Chinese gardens just a train-ride away is–frankly— quite quite sublime, and something that quenches a traveler’s thirst for new finds.
If like us, you would want to spend your last few hours in Shanghai hanging out at the Bund, we have the perfect place for you. Have a meal or a few drinks at the Atanu Café and Lounge Bar, nestled within the Bund Observatory. It is a quiet place within a heritage structure that looks out to Pudong (just in case you haven’t had enough of this world-famous skyline). You also do not need to worry about missing your flight as there is the Maglev train that can take you to the airport on top of the experience of riding a train powered by magnetic levitation technology. All you have to do is take the Metro at Nanjing Road and get yourself to the Longyang Road Metro Station. This is where you switch to the Maglev Line. It operates until 9:30 PM daily and costs ¥50 (US$7-8) one way (¥40 if you show your flight ticket) and ends between Terminals 1 and 2 of the Pudong International Airport.
Foodie Splurge: If you want to splurge on a few places, Zhang highly recommends the Sunday Brunch at the Marriott. For the authentic Shanghai nightlife experience at the Bund, he recommends Mr. and Mrs. Bund as well as Mr. Willis.
Niceties: Admittedly, you can learn just about any phrase to let someone know what you mean. However, understanding what they say back to you is another thing. The following, however, are the all-purpose greetings you should try to keep on using: “ni hao”(hello) and “xiexie” (thank you).