Shanghai is China’s most populated city, but with 15 million residents the true Shanghai surprise is how such a vast conurbation manages to be so very liveable.
Shanghai is located in eastern China beside the delta of the Yangtze River. Opened to foreign trade in 1842 at the end of the First Opium War, the city’s port became a centre of commerce between East and West.
Two treaties, signed in 1843 and 1844 allowed foreign nations to trade on Chinese soil, paving the way for large tracts of land to be designated as foreign concessions, primarily to the British, Americans and French. These concessions were controlled by the foreign governments for more than a century, until the Communist People's Liberation Army took control of Shanghai in 1949.
Shanghai was the most prosperous city in the Far East during the 1930s and has remained the most developed city in mainland China. Shanghai’s fascinating mix of East and West has ensured its present-day status as a dynamic and welcoming city for visitors from all over the world.
Central Shanghai can be separated into two distinct areas: the inner districts (known as Puxi or central Shanghai) on the western side of the Huangpu River, and Pudong on the eastern bank.
Pudong is a skyscraper laden financial and commercial district. There are numerous shops in Pudong, but with the exception of attractions such as the Shanghai Municipal Museum, the iconic Oriental Pearl TV Tower and the Jin Mao Tower, the district tends to cater more to the business traveller.
Most tourist attractions are located in Puxi’s inner districts. Huangpu is the traditional downtown area of Shanghai; here you’ll find cultural centre of the People's Square (with its Shanghai Museum, Grand Theatre and City Hall), the People's Square, and the bright lights of the East Nanjing Road shopping district. Within Huangpu is the Old City, the historic walled heart of Shanghai and home to the picturesque Chinese Pavilions of Yuyuan Gardens, the Gardens’ famous Huxingting Tea House, and the Taoist Temple of the City Gods.
For an insight into Shanghai’s colonial past, visit the Bund (‘embankment’). A stately street of old European buildings lines the west side of Zhongshan Dong Yi Lu and features a mix of architectural styles. Highlights include the former British Consulate, Customs House, and the former Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank building. A raised promenade on the east side of the road allows for a pleasant stroll along the river and marvellous views of Pudong’s modern skyline – especially at night.
In the middle of the 19th century many of Shanghai’s districts were designated as ‘concessions’ to Western powers. In addition to imbuing the city with a cosmopolitan vibe, it has ensured that modern-day Shanghai serves everything from pasta to Peking Duck.
Some of the best dining options can be found in the Luwan area of the French Concession, Jing An and Xuhui, while for upscale dining with incredible views, few places beat the Bund. East Nanjing Road is a mostly pedestrianised shopping area which also features numerous restaurants with delicious food and good service.
Shanghai also has five food streets, lined with Chinese restaurants. Huang He Lu, Wujiang Lu and Yunnan Lu are located in Huangpu, while Yuyuan Zhi Lu is in Jing An and the relatively upmarket Zhapu Lu is in Hongkou. Whilst these areas are fantastic for authentic Shanghainese cuisine, very few of the restaurants will have an English menu or English-speaking staff.
Nightlife in Shanghai is lively. Xin Tian Di is the hottest new entertainment district, favoured by tourists and residents alike. A shopping, eating and entertainment area in the former French Concession, the old-meets-new district of Xin Tian Di is busy every night of the week. The Bund and the streets of Tongren Lu and Hengshan Lu also bustle with activity.
Two hours by car from Shanghai is Zhou Zhuang, an ancient town built on eight islands interconnected by bridges and waterways. Often described as the Venice of the Orient, Zhou Zhuang is a picturesque town of cobblestone streets, narrow canals and stone bridges, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.