You would be forgiven for thinking that visiting Shanghai, with a population of more than 20 million people, could be overwhelming. A city that size would surely pass you by in a rush of buildings, cars, people and office blocks.
Yet within Shanghai there is plenty of space to experience some unique Chinese culture, from exquisite dumplings, to couples dancing in the park on a Sunday morning.
My arrival is boosted by a ride on a magnetic levitation train from the international airport into the city. The Maglev train reaches speeds of up to 400km an hour, but once inside you are barely aware of the speed. It just feels like an incredibly smooth journey into the city.
A good place to start exploring is the French Concession, which was a French settlement from 1849 until 1946. It is easy to see why some people refer to Shanghai as the Eastern Paris. Many of the expat community live here, and you’ll find wonderful shops and cafés which cater to a more Western lifestyle.
I stop at Farine, a café serving very strong coffee and French-style pastries, and take some time to stroll around the neighbourhood and enjoy the atmosphere.
In the French Concession you will find the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre, which features a collection of more than 6000 posters from 1940 to 1990. The art featured in this collection is simply wonderful, from a surreal cartoon style, to more black and red militaristic posters which came later in China’s history. The best thing about this museum is you can take home some amazing reproductions, either full size or as postcards.
In the dough
Dumplings are a big part of the cuisine in Shanghai. There are many restaurants which serve just dumplings, and one very popular franchise is Yan’s Fried Dumplings, which you can find all over the city. If you’re on a budget, these are a very cheap way of feeding yourself throughout the day. Another, more upmarket supplier of these dumplings is a restaurant chain called Din Tai Fung, which serves the best in Shanghai.
One of the best things to do in Shanghai is get into the street food. Many people start the day feasting on Jianbing pancakes – made right in front of you – which are basically a thin crepe filled with fried eggs and chilli sauce. Absolutely delicious and cheap as chips. I found mine at a stall of street food vendors in Xiangyang Road North. Some people are wary of street food, concerned it might make them sick, but you can now do safe street food tours with operators such as UnTour Shanghai (untourshanghai.com). This company has spent years building up a network of street vendors and local hole-in-the-wall restaurants, renowned for quality and hygienic offerings.
The local residents make good use of the many beautiful parks.
At the People’s Park, you can watch as Chinese parents negotiate settlements at the marriage market. They bring along pieces of paper which detail the age, height, job, income, education, family values, Chinese zodiac sign and personality of their child. They are then pegged onto bags or umbrellas for display.
Across town at Xianyang Park, Sunday morning sees locals engaging in t’ai chi and ballroom dancing. Others let their backs fall against the trunks of big trees to give themselves a massage.
Walk the walk
Once it gets dark in Shanghai, a visit to the Bund – a very popular riverfront boardwalk – is a must. Get a drink or dinner at one of the many bars and restaurants in the area. Mr & Mrs Bund, named one of the world’s 50 best restaurants, offers wonderful views. Described as a high-end French bistro, the standout dishes were toasted bread with truffles, the cucumber lollipops and cream-filled lemons for dessert.
App and away
Make sure you download the SmartShanghai app to your phone. You can use it to pull up your destination, translate it to Chinese, then show to your taxi driver.
Air New Zealand operate daily direct services to Shanghai from Auckland. One-way economy class airfares start from $862 per adult, including taxes. For further information on services to Shanghai, visit airnzewzealand.co.nz