“You’d better hurry!” said the concierge.
We’d just returned to our hotel after at the end of our weekend in Shanghai. We wanted to see the Bund at night but had just been informed that the lights go out at 10:00 pm. Prompt.
With a mere 15 minutes before lights-out, we took a right turn out of our hotel and sprinted down the alley with several blocks to cover to reach the Bund. Not an easy task for a woman with a foot-long titanium rod in her leg and a repaired diaphragm, but I’m nothing if not tenacious.
The Bund at night is just one of the marvels of Shanghai during my Viking River Cruise “Imperial Jewels of China” tour. With a population of 24 million, it’s the third most populous city in the world. China is an epic trip, and while sites like the Great Wall and Terra Cotta Warriors are Bucket List worthy, Shanghai, the stunning hotbed of growth, culture, and diversity, was my favorite. The sparkling city exudes a vibe of vivacity and an interesting juxtaposition of ancient traditions and spectacular modern architecture.
- 1. Walk the Bund during the day.
- 2. Now go back to the Bund at night.
- 3. Wander around the Yuyuan Gardens
- 4. See the bell show in Old Shanghai.
- 5. Backstreet souvenirs.
- 6. Sample authentic street food.
- 7. Visit the Shanghai Museum.
- 8. Marvel at the acrobat show.
- 9. Ride the Maglev.
- 10. Get a bird’s-eye view of the city.
- 11. Eat French fries with a view.
- 12. Explore the French Concession.
- 13. Take in the Vibe of Tianzifang.
- 14. Stay at the Yangtze Boutique Hotel.
- 15. Take a photo with a local.
1. Walk the Bund during the day.
The heart and symbol of Shanghai is the Bund, an upscale riverside boardwalk that runs along the western bank of the Huangpu River. 26 colonial-era buildings of different western styles on one side lend a distinctly old European flavor. Lined on the other side of the Huangpu River is just the opposite – a sci-fi looking skyline.
2. Now go back to the Bund at night.
Yes, we did make it before the lights went out, with 5 minutes to spare. It was probably the most amazing five minutes in Shanghai. Across the Huangpu River, the uniquely-shaped high rise buildings were lit up in a dazzling array of neon colors. Oriental Pearl Tower, World Financial Center, Jin Mao Tower, and Shanghai Tower, dominate the skyline forming the iconic Instagram backdrop.
3. Wander around the Yuyuan Gardens
Yuyuan Gardens is an extensive Chinese garden in the northeast of the Old City of Shanghai. Located in the center of Old Shanghai, the rambling gardens are saturated with traditional pavilions, winding paths, rockeries, towers, bridges, grottoes and ponds dating back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) . Yu Garden is composed of six scenic areas: Sansui Hall, Wanhua Chamber, Dianchun Hall, Huijing Hall, Yuhua Hall, and the Inner Garden. The Exquisite Jade Rock is one of the three most famous rockeries in south China.
4. See the bell show in Old Shanghai.
On one of the narrow alleys in Old Shanghai, is the shop which has bellowing bells at various times of the day. You’ll hear it before you see it. Follow the sound and take a few minutes to listen to the way bells were played in ancient China.
5. Backstreet souvenirs.
Away from the bustling crowds, tucked into the alleys from Old Shanghai to the Bund is where you’ll find the best bargains. From silk and textiles, Chinese lanterns, fans, handmade dolls, or a propaganda poster, you can find just about anything.
The Bazaar in Old Shanghai is also a great place to find traditional hand-made souvenirs as well as the ubiquitous touristy gadgets. The vibrant bazaar dates back to the Ming Dynasty, and is a must-do for your weekend in Shanghai.
If you prefer more upscale shopping, head over to Nanjing Road, a six-mile string of international retailers, local shops, and department stores. Reminiscent of New York’s Fifth Avenue, it’s a crowded area, and though bargains are scarce, the frenetic atmosphere alone is worth the venture.
6. Sample authentic street food.
Shanghai is the nation’s food epicenter, so don’t miss the street food. It’s delicious. Some specialties include sheng jian bao (pan-fried dumplings), chai pan wonton, cong you bing (scallion pancakes), tofu flower soup, guo tie (pot stickers), stir-fried noodles, kebabs, and man tou (steamed buns). Spicy, sweet, oily, and pungent, there are so many choices, so be prepared for sensory overload! The best thing to do is to try a very small sample of a very lot of foodstuffs. If you’re daring, try the stinky tofu – a Chinese form of fermented tofu that has a strong odor. It’s also fun to take a food tour in Shanghai!
7. Visit the Shanghai Museum.
Located in the center of Shanghai in People’s Square, Shanghai Museum is considered one of China’s first world-class modern museums. It’s filled with more than 120,000 pieces of ancient Chinese paintings, sculptures, furniture, calligraphy, bronze, textiles and coins. There are live demonstrations of styles of ancient art-making such as painting and textiles.
8. Marvel at the acrobat show.
The classic Shanghai Acrobatic performers are considered amongst the best in the world. The show is popular with tourists and sells out fast. We were mesmerized by the death-defying feats and spectacular lighting. In fact, I was so spellbound, I actually forgot to take photos of some of the acts. I don’t remember that ever happening!
9. Ride the Maglev.
The Maglev, the fastest train in the world, hits a maximum speed of 267 mph – twice the speed of the average roller coaster, and does it without touching the tracks, using magnetic levitation technology.
10. Get a bird’s-eye view of the city.
Shanghai is a vertical city, so climb to the sky for an eye-popping view. Just opposite the Bund, the 1,535 foot high, pink spherical Oriental Pearl Radio Tower is one of the most recognized landmarks. The Pearl has an upper observation platform that includes an outside area with a 1.5-inch glass floor. The other building for observation is the modern twisting Shanghai Tower, which as of 2015 is the world’s tallest building (by height to highest usable floor – 127) with the world’s highest observation deck.
11. Eat French fries with a view.
One of my weaknesses is French fries, and along with ice cream, I try to find them in every country I visit. We hit the jackpot in finding a tiny-but-charming café with a third-story balcony offering an impressive view of the Oriental Pearl Tower and the Bund. Add a steaming mug of cappuccino…..heaven!
12. Explore the French Concession.
Different than the skyscrapers and glitz of modern Shanghai, the idyllic former French Concession encompasses leafy sycamore-lined boulevards, spotless flower-lined pathways, Colonial French architecture dates back to the late 19th century to mid-twentieth century, and in the 1920s, it was the richest residential area in Shanghai. Concessions were the lands given to individual governments and controlled by those governments. The Chinese took back the French Concession in 1943.
An entire day could be spent wandering the spotless streets in this large area in the middle of Shanghai. The Shanghai Arts and Crafts Museum and Former Residence of Dr. Sun Yat-sen are here, along with myriad dumpling sellers, bistros and tea houses. If you get to Fuxing Park early in the morning you can witness (or join) a tai chi class.
13. Take in the Vibe of Tianzifang.
Set in narrow alleys surrounded by architecture that were once stone-framed-door homes and factories, Tianzifang is now an artsy rabbit warren with hundreds of shops selling art, crafts, and silk, cafes, bars, and tea houses. Business owners joined together with homeowners to prevent redevelopment and preserve the original architecture. It’s less touristy and the place to go, frequented by trend-setters and ex-pats, and as such, we found the quality and prices here higher than in other parts of Shanghai.
14. Stay at the Yangtze Boutique Hotel.
The perfect place to stay for a weekend in Shanghai is the Yangtze Boutique Hotel, conveniently located in People’s Square, just steps from Nanjing Road, the main pedestrian shopping area of Shanghai, and one of the world’s busiest shopping streets. Founded in 1933, the hotel was dubbed “the third-largest hotel in the Far East,” and was a popular haunt for Shanghai movie stars and celebrities. The Art Deco interior design of the hotel includes a grand carved staircase and exquisite stained glass, artfully combined with traditional Chinese furnishings.
15. Take a photo with a local.
Everywhere in Shanghai, especially on the Bund, locals would ask if they could take their picture with us. Perhaps it was two blondes in the midst of a sea of dark hair, or maybe they were just friendly. Sometimes I’d have a baby thrust into my arms; other times it was a family portrait. One young man asked us to sing happy birthday on his video to his girlfriend. On another occasion, I pulled out a prop for a photo op, and within a few seconds, at least 50 Chinese had pulled out their cell phones. Click, click, click, click, they took photos of me holding the prop for around 20 seconds. Of course, I was glad to oblige and just stood there smiling. My proverbial 15 minutes of fame!
My weekend in Shanghai stole my heart. I did not have enough time. That sci-fi skyline is burned into my memory, and if I could beam myself up (Scotty), that’s where I’d go.
If you have more time than a weekend in Shanghai, it’s is the perfect base for exploring more of China. Here’s info about visiting Nanjing, here’s a fascinating day trip to the canal town of Tongli, here’s more info about a day trip from Shanghai to Hangzhou, and here are 12 cities in China you won’t want to miss!
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Disclosure: The author was honored to be the guest of Viking River Cruises and the Yangtze Boutique Hotel (a member of Historic Hotels Worldwide) during her stay in Shanghai, but as always, the opinions, reviews, and experiences are her own.