Shanghai: no other Chinese city has a name so evocative. One hundred years ago it symbolized all there was about adventure and the mysterious East. Today it is thought of as the financial powerhouse driving forward the rapid development of what is potentially the world’s largest economy. By Chinese standard Shanghai is a young city. But its history is as florid and fascinating as any of its millennia-old contemporaries. The modern city has an undeniable energy and presence to it. Frenetic, hectic and fast-paced, with a mixture of the ultra-modern, the old and the colonial, Shanghai is a perfect counterpoint to the well-ordered and disciplined political capital of Beijing.
It should be noted that Shanghai has very little in the way of tourist attractions. There are some sights that are worth checking out, but nothing that stands out as essential. Some tourists will spend their first day walking the Bund, then strolling the French Concession and finding themselves at a loss for what to do next. But Shanghai is not merely a business city as many miffed travelers might report. It is simply a city you explore and experience, rather than a city where you tick sights off a list. Wandering the varied districts of the city is the best way to see and discover Shanghai. To enjoy Shanghai requires imagination. Notwithstanding the informative little plaques that adorn historical buildings, Shanghai’s fascinating past is not spelt out for you. It’s something you need to feel and envision yourself.
Stand on the Bund watching boats sail down the Huangpu River late on a misty night or early morning and allow your imagination to soar. Walk the Bund and the surrounding streets and stroll through the French Concession and you can picture the debauchery of the Whore of the Orient’s opium-hazed, violent past and the characters who inhabited it: soldiers, soldiers of fortune, gangsters, drug addicts, prostitutes and, looming above it all, the ultra-rich and powerful.
Exploring the alleys north of the French Concession and around Suzhou Creek is an entirely different experience. There’s no need to use your imagination here: the busy and colorful scenes of everyday life are fascinating by themselves. East of the Huangpu River is perhaps the most awe-inspiring part of Shanghai. Walking between the towering skyscrapers that pepper the Pudong landscape, it is almost impossible to believe that this whole area was little more than farmland just a few decades ago.
The other real joy of Shanghai is its shopping and entertainment scene. As China’s most sophisticated city, the best restaurants, bars and clubs in the country are to be found here and there is an incredible range of choice. Meanwhile, with its countless boutique stores, department stores and the odd counterfeit clothing market, Shanghai is a Mecca for shopping. Culturally the city also has something to offer, with good museum, galleries, theaters and a couple of established art districts.
Who should travel to Shanghai?
Shanghai is on the most common tourist itinerary of China along with Beijing and Xian. Really, everyone who travels to China should visit Shanghai, if only for a short while. The only reason not to visit the city is if you’re dead-set on seeking out only Ancient China, in which case Shanghai holds nothing for you.
How long is needed to see Shanghai?
Two days would be the absolute minimum. And this doesn’t allow time to properly explore the city – it would just be a tour of the landmarks. Three days would be just enough to visit the few major attractions and explore the different districts for a decent amount of time. Four days would probably be ideal, though there is plenty to keep you occupied in Shanghai if you stay longer.