The skyscrapers of Pudong and the glamorous hotels and restaurants are symbols of the modern city but it’s in the avenues and lanes of old neighbourhoods that Shanghai is at her most human and seductive.
On the surface, this city of neon and shopping malls seems frenetic and crazed. Take time out to walk the French Concession or the lesser-known Hongkou district across the Garden Bridge and you’ll find the pace slower, the lanes and street life fascinating and the Shanghainese exceptionally friendly. But be quick to visit: while much of the district has heritage listing, some old neighbourhoods are vanishing.
07:00 Shanghai is a wonderful walking city, with a surprising number of beautiful parks. Join the locals at Fuxing Park (115 Yandang Lu) in the old French Concession. It’s a living lounge room where Shanghainese dance, play cards, practise tai chi, hug trees and take their dogs and caged birds for a walk. Everything is communal so no-one will mind if you join in.
08:00 One of the great joys of Shanghai is its street food and breakfast is the perfect time to sample the city’s specialities from one of the carts or little holes-in-the-wall that dot the French Concession. Beyond xiao long bao, the famous soup dumplings, you’ll be tempted by jianbing guo zi (big rounds of folded, stuffed pancake), cifan tuan (hand-rolled rice filled with pork and pickled vegetable), da bing (flaky bread) and guo tie (pot-sticker dumplings). As it’s a bit too far to walk from Fuxing Park, take a taxi (they’re astoundingly inexpensive) to Xiangyang Lu near Changle Lu for a high concentration of stalls. A handy tip: for smooth taxi transactions, ask your hotel’s concierge to jot down in Chinese the addresses of places you plan to visit.
09:00 Looking to have something tailored? Hail a taxi to the nearby South Bund Fabric Market (399 Lujiabang Lu), which is relatively quiet at this hour. The prices are a little higher than they once were but Shanghai’s tailors can still cut some mean jackets and they do so with dazzling speed. (Allow an extra day in case there are alterations.) Three levels of shops give a confusing array of makers and options, from traditional qipao dresses to cashmere coats and pinstriped shirts. As Shanghai “style” is limited, it’s best to take along something to copy. And do bargain – you could spend half the day here in negotiation but if you know what you’re looking for, an hour or two will do.
11:00 The best way to see the city is from the sidecar of a vintage motorbike. Shanghai Insiders (insidersexperience.com) will tailor a tour to suit your interests – whether it’s markets or a visit to less well-known sites such as 1933, a remarkable old slaughterhouse built in Art Deco style that is now home to restaurants, galleries and retail spaces. Expats who have lived in the city for more than three years conduct the tours, lasting one to four hours; each vehicle can take two people, one riding with the driver, the other in the sidecar. Most popular is a whirl along the gorgeous plane-tree-lined streets of the French Concession so ask your guide to pick you up at the fabric market (for an additional fee). It’s not cheap at about $320 but it’s the most fun you’ll have on three wheels.
13:15 Time for a quick lunch. Have your guide drop you off at Lost Heaven (38 Gaoyou Lu), a perennially popular, consistently good restaurant in a quiet, elegant French Concession street. It serves fabulous, reasonably priced Yunnan cuisine in a charming, rustic space. There’s a newer branch on the Bund but the original is best. Don’t miss the wild vegetable cakes to start.
14:00 If you find Shanghai’s imposing glamour malls full of international brands overwhelming, catch a taxi to Tianzifang, a network of lane houses off Taikang Lu that have been converted into small boutiques, galleries, cafés and ice-cream stalls. Yes, it’s commercial but it’s full of young locals, especially on weekends. Unlike the rebuilt houses of the Xintiandi district, people still live here: there’s washing strung across the street. Wander the lanes where Shanghai Girl cosmetics and silk scarves are sold and you’ll stumble on some less cutesy shops, such as the sophisticated, minimalist Urban Tribe.
15:30 Hail a taxi and head back to the French Concession. Step inside a Concession-era mansion with some racy history at Maison de L’Hui (168 Julu Lu), the former residence of “Big Ears” Du, Shanghai’s most notorious gangster during the 1920s and ’30s. It’s now a very grand Cantonese restaurant with white-gloved waiters but formal afternoon tea is good value, as is the seven-course lunch. Du Yuesheng had his hands full with dozens of concubines and four wives and ran both the Concession’s opium trade and the government Opium Suppression Bureau. Luckily, the walls don’t talk.
17:30 Time to get lofty and see why Shanghai’s neon skyline is such a trip. Sir Elly’s terrace bar occupies the 14th floor of The Peninsula hotel (32 Zhongshan Dong Yi Lu) on the Bund, about a 15-minute taxi ride away. It has views of the lightshow on Pudong, illuminated ferries on the Huangpu River and the Garden Bridge across Suzhou Creek. Tables start filling up at this hour to catch the sunset. Cocktails aren’t cheap but it’s the best seat in town and worth the splurge.
19:30 When Melbourne-born restaurateur Michelle Garnaut opens a new space, it’s big news. Her sexy new restaurant and bar, Glam, is only a few weeks old and already the hottest place to hang. Tucked behind Garnaut’s legendary restaurant, M on the Bund (7/F, 20 Guangdong Lu), the striking silver and cobalt Glam has big windows overlooking the Bund and a menu of small plates complemented by a large offering of wines by the glass. Like M, it’s as much a vibrant cultural salon as a place to eat and drink.
23:00 After the glamour of the Bund, it’s time to hop in a taxi once more for the French Concession and a nightcap at one of Shanghai’s best cocktail bars, El Coctel (2/F 47 Yongfu Lu). Its entrance is easy to miss, marked only by a cocktail shaker set into a small alcove by the doorway. Up a flight of stairs, it has three cosy rooms but the best spot is a seat at the long bar, where the personable barmen whip up carefully crafted concoctions with entertaining flair. ￼