The citizens of Shanghai, “the Pearl of the Orient”, are rightfully proud of their sophisticated city and business acumen. Leave the politics and ancient history to Beijing, they say, and come to Shanghai to enjoy the design of a new century and meet the most international, savvy, fashionable populace in China.
To take in Shanghai’s young history, stroll riverside promenade The Bund. Here, on one side of the Huangpu River stand stately Art Deco buildings, while gleaming high-rises (including Shanghai Tower, the world’s second-tallest building) pierce the sky on the other side.
This contrast of European influence and speedy, modern development can be seen in other parts of the city, too. The quaint French Concession district melds seamlessly with the shoulder-to-shoulder malls and huge office buildings of the downtown area (88 skyscrapers were constructed in 2018 alone).
Although Shanghai’s population – at 26 million – sounds alarming, it’s a well-maintained and convenient city, with litter-free streets and virtually no violent crime. As well as being China’s financial capital, it’s a fine-dining and drinking hub. The city has 34 Michelin-starred restaurants and three entries on Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2019 list. So plan ahead and make the most of your “work” trip.
Coffee pit stop
Brut Cake Café
Created by a husband-and-wife duo, this hipster-chic bistro offers artisanal coffee and American-fusion fare, including fluffy waffles topped with crisp, spicy giant prawns. Order a peanut butter and sea salt latte and if the weather is good, nab one of the tables by the open window with views of Yuyuan Lu’s canopy of trees.
Pesto zucchini noodles, 72-hour-fermented sourdough crust pizzas and housemade pickles keep the crowds coming to this airy two-storey café for brunch, particularly on the weekends. Schedule an early meeting if you want peace and quiet and be sure to book ahead.
Bird and its neighbour, Bitter, are the brainchildren of American restaurateur Camden Hauge, known for her creative food concepts. Bitter is a café by day and luminous cocktail bar by night; Bird is a simple yet sophisticated wine bar and kitchen, featuring bar seating perfect for solo diners and a leafy terrace upstairs that’s ideal for an aperitivo. The concise, ever-changing menu includes dishes such as sweet potato chips with egg yolk and Vietnamese pork rib with pineapple and coriander garnish.
This striking restaurant fuses murals of gorgeous women in cheongsams with minimalist grey bricks (typical of Shanghai) and stunning glass light fixtures, all framing a spectacular view of The Bund. Fastidious service and ample space between the tables make it a top destination for business diners. The menu by head chef Eason Man covers both Cantonese classics and their contemporary twists, such as his famous flaming whole chicken and braised abalone tart.
Drinks with clients
Ranked number 16 on the Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2019 list, Sober Company houses three concepts – a café, an Asian-fusion restaurant (try the foie gras mapo tofu) and a cocktail bar with discreet service and stellar mixologists.
1. Jing’an Sculpture Park is a green haven dotted with impressive sculptures by artists from around the world. Stroll among bronze cows lazing on a lawn and past a tower of massive apples to one of the park’s highlights – a semi-trailer balancing on its nose by renowned Austrian artist Erwin Wurm. The park is also next door to the Shanghai Natural History Museum, filled with state-of-the-art exhibits about butterflies, dinosaurs and almost every creature in between.
2.The bamboo-lined lobby of Subconscious Day Spa is a retreat in Shanghai’s tree-lined former French Concession. Services range from hot-stone massages to private Pilates sessions but our pick is the water-lily body wrap.
3. For thousands of years, Chinese people have practised the art of qi gong (pronounced chee gong) to master the body’s energy through gentle movements, focused breathing and meditation. Shanghai Pathways offers private lessons with an English-speaking shifu (master teacher) in one of the city’s many parks.
The Sukhothai is a 201-room urban oasis with a hushed minimalist aesthetic and striking artworks, such as the glass installation Layers of Tranquillity by Chinese artist Zheng Lu. Renowned chef Theodor Falser heads the kitchen at La Scala, the resident Italian restaurant, and don’t miss the Wagyu beef rendang at South-East-Asian-inspired Urban Café. The lobby area, with its excellent full bar, can be used as a casual event space.
Best co-working space
Global shared-office pioneer WeWork offers 30 co-working spaces in Shanghai. Check in at any WeWork site by downloading WeChat and searching for the mini-program WeWork Go. Rent your hot desk and get unlimited free coffee and soft drinks, starting at CN¥15 ($3) an hour.
If you have a couple of hours…
Jump on a food tour for an opportunity to sample the increasingly rare street-side snacks of Shanghai. In recent years, many small vendors have been shuttered due to a food-hygiene crackdown by the government. UnTour Food Tours takes you to the best dumplings, noodles, pancakes and pastries by traditional local cooks.
If you have half a day…
The lane houses of Tianzifang are an artefact of Shanghai’s past. Most of the city’s “stone gate neighbourhoods” were razed long ago but this one has been turned into a maze of bohemian shops, bars and restaurants, like Café Dan, with its 10 house roasts and home-style Japanese dishes. For gifts, pick up a luxurious cashmere wrap at Shanghai Woo or a pair of hipster sneakers at Feiyue.
If you have a day…
Take the metro to Zhujiajiao station to visit the 1700-year-old “Venice of the East”, where you can be rowed along canals framed by winding cobblestone streets and explore the Buddhist Yunjin Monastery, built in the mid-1300s. For a bite, head to the rustic, canal-side Dongtian Shifu to try specialties such as ginger scallion steamed fish and pork-stuffed snails. In the evening, catch Tan Dun’s opera, Water Heavens, an immersive tour de force that combines a majestic score with stunning visuals of ancient Chinese architecture.
If you have a weekend…
While Hangzhou is the most famous weekend trip from Shanghai, it can be overrun with tourists. Lesser-known Taizhou, about three hours by bullet train, offers similar bamboo forests and ancient architecture, plus delectable cuisine made famous by the Xinrongji restaurant empire; it began here and now holds Michelin stars at its Hong Kong and Shanghai branches. Head to the original Xinrongji Linghu outlet, a temple to native ingredients such as black-haired pig, razor clams and bamboo shoots. For sights and snacks, don’t miss the ancient Ziyang Jie, a 1000-metre-long pedestrian strip lined with historic stone buildings housing shops such as Chang Hao Ji, purveyor of the local delicacy of seaweed pastries, and artisan stalls offering classic ink-brush paintings, woven reed fans and paper-cut art. End your walk with a locally roasted coffee in the peaceful courtyard of the Swallow Café at 326 Ziyang Jie. Check in at the brand-new, centrally located Hilton Taizhou with its spacious suites and state-of-the-art gym and jogging track.