These are unusual times, and the state of affairs can change quickly. Please check the latest travel guidance before making your journey. Note that our writer visited pre-pandemic.
The city of the future with a beguiling past
It’s China’s most cosmopolitan city, with a population of some 25 million people, including more than 160,000 millionaires and a couple of dozen billionaires. It’s a town of wheelers and dealers, go-getters and glamour pusses, big business and flash brands – but it’s not all about the money.
Beyond the 100-storey buildings, glowing pink and purple Pearl Tower and business-like veneer of Pudong, you’ll find quiet tree-lined streets, sweet boutiques and artsy cafés in the Former French Concession; the Bund’s majestic waterfront promenade; one of the finest collections of Art Deco architecture anywhere in the world; as well as Buddhist temples, ancient gardens and a handful of lilong (low-rise, gated) neighbourhoods which have managed to escape the wrecking ball, for now.
Hot right now . . .
Lee Cobaj, our resident expert, offers her top tips on the hottest things to do and the best places to stay and drink this season.
Designed by British architect David Chipperfield and hailed as ‘the largest ever artistic exchange between France and China’, the Centre Pompidou x West Bund Museum project is a welcome addition to the city’s burgeoning art scene. The dramatic space, which opened in November 2019, rolls over four levels and features three galleries, a museum shop and a sunken courtyard with a café and bar. Kicking off the five-year collaboration is a mesmerising exhibition called The Shape of Time.
Sprawling across the top floor of a beautiful Bund-side Beaux Arts building, Ce La Vi (27 The Bund; 00 86 21 6333 5877) is the city’s newest hot spot. As well as lounge, cocktail bar and nightclub, there’s also a tip-top restaurant serving pan-Asian cuisine – barbecue chicken and papaya salad, burrata with XO sauce, cevice with lemongrass. But it’s the views from the terrace which are most memorable, an eyeful of the candy-coloured space-age Pudong skyline.
There’s been a burst of hot luxury hotel openings in Shanghai. The coolest of them all is The Middle House (366 Shi Men Yi Road; 00 86 21 3216 8199), with its hip city-centre location, calming rooms, fabulous restaurants and serene subterranean spa. Doubles from CNY 2,840 (£330).
48 hours in . . . Shanghai
Ideally, you’ll want to tick off the big landmark sights first, beginning with an early morning amble along the Bund, Shanghai’s colonial-era riverfront promenade. Start on the northern end at Waibaidu Bridge on Suzhou Creek, where newly married grooms in bow ties and brides in flowing red dresses love to pose for wedding photographs.
From here, move south, passing a dazzling collection of Gothic, Baroque, neoclassical, Art Deco and modernist buildings; looking out for the Jiang Hai Custom House, built in 1927 with a clock tower modelled on Big Ben; the striking HSBC building, with its Roman columns and domed roof; and modernist masterpiece Sassoon House, now the Fairmont Peace Hotel (20 Nanjing E Road; 00 86 21 6138 6888). The hotel has a small museum open to non-guests crammed with fascinating remnants from the Golden Age of Travel – Art Deco furniture, antiques, keys, postcards and photographs of celebrity guests from a bygone time. Ask the front desk to give you a tour.
From here, it’s a short stroll for a three-course set lunch on the rambling terrace at M on the Bund (5 The Bund; 00 86 21 6350 9988), where you can tuck into salmon gravlax on ribbons of beetroot and pink pomelo, Iberian pork crusted with olives, and cold lemon soufflé, while staring at the phenomenal Pudong skyline opposite.
Hop on the metro from the 19th-century Bund to future-shock Puxi on the other side of the Huangpu River. You’re here climb the silvery, serpentine, 128-storey Shanghai Tower (501 Yincheng Middle Road; 00 86 21 2065 6999), the second tallest mega-structure in the world, currently only superseded by the Burj Khalifa. Don’t want to come back down to earth just yet? Nip a few buildings along to Flair Bar (8 Century Avenue; 00 86 21 2020 1717), stepped outdoors on the 58th floor at Ritz-Carlton hotel with looming views of the surrounding skyscrapers.
Also in the vicinity is A.P. Plaza, or the ‘Fake Market’ (2002 Century Avenue). As its moniker suggests, it is mainly known for its counterfeit goods. Buyer beware – it’s illegal to bring counterfeit goods into the UK. Instead come here to pick up cheap souvenirs such as silk pyjamas, painted fans and phone covers. You’ll need to haggle like a pro – as a guideline, prices usually start around 80 to 90 per cent over the closing price.
Book ahead for dinner at the serene Fu He Hui (838 Jiangning Road; 00 86 21 3980 9188) a contemporary Chinese vegetarian restaurant set in a three-storey mansion in leafy Jing An. Choose from one of three tasting menus, featuring smoking jars of grilled porcini, glass beakers of clear mushroom broth and flower pots of baby carrots, all presented with the elegance of a Zen tea ceremony. Go for a nightcap at the Westworld-ish The Union Trading Company (64 Fenyang Road; 00 86 21 6418 3077), which has made it onto Asia’s 50 Best Bars list for the last three years in a row.
Ogle eclectic architecture, stuff your face with delicious food, and burn calories as you walk your way around the Former French Concession’s best dim sum breakfast joints with the bilingual experts at Untour Food Tours. You’ll be guided to street stalls selling crispy bing (savoury pancakes spread with egg, spring onions and hoisin sauce), mom-and-pop potsticker sellers, and hole-in-the-wall dumpling joints selling xialongbao (soupy pork dumplings). Guides also provide a wealth of information on the neighbourhoods, notable buildings and the history of Shanghainese food.
You’ll probably still be too full from breakfast for lunch, but turn right and right out of the Propaganda Centre and wander down Changle Road; you’ll find dozens of trendy alfresco cafés selling fancy coffees and bubble teas.
Squeezed away in the basement of a residential block in the Former French Concession, just finding the Propaganda Poster Art Centre (Building B, Huashan Road; 00 86 21 6211 1845) feels like a bit of a subversive act. It’s a mission worth undertaking, though, as this tiny museum is terrifically interesting. Ask the friendly owner Yang to show you around his collection, which includes posters uniting China’s communist rise with the Civil Rights Movement in America and floral and artillery-woven fabrics which have featured at the V&A. Afterwards, have a disco nap.
You can’t come to Shanghai without a glitzy night on the tiles. Start with aperitifs amid Art Deco lines, mirrored columns, pink chandeliers and spectacular Bund views at M Glam (20 Guangdong Road; 00 86 21 6350 9988). Move to the beautiful old Three on the Bund building next door for dinner at Mercato (6/F, 3 The Bund; 00 86 21 6321 9922), an effervescent Italian restaurant by Jean-Georges Vongerichten which does wondrous things with its wood-fired oven.
Afterwards, bar-hop down the Bund, hitting the jazzy Long Bar at the Waldorf Astoria (2 The Bund, 00 86 21 6322 9988), rooftop hot spot Bar Rouge (7/F, 18 The Bund; 00 86 21 6339 1199), ending with Grey Goose cocktails, funked-up indie music and millionaire/billionaire-spotting at popular hangout The Nest (6/F, 130 Beijing Dong Road; 00 86 21 6308 7669).
Where to stay . . .
The Peninsula Shanghai is a modern take on the grand hotel with Art Deco flourishes reminiscent of 1920s Shanghai. Exotic woods, black lacquer, carved glass and polished chrome give an ambience of refined luxury. The faultless service staff doesn’t put a foot wrong.
Doubles from CNY 2,400 (£247). 32 Zhongshan Dong Yi Road; 00 86 21 2327 2888
Though quietly tucked away behind a wall of greenery, The Middle House is actually in a bustling location, just a few minutes’ walk from historic alleyways, buzzing restaurants and lively bars. Expect spacious rooms with an elegant collection of contemporary Chinese art.
Doubles from CNY 2,840 (£330). 366 Shi Men Yi Road; 00 86 21 3216 8188
Built atop the vestiges of the old French Club with its marble lobby and sweeping lawn, the Japanese-run Okura Garden Hotel is a great base for exploring the tree-lined avenues, boutiques and cafés of the former French Concession. The gardens and lobby date back to the 1920s.
Double rooms from RMB 880 (£101). 58 Maoming Road; 00 86 21 6415 1111
What to bring home . . .
Stock up on cool retro-style kung fu shoes, trainers and basketball boots from Feiyue (180 Fumin Road; 00 86 21 6241 3636), a classic Chinese sneakers brand dating back to the 1920s.
Alternatively, have a dress, shirt or full-suit run up by the nimble-fingered tailors at the South Bund Fabric Market (399 Lujiabang Road).
When to go . . .
Weather-wise, aim to visit in spring or autumn, when temperatures hover in the mid-20s Celsius and there’s more chance of clear blue skies, taking care to avoid any of the large Chinese holidays (particularly the October Golden Week), when the city is overwhelmed with local tourists.
Know before you go . . .
Emergency fire and ambulance: Police, 110; Fire, 119; Ambulance, 120
British Embassy: British Consulate General Shanghai, The British Centre, 17F Garden Square, 968 West Beijing Road, 200041 Shanghai (00 86 (0) 21 3279 2000). Foreign Office advice: gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/china
Flight time: Flights from London to Shanghai usually take about 12 hours.
Currency: The Chinese Renminbi (also known as the Yuan), £1 to CNY 8.85 at the time of writing.
International dialling code:+86
Local laws and etiquette
• Tipping isn’t expected but is appreciated. A 10 per cent service charge is often added at high-end establishments and international hotels.
• Business cards should be given and received with two hands and read and admired before being put away.
• Gift-giving is an important part of the culture and if you’re invited to someone’s home you should not arrive empty handed. A bottle of spirits, tea, sweets or a small ornament are acceptable presents.
• Never use chopsticks to point at anything and never stick them upright in food, a taboo practice associated with funeral rites.
• Homosexuality is increasingly visible in Shanghai. There is a small but lively gay bar scene and an annual Pride event.
Lee makes two or three visits a year to shape-shifting Shanghai from Hong Kong to keep up with all the latest goings-on.
Experience Shanghai with The Telegraph
Telegraph Travel’s best hotels and tours in Shanghai, tried, tested and recommended by our Shanghai experts.