A brief hit of history. Famously insular and self-sufficient 19th-century China, with its hundreds of millions of potential consumers, attracts the lascivious gaze of the great European powers. Unable to find a product the Chinese might actually want to buy, the Brits come up with opium from India. The Chinese authorities, understandably, kick up a stink, and after losing a nasty little war they agree—at the point of a gunboat—to allow foreign trading districts (concessions) in their major commercial city, Shanghai. The Brits, French, Americans, Japanese et al pile in and the city soon becomes one of the world's great cosmopolitan centres for both business and pleasure. Fast forward a century of gentle decline (communism and commerce being, until recently, uneasy bedfellows) and Shanghai is back with a bang as China's biggest, buzziest and best city.
A glimpse of old China in Jing'An Park early one morning (or really late one night, depending on your stamina) where Shanghai's pensioners perform Tai Chi and practice ballroom dancing in this oasis of calm that doubles as a useful green lung in a heavily polluted city. You'll also want to tick off the Bund, the iconic Huangpu riverfront street that housed the big beast businesses of the British concession. It's recently undergone a surprisingly sensitive makeover and contrasts beautifully with the futuristic skyscrapers on the river's far bank.
Until Robert De Niro's chic boutique hotel (currently codenamed 'Project 179') lands on the Bund, the place to stay is the PuLi, 26-storeys of hi-tech, low key and deeply sophisticated contemporary hotel with enough oriental touches—incense burners, screen doors, black lacquer furniture—to give the place a firm sense of identity. Even the name means 'the beauty of carved jade'. The Jing'An restaurant, named after the eponymous park next door, serves up top-notch international cuisine, again with an Asian twist. Go for a Corner Deluxe Room for killer views of the Shanghai skyline. The PuLi Hotel
Sitting on the shaded terrace at elEFANTE on Donghu Lu when the sun's out, a prized spot for clued up ex-pats and locals alike with excellent tapas and Mediterranean cuisine. Reserving a table here is key, and once you're in, order the crab salad or paella and a Spanish wine from the extensive wine list for a slice of European summer.
In a city with 23 million mouths to feed there are going to be a few fantastic restaurants so it very much depends on what you're after. Hotheads mustn't miss Guyi on Fumin Lu for authentic Hunan Province cuisine, famed for its chilli punch. There are no reservations but the cumin crusted ribs are well worth the wait.
One day soon the illicit drinking den bandwagon will hit a brick wall. Until that moment, head into Press sandwich shop on Shaanxi Nan Lu and the brick wall in question has a vintage Coca-Cola vending machine which doubles as doorway to Flask, a classy Asian-style speakeasy. Some of the cocktails on offer (in three sections: Ladies, Gents and Prohibition Classics) are a bit Marmite, such as the Robin Hood Roy, a blend of whisky, vermouth and lemongrass served in a flask (obvs) presented in a hollow book, but they have the desired effect and the crowd is currently the hippest in town.
Last year saw the arrival of an oriental outpost of hip club Le Baron, with face (and bank balance) control as merciless as in the Paris original, so if you fancy your chances by all means give it a go, but for a more guaranteed good night out head to the cavernous Arkham for energetic electro beats and even the occasional live gig. lebaronshanghai.com; arkhamshanghai.com
MIC on Anfu Lu is more of a hole in the wall than an actual shop and specialises in homegrown Feiyue trainers in big bold colours. With the cheapest ranges coming in at about £6 a pop, it's worth buying a second suitcase to lug them all home.
Of all the clichés in the travel lexicon, describing places as the 'Paris/Venice of the [insert point of the compass]' most gets my goat, but there's a good reason Shanghai was dubbed the Paris of the East. Get on your bike to explore the French Concession, a succulent slice of France with plane tree-lined boulevards and longtangs (lanes) filled with bistros, boulangeries and chic boutiques. More importantly, this is about the only part of town you won't necessarily get mown down by the somewhat erratic drivers.
Eat xiao long bao or soup dumplings, Shanghai's chief culinary contribution to a grateful world. Best sampled at Din Tai Fung, all the while remembering the broth in each delectable dim sum is—at least—1,000 °C, so attack with caution if you want to blend in and not suffer 4th degree burns. dintaifung.com
The flying phlegm that emits from many mouths as you walk down the street, usually forewarned by high decibel hawking. Perhaps understandable in a city this polluted, but still shocking to your average Westerner.
Tom Barber is a founder of award-winning travel company originaltravel.co.uk
From: Esquire UK.