Having lived in Shanghai for four years, Helen Roxburgh details the places to eat, drink, visit and get a real taste of the city’s incredible culture
Shanghai isn’t an easy city to characterise in just a few words. I’ve been living and writing here for four years, and am still frequently overwhelmed by the city’s contradictions. Staggeringly modern, fascinatingly historical, international in outlook, yet so Chinese at heart – the only way to begin with Shanghai is to dive wholeheartedly in.
Start by drinking in the city from one of the highest seats in Asia. OK, the neighbouring Shanghai Tower might be a few storeys taller, but I still love the Grand Hyatt bar in the Shanghai World Financial Center (or the ‘Bottle Opener’ to locals). Skip the touristy observation deck and instead prop up the bar on the 91st floor with excellent service and one of the best views on the planet.
The real city, though, happens down on the ground. To the first-time visitor, it’s easy to think this Shanghai is a city with only a now. But Shanghai has a fascinating history – spend an afternoon strolling the former French Concession or the Old City, near the City of God temple. Head to Fuxing Park to take in tai chi practitioners, mahjong players and calligraphers practising their art. Stop off at the Jewish Museum for another unique take on the city’s history. As an open port during war in Europe, hundreds of Jewish refugees flooded into Shanghai, forming a large and vibrant community in the heart of the city.
For more historical insight, visit the quirky Propaganda Poster Art Museum; tucked in the basement of a residential tower block, this priceless collection of propaganda posters from the Communist revolution and beyond is a great introduction to modern China and a rare chance to buy a piece of kitsch Mao-inspired propaganda.
But those in search of something more contemporary are in the right city – Shanghai’s art scene has exploded in recent years, and there are plenty of big-name and boutique galleries. Start with the achingly cool urban art district M50, then head downriver to the West Bund cultural corridor and its surprisingly quiet waterfront stretch, home to the the Yuz and Long Museums, the Shanghai Centre of Photography, and much more artistic inspiration.
Images courtesy of Yuz Museum Shanghai. Photo by Alessandro Wang
No visit to Shanghai is complete without a hearty sampling of the city’s thriving food scene. There just aren’t enough words to extol the merits of my favourites, but make sure you try the famous xiaolongbao (soup-filled pork dumplings), shumai (rice dumplings) and shengjian (soup-filled fried dumplings) – find your nearest branch of dumpling restaurant Din Tai Fung or stop at any busy local dumpling stall. Shanghainese are scrupulous foodies and following the crowd is a good gauge of quality.
For a rare taste of food from China’s northwestern province Xinjiang, stop off at Miss Ali’s and try delicious cumin-flavoured lamb kebabs. If you favour plant-based fare, Wujie On The Bund is a sophisticated Michelin-starred fusion vegetarian restaurant in a historic riverside building, and if you’re craving something Western, look no further than the fabulous Commune Social, a Jason Atherton creation with some of the city’s best contemporary tapas.
And don’t leave the city until you’ve dipped into its famous jazz scene, which has a long and illustrious history – the iconic Peace Hotel jazz band has members into their 90s still putting on an enthusiastic show. Classy newer joints include Heyday or JZ Club, which have live performances most nights and plenty of classy cocktails to make sure it all goes down smoothly.