We arrived really early at Shanghai train station after our sleeper train but luckily we had early check-in at our hotel so after grabbing some breakfast down a random street in ‘Old Shanghai’ – where Simon decided eel was the right breakfast choice(!) – we were able to have a shower and get ready for another day of exploring. Our hotel was in a perfect location, right in the centre of Nanjing Road, which is a famous pedestrianised street with all the shopping you could ever need in a lifetime – from Gucci to Forever 21 and everything in between.
Our first stop was The Bund as the most famous mile in Shanghai, filled with art deco landmarks from the early 20th century concession-era, developed by Britain and America as a kind of ‘Wall Street’ of China and now home to the most exclusive hotels (such as the Fairmount Peace Hotel) and restaurants (like the internationally-famous M on the Bund). We walked south all the way along the Bund promenade, looking out on the other side to the most well-known skyline in China: Pudong. As we went, we learnt about the buildings from the Lonely Planet book. Normally I’m not impressed by intricate ceilings but as suggested we went inside the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank Building to look at the mosaic ceiling and it was great! It features the 12 zodiac signs and the world’s former eight centres of finance, and was genuinely beautiful and interesting.
We then made our way to the Yuyuan Gardens and came across the Old Town, which is the most traditionally Chinense part of Shanghai in terms of the types of buildings, which are mostly wooden (or wooden looking) with curved roofs as Buddhists believe curved shapes ward off evil spirits, which are thought to only move in straight lines. The bazaar area was filled with food vendors and stalls (and tons of people too, of course!). The Yuyuan gardens were unexpectedly huge so we spent around an hour and a half wondering around the different sections of the garden and taking in the historic buildings. It was built in the Ming dynasty (16th century) and while like most famous sites in China it has been restored and rebuilt over the centuries, it retains its authenticity and was a lovely afternoon.
Our next stop was to get the public ferry over to Pudong, which is full of extremely modern (and super tall!) skyscrapers, including China’s tallest and the world’s second tallest, Shanghai Tower. We’d found so far that mall’s were surprisingly good places to eat so we went to the Superbrand Mall for a late lunch before making our way over to Shanghai Tower just before dusk so we could get day and night views down over the city.
Walking up to Shanghai Tower is a must as you can appreciate just how tall it is, especially when you get to the top and look down on buildings that also looked ginormous from the bottom! It’s quite a beautiful building and and spirals up towards the sky, giving it its unique feature. We were headed for the ‘sky gardens’ near the top, but first we got to experience the world’s fastest lift – reaching 42.8 miles per hour on the way up, getting up to the top in 53 seconds – which felt surprisingly stable despite the crazy speed. We spent a good hour at the top and it was great to see the city go from day to night, with all the beautiful lights. There are two ‘decks’ that you can look out over and the top one had a blossom exhibition, which was very pretty.
We then got the subway back over to the other side of the river and walked home down East Nanjing Road, which was packed with neon lights and people! To find some dinner, we went for a wander around the back streets, which was like a different world even though it was about 30 seconds from the main strip. We found a small restaurant where Simon got some dumplings and we then wandered around a couple of shops, including a Japanese chain that you can find all over China called Miniso, which was filled with all those random things that you need in life from kirby grips to phone chargers to travel pillows (an essential in my book!) for the most ridiculously cheap prices.
The next morning, we decided to walk north up The Bund. We did think about getting The Bund Sightseeing Tunnel, which goes under the Huangpu River connecting the Bund and Pudong. However, online blogs (confirmed by James later that afternoon who went on it last time he was in Shanghai) suggested that tourists find it disappointing with a short 5 minute journey and strange psychedelic sounds and visuals … plus it was massively overpriced. Instead we took some photos and enjoyed the sun (although it was also very windy) and enjoyed the promenade with the people and runners out on a Saturday morning.
On the way back to the hotel, we went into a few of the clothes shops but we didn’t buy anything. It seemed like shopping was the main thing to do in Shanghai, which I hadn’t been expecting (or had been expecting but also expected lots of other things to do too!) and isn’t something SImon and I enjoy so after after three shops we were bored. So instead we decided to go to the famous Shanghai No 1 Food Store, which is a department store on East Nanjing road where we got a random selection of snacks for the afternoon, including matcha cake, green tea snack, goose tongue, red banana, and seeds. It was really fun walking around and trying to figure out what everything was. I’d say we probably knew about 30% of the produce in there on sight and the rest we had to use Google Translate to figure out what on earth it was.
We then met James who had travelled in from Heifei for one night. Our first stop was to wander around People’s Square (once the site of the Shanghai racecourse), which is a large open space in the centre of the city. We spent the majority of our time in People’s Park as it was a lovely afternoon. When we got there we saw lots of people with umbrellas in front of them, almost like a market i.e. standing behind them and lined up on both sides of the path. We decided to avoid this and walk the other way initially but soon came back around to it via the route we’d taken. A Chinese American man came up to us – probably as we looked like very confused Westerners – and told us what it was: a place for parents to showcase their single children and find them partners. Essentially a real life version of Tinder… led by your parents! We were fascinated and spent ages walking around it all – there were hundreds of umbrellas. Of course it was all written in Chinese characters so again Google Translate came to the rescue and we didn’t see anyone over the after of 34 being advertised, with the youngest born in 1993! It was very strange to me but it’s part of Chinese culture for women especially to be married young: apparently if you’re over 27 it’s frowned upon if you aren’t married.
We sat down near the pond in the park to eat some of our snacks and a Chinese man with the most perfect English we heard on our whole trip came and started speaking to us about Chinese scientists turning people into robots. Apparently you have no idea who these robots are but they have blended into Chinese society and don’t have any feelings at all. It was quite surreal talking to him and to a point he made a convincing case. The only thing he didn’t tell us was how he knew this information, which seemed like a gaping hole in terms of credibility to me. It must have been very dangerous for him to speak to people but apparently he spends his weekends telling as many Westerners as possible. James loves a conspiracy theory so he was all over it and said he would have stayed talking to him all afternoon! He was a nice man so I hope he stays safe and out of trouble.
After lunch, we walked around the French Concession area, which was very European in style and didn’t feel like we were in China at all. The whole area was once home to Shanghai’s outliers e.g. revolutionaries, gangsters, and prostitutes but today the art deco buildings are filled with fancy al fresco restaurants and bars, and of course hundreds of high-end shops. We settled in Xintiandi, which has European style mixed with the traditional alleyway homes and while it was clearly a very upscale space to spend the afternoon, it felt like the charm from other areas in the city was missing. However, we found a lovely spot in the square where we could sit outside and have a beer while we a chatted and took part in some people watching.
Our next stop was back on the public ferry (a first for James!) across to Pudong. It was dusk so it was really lovely to see all the lights coming on all the buildings across the skyline. However, we had a particularly crazy experience on the public ferry this time with hundreds of people acting in a frenzied panic trying to get on the boat. As soon as it was docked and the gates were opened, everyone rushed towards it and scrambled up the stair to get the best view.
On the other side, James took us to a restaurant in the Superbrand Mall. It was really packed so we had to wait for a while but when we got inside we found it was a great spot overlooking a beautifully lit Bund. And of course we ate another feast! After getting the public ferry back over to The Bund (and getting an excellent shot of the Pudong skyline) we went to Three on The Bund, an elegant 7-storey post-renaissance building built in 1916. Our destination was the New Heights rooftop bar, which had amazing views over the Pudong skyline. We initially sat outside on the roof terrace and then moved inside when it got a little bit too windy for us. It had great music and we enjoyed a few beers and the excellent music. We soon realised Shanghai is a very early city when the lights of the buildings on the Pudong side started going off at 10pm!
I did enjoy Shanghai, particularly the architecture and skyline, which is one of my favourite things to explore in new countries. However, it didn’t feel like there was much to really do if you’re not interested in shopping. I think two days was more than enough time to be there. It was great to spend another day with James and explore another city together. As he’d been to Shanghai a couple of times before, he loved giving us insider tips and educating us about Chinese culture and the Chinese way of life. It was our final time with him in China and it definitely ended on a high overlooking Pudong skyline on a rooftop bar.
Next stop: Guilin.