Anyone with a guidebook and half a brain can work their way around the major attractions of a buzzing metropolis like Shanghai, left with a sense of having drifted through the city from one tourist-packed sight to the next, seeing the skyscrapers, the neon, the people, but never really getting under their skin. It’s true, getting intimate with a silver-surfaced giant like Shanghai isn’t easy – but with a little insider knowledge, a bit of inquisitiveness and a healthy dose of daring, it’s easier than you might think.
1. Taikang Lu
Take the metro as far as Dapuqiao S. (line 9), emerging onto the streets of the French Concession from exit number 4, then uncover the well-hidden entrance to Lane 248 on the opposite side of the street. Take five steps as your eyes adjust, and find yourself instantly absorbed into a network of fairy-lit labyrinthine passages nestled on the inside of a beautifully gentrified block of former Chinese homes.
These homes, old by Shanghai standards, were built in the 1930s in the Shikumen style (an architectural method combining Western and Chinese elements), and were part of a bustling low-income neighbourhood until threatened with demolition in 2006. Fortunately, several local business owners proposed that the unique enclave and its distinct architecture should be preserved, gradually attracting an ever more diverse array of arts and craft stores, cafes and restaurants, creating the cosy, clean and utterly individual quarter which exists today. Settle into plump cushions in black wrought-iron seats, sip wine, gaze up through narrow brickwork to the sliver of star-lit sky above, or people watch from the indoor warmth of petite but lavish restaurants, hundreds of which line the slender cobbled passageways, offering everything from Thai to French and Vietnamese to Italian cuisine.
2. Cloud 9
The Chinese love nothing so much as their neon. Every building is coated with it – neon signs, neon lamps, neon screens – you name it, they have it. And after sunset, as you can imagine, Shanghai sparkles like the window of a jewellery store, painting streaks of iridescent light across an ever-frantic cosmopolitan matrix. Of course, the observation decks of the city’s two tallest buildings, the JinMao Tower and Shanghai World Financial Centre (affectionately known as the Bottle Opener), provide spectacular views of the city at night, standing at a not-to-be-sniffed-at 421m and 492m respectively. Nevertheless, trips to their 88th and 100th floors are not cheap, ranging from 100-150RMB, while their observation decks can be both cold and crowded.
Luckily, there is a very pleasant and little-known alternative to be found on the 87th floor of the JinMao Tower, the top floor of the Grand Hyatt Shanghai hotel which resides within it. Here, complete with huge futuristic columns, steel girders and a 360° view of the surrounding city, lies the opulent magnificence of Cloud 9, the Hyatt hotel’s stunning skybar. For only the price of your drinks (which, admittedly, are not cheap), you can seek your way to the top of the tower, navigating three elevator changes designed to keep the enigmatic bar as exclusive as possible, and marvel at the sparkling city below, cocktail in hand, through the ubiquitous floor-to-ceiling windows. If you enjoy a classy beverage, a good view, and being surrounded by Shanghai’s elite – the surrounding tables are usually occupied by high-flying businessmen, gossiping socialites and twenty-something trust fund babies – then this is the place for you.
3. People’s Square and the Huasheng Metro shopping mall beneath
You might expect the People’s Square in Shanghai to be that little bit more impressive than its less eminent counterparts throughout China. On the contrary, it is little more than a large, tree-covered park, a green oasis in the midst of towering steel, home to a small oriental garden, a miniature fun fair, Shanghai Art Museum and the station at the crux of the city’s metro system. Nice though it is, the square’s real distinctiveness stems instead, for me, from the sprawling yet initially invisible shopping mall which lies beneath it.
Accessible from the metro station itself, the mall occupies two underground floors filled with glass-walled boutique after boutique, selling a bountiful variety of clothes, shoes and accessories, all perfectly decent quality, at ridiculously low and endlessly haggle-able prices. Even for a shopaphobe like me, this place is pretty special – perhaps for the very reason that, eventually, you’re guaranteed to find exactly what you’re after at not a Jiao more than you’re prepared to spend. How refreshing, after being surrounded by the hopelessly expensive designer brands of Nanjing road, to be able to actually purchase the handbag or tank top for which your heart yearns! And, best of all, when you’re wilting under the weight of shopping bags and ready for refreshment, the Café Du Metro lies waiting – a small, velvet-seated sanctuary plucked right from the streets of Montmartre, owned by a Frenchman named Frank and tucked away in a back corner of the upper floor (near to exit 10), ever-ready with French espresso, crisp Chardonnay, and complementary cups of chocolate mousse.
4. Disappearing down Nanjing Road’s alleyways
If the overbearing shopping centres and five-floor department stores lining the infamous Nanjing Road start to close in on you, there’s only one thing to do. Contrary to expectation and rule, the wide pedestrianised street is not the centre of an inescapable network of identical clones, but is, fascinatingly, laced with narrow tributaries in the form of tiny residential alleyways, each revealing elderly Chinese women hanging laundry, wooden tubs filled with steaming dumplings, bicycles leant against haphazard walls and the universal scattering of stray cats and dogs dashing from open doorway to open doorway. Truly it’s like being in the backstreets of tiny town, with the frenzied buzz of Nanjing Road still echoing but a street away.
5. The Bund sightseeing tunnel
Unlike the other activities on my list, the Bund sightseeing tunnel is certainly neither exclusive nor little-known. It is, however, one of the more bizarre experiences you will ever have, and thoroughly worth twenty minutes of your time and 45RMB of your budget. In order to travel from the Bund (the old business centre of Shanghai, lined with austere sandstone colonial buildings belonging to the likes of Armani and Citibank) to Pudong (the new financial centre and home to the infamous and breath-taking high-rise cityscape), pedestrians must cross the Huangpu River. To do this, one can either walk back several blocks to the metro stations on Nanjing Road or, if they’re feeling adventurous and flush, can follow an escalator on the riverbank one floor underground and board the small, transparent cable car which takes you along a short track and through the tunnel. All very normal, until the pod passes through the first of several black curtains.
Like a weird and wonderful theme park ride, you glide smoothly through a brightly lit channel, accompanied by peculiar yet oddly soothing music and an audio track claiming that you are currently passing through magma (the walls of the channel become screens playing footage of oozing magma), hell (the light beams return, become unbearably bright and begin to flash), paradise (the neon beams become soothing again, then some air-filled puppets designed to look like manically waving clowns gently bump the car as it passes them). Eventually, another curtain appears ahead, this one playing footage of sharks, until the car passes through it and you find yourself ejected from the pod, ushered towards more escalators and, finally, standing bemusedly on the streets of Pudong. For reasons I cannot fully explain, it is something of a must-have experience – if only because it is frankly impossible for a mere description to do it any kind of justice. Good it is not; unmissable it certainly is.
About the Author: Gemma Knight
I started travelling when I was seventeen – following in my mother’s footsteps, navigating the fjords and frikadeller of Scandinavia. I was lucky enough to have been well-travelled from an early age (again, thanks to my mother’s adventurous and nomadic tendencies), but was utterly intoxicated by my first experience of independent travelling – being lost in Norwegian backwaters at 2am, singing Dolly Parton on an overnight train with Swedish fishermen, accidentally meeting the Queen of Denmark – what more could you ask?