China First Timer? Choose Shanghai

Tom Cramp


Cosmopolitan, contemporary, chaotic. Shanghai can come across as a feral beast at first glance, with lofty stats about being the world’s most populated city only giving weight to the metaphor. Once tamed though, it fast becomes a diverse, idiosyncratic melting pot of culture, food and leisure that is never easy to fly away from. The past three decades of the city’s history are of huge significance – it has become China’s economic hub and its most international city. This makes it the perfect destination for someone that chooses to experience the country’s eccentricities on their own terms at first. Much of street-level Shanghai can be an assault on your senses, but luxurious escapes from the hustle and bustle are never far away; something that is not always available in other areas of China. Whether it be the revolving restaurant at the top of the 5-star Radisson Blu Hotel or the outrageous multi-sensory dining experience at 3 Michelin Star-winning Ultraviolet, all you have to do is to know where to look.

Choose Your Moment

Knowing when to visit Shanghai can make a huge difference to your trip. The summers are sweltering and winters, harsh, but the spaces in between are spectacular. From the end of September to the start of December, temperatures rarely dip below 20 degrees Celsius, making for the perfect climate to walk around the very tourist-friendly city. If you’re pressed for time, ride around the former French Concession in a convertible jeep with Shanghai Insiders. Their educational tour experiences allow you to learn about the history of the city whilst enjoying the Autumn breeze and a glass of champagne in the backseat.

Alternatively, visit during the Spring and witness the flower blossom festivals in Pudong district. The humidity and temperatures are comfortable and make Spring an ideal time to take in some traditional Chinese culture. Several ancient water-towns are scattered around the edge of the city, like Zhujiajiao, and can be accessed by the excellent metro system. If you don’t want to stray too far, try the Old Town near the Bund - one of the last bastions of tradition right in the middle of the continuously gentrifying metropolis.

Shanghai, China

Choose Your Lodgings

If there’s one thing that Shanghai does well, it’s hotels. Sweeping economic reform in the late 70s and early 80s opened the door for vast domestic and international investment, which has led to practically all of the development in Shanghai you see today. An economic hub of a country with 1.4 billion people needs a lot of hotels, so there are literally thousands to choose from. Huangpu district runs alongside the west of the river and contains many of Shanghai’s 5-star hotels that often overlook the Bund area. The lavish art-deco Fairmont Peace Hotel combines old fashioned charm with a modern twist and is arguably up there with the world’s best hotels. Stunning views of the Lujiazui skyline across the river are common among the best hotels in the city and the Peninsula is definitely not short of these. Options on the other side of the river, enveloped in a forest of skyscrapers, including the Ritz-Carlton and the Mandarin Oriental, both offering unrivalled luxury in amongst tourist sites such as the Shanghai Tower, Pearl Tower and the Ocean Aquarium.

Choose Your Activities

Shanghai gives you access to the upper echelons of high-end shopping. Nanjing Road which starts at the Bund and goes through two districts is a must for designer brands and is lined with huge malls that you could easily get lost in. A slightly more offbeat shopping location would be Tianzifang; a winding mess of alleys and lanes that are bursting at the seams with trinkets, jewelry and tea. Xintiandi is another good option and merges fashion and tech stores with many fine dining locations. River cruises are a fantastic opportunity to see the Lujiazui skyline up close, but if you prefer looking back, the Propaganda Poster Art Centre gives a fascinating insight into Chinese modern history under the Communist Party. Shanghai is blessed with more green space than most other cities in China, so take advantage and have a stroll through People’s Park to take a look at the famous marriage market, or head to Century Park in Pudong and see the group dance sessions in the evening or Tai Chi in the morning.

Green Park, Shanghai

Choose What You Eat and Drink

Another advantage of being the cosmopolitan hub of China means great food from all over the world, but putting foreign food to one side, Shanghai has got all the bases covered when it comes to Chinese cuisine. You can try Sichuan spice, Xinjiang kebabs, Yunnan seafood and Shanghainese dumplings, all at a moment’s notice - food from all 26 Chinese provinces can be found across the city, day and night. UnTour Food Tours do a great job at providing a crash course in authentic Chinese food, letting you try 15+ dishes and drink award-winning wine on their night tour. If it’s reliability you’re after though, fine dining options are everywhere in Shanghai. Try Michelin starred restaurants such as Il Ristorante in the Bulgari Hotel for Italian, Mr and Mrs Bund by Paul Pairet right on the river for French, and The Commune Social in Jing’an district for world-class tapas. Cocktail bars are not uncommon either. Speakeasy-style Speak Low has been named Mainland China’s best bar three times and has been in the top 20 bars in Asia since it opened. Other solid options include The Nest on The Bund and Senator Saloon in the leafy former French Concession.

Steamed Chinese dumplings

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