Located in east-central China, Shanghai is the country’s major commercial and industrial centre and one of the world’s largest seaports. The city is situated on the East China Sea coast on the southern estuary of the Yangtze River, with the Huangpu River flowing through it.
The 30-kilometre drive from Pudong International Airport to downtown Shanghai does not at first provide any clues as to what you will find in the city.
There are sprawling suburbs and industrial areas but no sense of the truly enormous city at the end of the drive. How big? Well, if you want to drive yourself crazy try doing some research on the biggest Chinese city by population. Some sites say Shanghai, others Beijing and yet more say Chongqing. I've been to all three and they all seem ... well, big. If traffic congestion is an indicator of size then Chongqing should take the title, but it's probably safe to say that Shanghai is top of the population stakes with around 25 million people.
Beware of travel agents and tour operators who book accommodation for you that’s a long way from where the main attractions are. I was booked into "the Radisson", which I assumed was in the city centre. But when I checked I found it was the Radisson Exhibition Center, which is 31 kilometres from central Shanghai! I don’t know why they do this without checking, maybe it’s because the city is so vast there are deemed to be “attractions” everywhere.
No matter how good the hotel is, and despite excellent train and metro services, a visitor would spend unnecessary time getting to and from where the main sights are. It’s best to stay somewhere near the Bund, from where you can walk to many of the attractions. I rebooked myself into the Howard Johnson Plaza Hotel, which is not far from there.
Above: our frequent dinner venue and (top) hotel.
As with many other very big cities, Shanghai has days where air pollution becomes a problem, and you can see it reflected in some of these photos.
The Bund or Waitan is a waterfront area and a protected historical district in central Shanghai, forming a 1.5 km-long pedestrian walkway along the Huangpu River. It is located at the west bank of the Huangpu in the Puxi district of the city and displays an interesting contrast of historic and modern Shanghai. On the west of the Bund there are more than 50 buildings from the colonial era with various architectural styles including Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Neo-Classical.
Local residents go about their daily business, oblivious to the hordes of visitors.
On the east side, across the Huangpu River, stands a cluster of eye-catching grandiose skyscrapers in the Pudong district of Shanghai, which you can see from the Bund. This area includes the Lujiazui financial district where the wealth of some residents is plain to see with no shortage of flash cars, stylish clothes and patronage of exclusive restaurants.
According to Forbes, Shanghai is now the world's most expensive city because there are a lot of very rich people living there. It now has the sixth largest concentration of billionaires in the world having ranked 18 last year. A pandemic-induced boom in ecommerce and pharmaceutical companies over the past year has added to the wealth of local billionaires.
You can reach Pudong by taking a “pod” or automated car through the Bund Sightseeing Tunnel – a vision of psychedelic colours – travelling under the Huangpu River and terminating at the Pudong financial district.
The Oriental Pearl Tower, located in Pudong Park, is China’s second-tallest radio and TV tower, at 468 metres and 153 floors. It provides the city with more than 10 television channels and a similar number of FM radio stations.
Back on the west side is the shopping mecca of Nanjing Road, a five-kilometre-long mainly pedestrian walkway with more than 600 shops on both sides of the road. The bustling street dates back to the Qing Dynasty and many of the same shops from that time are still trading today.
Along this largely pedestrian-friendly street are stores selling consumer goods of every conceivable type, street vendors selling Chinese foods, and souvenir stalls and expensive boutiques as well as a number of mega shopping malls and department stores. It is also an entertainment hub, home to many theatres, cinemas and street performers.
Yuyuan Garden, or Garden of Happiness, was a private garden of the Pan family built more than 400 years ago in the times of the Ming Dynasty. It was the largest and most famed garden of its time in ancient Shanghai.
Today it is spread over five acres of land and is composed of six major scenic areas with distinct features. Each area is separated by undulating stone walls finished off with a dragon’s head. Yuhua Hall, or the Jade Magnificence Hall, is one of the most renowned areas of the garden where the magnificent Jade Rock Sculpture is situated. The Inner Garden is full of rockeries, ponds, pavilions, and towers.
People’s Square Park is the colourful town square of Shanghai and its most central landmark. It is surrounded by green zones, museums, inexpensive local restaurants and street food stalls, all kinds of shopping, and several tourist attractions.
Local residents really use this park to the limit, strolling on the lawns, walking or jogging on the tracks, practising tai chi and martial arts, flying kites, roller-skating or just sitting for hours on the bench seats provided. The park has walking paths flanked by trees, a small amusement park and lake, fountains and rock gardens.
Farther afield is the former French Concession, a delightful area with gorgeous tree-lined avenues through which to stroll. It has a huge variety of trendy cafes and restaurants, bars, boutiques, art galleries, antique stores and other establishments.
Concessions were lands given over or conceded to other countries and controlled by their respective governments. This area is a part of Shanghai that was administered by the French government for almost a hundred years, from 1849 to 1943. The French Concession has no definitive boundaries now; its extensive eight-kilometre area falls within the urban centre of Puxi, west of the Bund.
The French Concession is an oasis of calm in the midst of the crowded and bustling skyscraper metropolis. The early 20th century Tudor and European style mansions and villas built along the avenues, streets and alleys of the area are lined with gorgeous sycamore trees imported from France during the time of its control.
By the 1920s it had become a premium residential area in Shanghai, and today it is one of the most sought-after places to live, besides being home to popular shopping and dining spots. The combination of French and Chinese cultures makes it a truly unique and fascinating area, and one where I could happily have spent a lot longer.
These sights took up the four days of our stay, but there is much more to see so don’t skimp on your time here if you decide to visit.
Shanghai is good to walk around, it carries its population well and seems somehow less congested than other heavily populated Chinese cities. It’s also clean and safe, although I was frequently waylaid by pesky shoe-shine men who won't leave you alone. Wearing canvas shoes will reduce but not eliminate your chances of being accosted.
Photos © Judy Barford