I landed in Shanghai without any expectations. I’d been so busy in the days leading up to the trip that I hadn’t even cracked open a guidebook, let alone done any research on the Internet. But this might be the best way to travel to a new place—without any preconceived notions.
On the ride from the airport, I stared out the window. The scenery was distinctly foreign—starting with the signs in Chinese characters—but it was clearly a modern city with sparkling new malls featuring Prada, Chanel, and Louis Vuitton. I spent only 3 full days in Shanghai and saw merely a slice of what the city has to offer. But here are my first impressions, the sights and highlights of my visit and my favorite experience.
VISITING SHANGHAI: FIRST IMPRESSIONS
- There is endless construction going on. Clusters of tall buildings at all levels of completion are sprouting everywhere like mushrooms after the rain. They’re easy to spot by the green sheer tarps that envelop them.
- There is a lot of pollution. It was clearly sunny as I rode to the hotel but there was no blue sky. I could see the outline of the city’s skyline, some very impressive skyscrapers, but no matter how close I got, I couldn’t make out any details. It was as if I was looking at a fuzzy photo that needed de-noising.
- I saw more Starbucks coffee shops in Shanghai (including in the old town) than I’ve seen in New York where they’re on every corner. Okay, I didn’t exactly count but you get the point.
- The Shanghai metro system is a gazillion years ahead of ours in New York. The stations are clean. A sheer plastic wall seals off the tracks until the train arrives. Its doors open at the same time as the doors in the wall in front of it. There is no way for people to fall onto the tracks or to discard garbage. No rodents (if there are any) can get out of the tracks and scurry onto the platforms in between people’s legs (I’ve had that happen countless times in New York, including once when the rat got into the train car).
- Being in Shanghai feels like you have at the same time travelled into the past and the future. There are neighborhoods with narrow alleyways and old houses with bundles of electric wires hanging overhead. Towering over them are monolith skyscrapers, their facades lit at night with colorful ads—Times Square on steroids.
- I felt safe walking around on my own. I didn’t have to endure catcalls like I’ve experienced in some other cultures as a solo tourist (there is always the possibility that I’m getting older and no longer the object of such vulgarities).
- People are very friendly and helpful but can be somewhat aggressive and unaware of personal space. I had a woman nearly push me back into the ladies room stall in her rush to get in just as I was walking out. As if the next person in line was going to steal her spot. Also, people don’t shy away from belching and passing gas in public (that was true in Hong Kong as well. Post to come).
- My favorite experience in Shanghai was more of a chance encounter not to be found in guidebooks or booked by travel agents (Scroll all the way down to read about it).
SIGHTS AND HIGHLIGHTS
The Old City and Yu Garden
On my first day, I headed to the Old City. It has been spared the overdevelopment of Shanghai. The narrow disheveled streets are full of souvenir and knickknack shops, teashops and eateries and are packed with tourists. I saw at least two Starbucks and a Häagen-Dazs. Instead, I recommend trying the Huxintubg Teahouse. Even if touristy, it’s at least representative of the culture. Surrounded by a lake, you can reach it via the Nine Zig-Zag Bridge.
The Yuyuan, or Yu Garden, dates back to the 16th Century, the only surviving garden built in the Ming Dynasty. Rock gardens, bridges, and ponds surround the pavilions, creating an illusion of a natural landscape. But don’t expect a relaxing walk. You’ll be making your way through dense crowds of tourists; it’s hard to take a photo without a few strangers in your frame. Even the Koi fish in the ponds seemed too crowded.
The waterfront street known as the Bund (meaning “waterfront” or “embankment”) is lined with Western style buildings dating to the early 20th century. It is where the modern Shanghai began. Make sure to stroll the boardwalk, especially at night when the illuminated skyline of Pudong across the river comes to life. Pudong is Asia’s fastest growing financial district with 6,000 skyscrapers, most of them less than a decade old.
The light show at night is spectacular. I loved watching the boat traffic (the boats like the skyscrapers are generously lit in neon).
Jing’an Temple (The Temple of Tranquility)
Jing’an Temple is a Buddhist temple first built in 247 A.D. During the Cultural Revolution, the temple was turned into a factory for plastics but was renovated back into a temple in 1983. It’s located on one of Shanghai’s busiest thoroughfares, West Nanjing Road, bookended by an Old Navy store on one side and Kenzo and Burberry on the other. I had passed it a few times on the way in and out of my hotel and finally decided to walk the two blocks there and check it out. I had no idea I’d spent more than hour walking the grounds, watching the monks singing and the worshipers performing rituals by the fire pit in the courtyard.
Fuxing Park in the French Concession
This private garden was converted into a Parisian-style park in 1908. Strolling along its paths was a much-needed respite from the hustle and bustle of the city. It has a neighborhoody feel with old people sitting on benches, chatting or staring into space. I didn’t see a single tourist.
China Art Museum
I had to see this museum not so much for the art (although there is some interesting Modern Chinese Art) as much as for the architecture. It’s housed in the former China Pavilion of Expo 2010. I love the upside down pyramid structure, which in some ways resembles the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The ramp inside spirals along the outside walls and the windows offer a beautiful view of the Pudong skyline (hard to capture in a photo especially in such poor air quality).
I was very worried about eating in China given my diet (I can’t eat any starch because of an autoimmune disease I’m suffering from). It’s very similar to the Paleo diet; I can’t eat any gluten, rice, potatoes, or soy sauce. But I found plenty of options in Shanghai, mostly Western restaurants but also some Chinese. They were all outstanding but my favorite was Mercado in the Bund. The food was delicious; the interior was tastefully done; and the view of the Pudong Skyline across the river was stunning.
MY FAVORITE EXPERIENCE
No matter how much you research your travel destination, how much you know about it before landing there, the best experiences often are the ones you haven’t planned for. On my first day, while walking the streets of the Old City, I befriended two girls who were visiting from Beijing. They were on their way to a tea ceremony in an out-of-the-way mall in the Old City. I joined them and didn’t regret it for a minute. The young girl who performed the tea ceremony wore a traditional dress and explained the different teas and rituals—like rubbing the back of a porcelain frog for good luck—while my new friends translated for me.
But it wasn’t just the tea ceremony—which was wonderful and I wouldn’t have known to look for it—that made the experience unforgettable. It was the company of the two Chinese girls, the excitement that I was doing something that locals did, the feeling of an adventure brought on by the spur-of-the-moment decision to abandon my itinerary and explore the unknown.