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History and Culture

Shanghai Express: 48 hours in China’s largest city

In Shanghai discover designer shopping, delicious dim sum and a captivating mix of the modern rubbing shoulders with ancient China.

By Jeannine Williamson

Shanghai is an amazing destination packed with superlatives. It’s China’s largest city by population – more than 24 million at the last count -–with skyscrapers that outdo each other every few years and what once was the longest bar in the world. So much so, it’s hard to believe that at one time Shanghai was a tiny fishing village on a tributary of the Yangtze River.

The city’s fortunes were built on its strategic position at the mouth of the East China Sea and it became an important trading post with Europe and the Americas. With its advantageous port location and economic potential, it opened up to the outside world and foreign trade following the 1842 Treaty of Nanking that marked the end of the first Opium War between the British and Chinese.

Shanghai’s most recognisable sight can be found down on the waterfront beside the Huangpu River. The Bund, stretching along a sweeping mile-long promenade, is a wonderful mix of historic buildings that face skyscrapers on the opposite Pudong bank. In 2015 the giddying 128-storey, 2,000ft Shanghai Tower eclipsed the Shanghai World Financial Centre and became the tallest building in the whole of China.

Other notable buildings include the Art Deco Peace Hotel, Gothic Bank of China, and Customs House which is topped by a clock face and bell modelled on London’s Big Ben. Although The Bund is a tourist magnet at any time of the day, don’t miss the chance to go at night when it becomes a neon-lit spectacle. 

If you’re feeling thirsty and want to treat yourself, stop off for a cocktail at the five-star Waldorf Astoria Shanghai which occupies a prime spot overlooking the river. It was originally the Shanghai Club, a popular watering hole for British nationals, and when the gentlemen’s club opened in 1910 the 39ft bar was reputedly the longest in the world. It’s been restored to its former glory and photos on the wall show what it was like in its heyday.

Shanghai is also known as Oriental Paris, with luxury shops selling designer fashions. You can flex the plastic in Nanjing Road, the main shopping street that stretches more than three miles from The Bund to People’s Square. Some of Shanghai’s grand old department stores can be found in East Nanjing Road and West Nanjing Road is where you’ll find swish shopping malls.

For a total contrast head to Old Shanghai where you can stroll through narrow lanes filled with patient locals queuing up for dim sum. The tranquil five-acre Yuyuan or Yu Garden, just off the central square, was created in 1559 during the Ming Dynasty. Walls shaped like dragons divide the garden into different areas and pools are filled with glistening coy carp.

You’ll find more culture at Shanghai Museum which is a striking building in the shape of a ding, an ancient circular Chinese cooking vessel. Situated near People’s Square, the displays include impressive collections of bronze, sculptures, calligraphy, jade, coins and ceramics plus a colorful exhibition of clothing.

Whether you prefer ancient or modern, sophisticated Shanghai will fit the bill.

Published 03.03.22