Unlike Beijing, Guangzhou or anywhere else in China, Shanghai really is an international city. Which means, in my mind, that with a bit of searching, an expat can find all of the comfort food and reading material she’s been missing. For me, a week in Shanghai is a week of lattes, Indian food and sandwiches. With cheese.
But don’t take away my traveler’s credentials just yet. The juxtapositions of past and present in Shanghai are fascinating to explore — walk along the Bund for a fragment of old Europe, while the skyscrapers of Pudong glimmer just across the river. The Shanghai Museum is unmissable. And it’s easy to use the city as a base for a couple of fantastic day trips.
Places to See
The museum’s collections are fantastic, but it is the organization that really shines. Objects are grouped according to medium, so all the calligraphy is in one gallery, porcelain in another, etc. Within each gallery, objects are generally organized chronologically, so you can see how styles evolved over time. Unlike many Chinese museums, the Shanghai Museum boasts plenty of (well-translated) captions and pamphlets on each different medium. This is a brilliant way to aid those of us without much background knowledge about Chinese art. Previously stultifying exhibits on calligraphy become much more interesting when you know the difference between seal script and running script.
Take the subway to Renmin Guangchang (Lines 1 and 2) and follow signs to the museum. [October 2008]
Xintiandi and the Site of the 1st National Congress of the CCP
It took me far too long to find the Site of the 1st National Congress of the Communist Party. I spent upwards of half an hour within two blocks of the museum, turning my Lonely Planet map this way and that, circling the same block over and over. No matter which way I looked at it, the dot on the map seemed to be smack-dab in the middle of a very modern, very Western, very expensive outdoor mall.
That would be Xintiandi. The brain-child of Hong Kong developers, Xintiandi’s upscale shops, restaurants and coffee shops are housed in restored shikumen. Walking past crowds of foreigners and locals sipping 80 RMB Paulaner beers, one imagines Mao spinning in his grave.
Which is why it is so delightful that the development is wrapped around the Site of the 1st National Congress of the Communist Party. The museum entrance is on the eastern side of the development, and signage within Xintiandi is nonexistent. Once you’ve found it, the museum has some good artifacts from the early days of the Party and from their struggle with the Nationalists. Plus there’s a life-sized diorama of the first meeting in July 1921. But mainly, go to enjoy the irony of the modern-day setting for this historical legacy.
Xintiandi is located east of the French Concession. Get off Metro Line 1 at South Huangpi Road and walk south. [October 2008]
Shikumen Open House Museum
Shikumen describes a style of house design popular in Shanghai in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Just a couple of stories tall, the shikumen blended Western and Chinese architectural styles. Because of population growth after World War II, many of these were converted to use as tenements. Now, the shikumen are disappearing, except in Xintiandi. The developers kept one shikumen open as a house museum, decorated as if it were a single-family home from the early 1900s. Examine the extensive, historically-appropriate furnishings and odds-and-ends and imagine that you are the scion of this wealthy family.
The museum is located in the Xintiandi shopping complex. Admission is 20 RMB. [October 2008]
Blue Mountain Youth Hostel
There’s nothing outstanding about the Blue Mountain Youth Hostel, but there aren’t any major problems, either. Rooms are small but clean, and the bathroom facilities are quite nice. There is free Internet, but the computers are woefully slow.
The hostel is incredibly convenient to the subway (a stop is literally right across the street), but it’s not in walking distance of any tourist destinations. The area around the hostel is a residential neighborhood, so you can see how regular Shanghaiites live. (Hint: Fewer Starbucks, and more baozi, than you’ll see in the French Concession.)
Dorm beds cost 40-50 RMB, and some private rooms are available. Reservations can be made at hostelworld.com. The hostel is located at 1072 Nong Quxi Lu. Take Metro Line 4 to the Lu Ban Road exit. When you exit the station, the hostel will be right across the street or just around the corner. [October 2008]
Eating in Shanghai
The Boxing Cat Brewery
When you tire of washing every meal down with a cheap-but-bland bottle of Qingdao or its clones, come to the Boxing Cat for a taste of real microbrewed beer and American food. A hoppy IPA and a bowl of beef chili nicely satisfied my craving for American food on a stopover in Shanghai in February 2010.
The Boxing Cat is a bit of a splurge — a burger will set you back about 90 RMB while a beer will set you back another 45 RMB. A huge portion of chili costs 45 RMB. The restaurant is located at 82 Fuxing Lu (复兴西路82号) in the heart of the French Concession, near the Changshu Lu station on Metro Line 1. [February 2010]
Shanghai has a fantastic subway system, and it’s still growing. It should be able to get you anywhere you need to go for 3-8 RMB, depending on distance traveled. Most rides in the city center will cost 5 RMB or less. Taxis are, of course, also available.