Sprawling Shanghai, with a population of 24 million, can be daunting for visitors. The city has centuries of history, a dizzying array of skyscraper-topped neighborhoods and packed sidewalks, restaurants and shops. Travelers often need help figuring out how to get around and paring down the sights to see during a short stay.
That's where Context Travel wants to step in. The company operates in 38 major destinations, including Shanghai, where it offers private and group tours for independent travelers.
Context, which has a travel agent portal that tracks bookings and commissions, owns and manages its tours to ensure quality control rather than using a third party, said Paul Bennett, marketing director.
They "are a great option for agents who don't want to sign their clients up for an all-inclusive package but are rather designing their trips piece by piece."
One recent sunny morning in Shanghai, Shasha Liu met me at my hotel for Context's two-hour "Welcome to Shanghai" tour, a private program.
Through email, Context had passed along to her my interests: sampling the famous dumplings, some shopping and exploring the major sites.
Liu, an art consultant with a master's degree from the California College of the Arts, arrived with a small notebook full of suggestions written both in English and Chinese so that I could show it to taxi drivers.
She recommended heading to the ceramics and ancient bronze era sections of the mammoth Shanghai Museum, either at the start or end of the day to avoid the crowds.
Liu also suggested Tianzifang, a charming maze of shops and restaurants in the French Concession. She outlined which subway stops were close to my hotel, how to hail taxis and marked on a map several of her favorite restaurants, including Yang's Dumplings.
Finally, she gave me her cellphone number and encouraged me to call anytime during my stay.
Context Travel guides can offer visitors historical insights as well as personal recommendations. Pictured, some of the offerings at Yang’s Dumplings in Shanghai. Photo Credit: Laura Del Rosso
Later, on Context's "The Bund and Shanghai in the '20s" tour, I walked with Graham Earnshaw, an English author who has lived in and written about Shanghai since 1979.
Earnshaw shared his deep understanding of the local culture as we strolled through the Fairmont Peace Hotel and the historical Bund waterfront with jaw-dropping views of the Pudong district.
He has written about Shanghai history — from the 1842 opium war, to when it was an open-trading port, to the 1949 takeover of the communist government — and discussed businessmen such as Victor Sassoon, a Brit who helped develop the Bund.
The three-hour walk wound its way through longtangs, narrow alleys lined with old houses and communal kitchens. Earnshaw described how the traditional ways have been transformed in one of the world's most 21st-century cities.
As with the best guides, after spending time with Liu and Earnshaw, I came away in awe of what I had seen and heard about Shanghai old and new.
Context's Bennett told me that the company chooses guides for their "depth of knowledge, their personability and their obvious attachment to their cities. They have studied their subjects for years and enjoy passing on this knowledge." It certainly showed.