In Shanghai, exploring old and new

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The Yuyuan Garden in Shanghai, formerly called the Ming Dynasty Garden, dates to the 16th century.
The Yuyuan Garden in Shanghai, formerly called the Ming Dynasty Garden, dates to the 16th century. Photo Credit: Roger Allnutt

Tall, new buildings may dominate the skyline of China's financial capital today, but you don't have to go far to find the pulsing heart and history of Shanghai.

Early morning is the best time to explore, especially the produce markets with dazzling displays of fresh vegetables, meat, fish and delicacies such as crab and eels. Whole shops are devoted to door handles or bathroom taps.

The best shopping streets are along and close to Nanjing Road, with top-end shopping malls such as Plaza 66, Shanghai Center and City Plaza. The Chinese economy might be experiencing a downturn, but you would hardly notice it in Shanghai.

A must for every visitor is a stroll down the Bund, the famous promenade along the western bank of the Huangpu River. The Bund provides panoramic views augmented by the bustle of barges and pleasure craft passing by on the river. At night, the illuminations are a visual wonderland.

On the eastern bank of the river across from the Bund is the 1,535-foot-high Oriental Pearl Tower. The views from the observation deck, especially on a clear day, are stunning. While there, don't miss the Shanghai Historical Museum in the basement, a wonderful evocation of life in Shanghai through the ages. Another great view is from the observation deck on the 88th floor of the Jin Mao Tower, which also houses the Grand Hyatt Shanghai.

A view of the east bank of Huangpu River.
A view of the east bank of Huangpu River. Photo Credit: Roger Allnutt

Many of the buildings from Shanghai's 1930s heyday, when Britain and France still held considerable influence over the city's commerce, remain close to the Bund, although renaming and repurposing have made some hard to identify.

The Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank was possibly the most important bank in Shanghai during the early years of the 20th century. In 1996, the Shanghai Pudong Development Bank took over the building, restoring the marvelous marble columns and interior, the crystal mirrors and the frescoes that represent the overseas offices of the original owners and the ceiling painted with the signs of the Western zodiac.

The Peace Hotel situated on the corner of Nanjing Road has been superbly refurbished as the Fairmont Peace Hotel, where the Jazz Bar harkens back to the 1920s and '30s with a European-inspired menu and a six-piece band of veteran musicians.

Farther down Nanjing Road, you come to People's Square in what was once a horse-racing track. On one side is the futuristic Grand Theatre, built in 1998 and host of performances including opera, musicals and plays; on the other is the superb Shanghai Museum, crammed with priceless porcelain, pottery, jade, furniture, calligraphy and other traditional crafts. At least half a day is required to even scratch the surface of its treasures.

Centuries ago the center of Shanghai was dominated by the lovely Ming Dynasty Garden, now called the Yuyuan Garden. The approach to the entrance is past the ornately decorated Huxingting Teahouse, featuring upswept eaves and red lacquer paneling. Inside the gardens, built between 1559 and 1577, is a tranquil oasis of bridges over small pools, artificial mountains and many pavilions.

The gardens are surrounded by myriad shops and restaurants; try the city's popular dumplings or other selections from the stalls often operating in the open spaces. The area is always packed at night.

You can visit the residence of revolutionary hero Sun Yat-sen and also the house where his widow, Soong Ching Ling, lived after his death in 1924. In the garage of the latter are two old limousines, one presented to her by Josef Stalin in 1952. These buildings are found in what was the French Concession area of Shanghai, and some of the stylish original buildings still exist.

The Jing'An Temple on Nanjing Road West is the main Buddhist temple in Shanghai. The nearby gardens of the same name are a green oasis in the heart of the city and are packed daily with people practicing tai chi or ballroom dancing. I stayed at the Equatorial Hotel, close to the temple and well positioned for exploring Shanghai.

Not to be missed is a performance by the amazing acrobats at Shanghai Circus City, whose act includes riding eight motorcycles at one time within a large globe.

A great way to get to and from Pudong Airport is by maglev train, which makes the 19-mile trip in about 7.5 minutes for about $10.

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