Shanghai Surprises

Western influences blend with Asian tradition to create a vibrant, growing city focused on style, culture, finance and fun
travel, lifestyle, culture
Written By Lesley Conn

On one corner of Nanjing Road West, burnished wood walls rise toward a golden roof. Two ornate, imposing lions stand sentry before wide, thick doors that open into a stone courtyard—and beyond it—the Jing’an Temple.

On the opposite corner, towering alongside the temple, is a glass and steel high-rise that proudly announces its business from a giant elevated sign: Old Navy.

The juxtaposition of the two, a temple that has stood there since the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and an American-based trendy clothing store that opened in 2014, is a fitting example of the dichotomy of the thriving city of Shanghai, China—revering its history while reveling in the excitement and promise of international commerce.

For those ready to explore, Shanghai is a city that offers diverse options: Want to shop for a Maserati or McLaren before you haggle with merchants at the Hong Qiao New World Pearl Market? Want to be fitted for a custom silk suit before settling into dinner at Yongfoo Elite, a private club and restaurant in a beautifully restored former consulate? Or would you rather enjoy a cocktail and a panoramic river view before popping downstairs to shop for jewelry of the finest cut and clarity? Shanghai boasts all that and so much more.

And if you want to experience ground transportation at 268 mph, the Shanghai Maglev, the world’s fastest train, is ready to propel you at a blur from Pudong International Airport into the city. No guarantee that any selfies you take en route will be in focus, though.

International Interests

Shanghai has long known how to balance the homegrown with the foreign. An 1842 peace treaty opened the city to international governments, which quickly led to business and the blending of cultures with the British, French, Americans, and to a lesser extent, Germans and Russians. International zones, known as concessions, operated under their own autonomy and were influenced by the country that occupied them. The British and French concessions remain distinctive, popular destinations.

Like most international cities, Shanghai has an energy, a vibrant rush of people, ideas and money, much of it flowing into and out of the Pudong District, the financial nerve center for the country. With Shanghai, there is an enormity of scale that impresses even the most seasoned traveler. It is the most populated city in China with more than 23.7 million residents, and that number will grow substantially as high-rises by the dozens, extending well past the metro core, are filled with rural laborers moving into cities. So many super cranes dot Shanghai’s northern and western boundaries that the city horizon looks like opening day of a giant erector-set competition.

Despite the urgent push for progress, traditional influences can still be found, and many offer beautiful examples of art, nature, history and faith.

Of Bund and Bling

There’s no better way to get a sense of a city than walking its crowded streets, and in Shanghai, there’s no area more inviting than the final stretch of Nanjing Road East as it connects with The Bund, a historic district overlooking the Huangpu River and the iconic Oriental Pearl TV Tower. Pedestrians jostle shoulder to shoulder, constantly dodging street vendors who demonstrate all manner of gadgets and goodies. At the riverbank, the crowd spreads along a walkway, enjoying the view and the cooling breezes that play over the open space.

The Bund was part of the British Concession, and the almost mile-long stretch of waterfront showcases more than two dozen stately buildings in the architectural styles of Gothic, Baroque, Classicism and Renaissance.

Situated in the heart of The Bund is The Peninsula Shanghai hotel. Its rooftop bar offers two vital elements—attentive bartenders and panoramic views of the waterfront and the river. Go at night to enjoy the glitter and shine from the high-rises and skyscrapers across the river. For a different perspective, hop on an evening river cruise to get a marine view of The Bund. If you desire more that glitters, visit The Peninsula’s first-floor shopping arcade, which features Graff, Prada, Brioni and Stefano Ricci among others.

For even more options, head a few miles inland to the west end of Nanjing Road, where block after block, designers such as Cartier, Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci and Armani showcase their bling in gleaming storefronts.

If retail therapy seems too sedate, put some high-octane activity into the day. Shanghai International Circuit is the venue for the annual Formula One Chinese Grand Prix and has a stadium capacity of 200,000. Want to get behind the wheel? Consider a local favorite: indoor go-kart racing. Stampede Karting boasts that its 53,820-square-foot track is the largest in Asia. Both it and Disc Kart Indoor Karting feature a bar and a 2 a.m. closing time, so it’s probably a good thing the vehicles in question are powered by 60cc engines.

Cultural Affairs

Shanghai is an enormous, growing city, and the miles of concrete and blacktop can become overwhelming.

Despite the urgent push for progress, traditional influences can still be found, and many offer beautiful examples of art, nature, history and faith.

Even with its modern commercial surroundings, Jing’an Temple radiates peacefulness. While tourists quietly gape and snap photos, worshippers burn incense and whisper prayers. A 30-foot-tall tower in the courtyard offers a bit of audience participation as children and adults take turns tossing coins into its small openings; those who toss their coins into the center are said to earn good luck. Inside, three grand halls each feature massive statues of Buddha. One of them, carved in jade, is the largest of its kind in the country.

Combine history and a bit of climbing by heading about 110 miles south of Shanghai to the Six Harmonies Pagoda in Hangzhou. At more than 196 feet tall, the pagoda offers scenic views of the Qiantang River. Though from the exterior there appear to be 13 stories, inside, narrow stone stairs rise between seven floors. Visitors squeeze and brush past each other in narrow corridors, smiling and nodding and offering greetings in a multitude of languages. Each floor higher brings the reward of better views of the countryside and inside, new carvings and small artwork.

The pagoda has stood watch at the river since 1152, and according to local folklore, the original pagoda, erected in 916, was built on the advice of a Buddhist master who said it would appease an angry god in the river. Once built, that area of Hangzhou supposedly has never flooded again.

To experience the peacefulness of harmony with nature in Shanghai, head to Yuyuan Garden. Just south of The Bund, the 5-acre gardens are a bit newer than the Six Harmonies Pagoda—only more than 400 years old and dating to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Carefully tended gardens, massive rock formations, streams and ponds are spread around pavilions and walkways; spend a little time there and emerge rested and ready for the next adventure—whether Asian, Western or a fusion of both—that Shanghai seems so adept at providing.

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