Is it possible to explore the vast sights and sounds of one of the world’s largest cities within the time it takes for your Taobao order to arrive?
For many, a trip to Shanghai is thought to be a costly, time-consuming experience requiring military-grade organisation and management. However, in today’s age of fast consumption, easy travel and the easing of visa and layover restrictions, it’s now easier than ever to make the most of your short stay in Shanghai.
With this in mind, I set about utilising a weekend in order to explore the main attractions of the city, as well as throwing in some lesser-known locations off the beaten track.
As I currently live in Anhui province, a train trip to Shanghai takes just under 3 hours. High-speed rail (高铁 gaotie) from Beijing is around a 6-hour journey, with earlier trains pulling into the Shanghai by around midday. Tickets are available online for roughly 550RMB, with price of course decreasing the nearer you are to Shanghai. I bought my tickets using the Alipay app and reserved my hotel on Booking.com.
I’d chosen a hotel just a 10 minute walk from Shanghai train station for it’s central location, which made getting around the city that little bit easier. After checking in, I headed straight for the city’s subway system.
The subway itself is mostly uncomplicated, with ticket machines available in English and Chinese. Ticket prices vary depending on distance, with shorter journies costing around 3-4RMB. If you’re a Mandarin-speaker, allow time to be befuddled for a minute standing in front of the machine trying recognise the translations of stations that you might only know in Mandarin. Sweat nervously as the queue behind you amasses.
My first destination was West Nanjing road on Line 2, home to the famous shopping street Nanjing Road shopping street (南京路 nanjing lu). I didn’t actually dwell too long here. I’m not about to whip out the ironic ‘too many tourists’ complaint, it’s just that once you’ve had a browse around some flagship stores and paused for a coffee, there’s so much more nearby waiting for you. Besides, Etude House didn’t have the eyeliner I wanted. The idyllic trams bustling people up and down the pedestrian street do make for nice photographs though.
I soon headed towards the top of Nanjing Road where the street opens out to the internationally-recognised spectacle that is The Bund (外滩 waitan). Looking out onto Shanghai’s stellar skyline, you can join crowds of people here in raising a selfie-stick and capturing a panorama, as well as counting the amount of skyscrapers that weren’t there last time you were here.
Gucheng Park, Old Town and Yu Gardens
While the views are spectacular to drink in, I was in need of a more literal beverage, and so walked south along The Bund and onto Renmin Road (人民路 renmin lu), which opens up onto Gucheng Park (古城公园 gucheng yuan). The park is clean, and in relatively good weather is usually packed with picnic-goers, children playing various games and sun-seekers. The park is also convenient for accessing another high-profile tourist destination, the Old Town and Yu Gardens (豫园 yu yuan). The Yu Gardens are great for snapping photos of the dreamy vision of China – peaked rooftops and scarlet pillars, all guilded with animal sculptures and carvings, and if you’re of the souvenir persuasion, there are hundreds of small stores selling trinkets and postcards to send home (usually at an inflated price, try to shop elsewhere if you’re looking for a bargain).
After a quick drink (the surrounding area has plenty of Chinese restaurants and small drink and snack booths), it was time to slow my pace and enjoy a long stroll through the smaller streets further westwards. Rows upon rows of shuttered windows house steamy restaurants that spill out onto the streets.
Once you’ve sampled a few pork buns (包子 baozi), the smaller back streets open up onto the gleaming new structures of the Fuxing Soho (复兴SOHO). The buildings are lined like bookcases, and within them you’ll find a variety of restarants, cafes and stationary shops. Often travellers can be turned off by a city’s modern offerings, but personally I feel like one brand new cafe is just as ‘authentic’ and valid as an old tearoom. The vibe and experience may be different, but don’t shy away from also exploring China’s present as well as it’s past.
In any case, I opted to stop for a drink and a cupcake at the LINE Cafe. LINE, a popular messaging service in Asia, is famous mainly for it’s cult-favourite sticker characters including Brown the bear and Cony the rabbit. At the cafe, you can shop for merchandise and eat a range of sweet treats named and based on the famous characters themselves. And of course, don’t hesitate to sit on the knee of the giant Brown bear teddy for a photo.
A short walk westwards will also lead you to a more hidden gem of Shanghai. The winding alleyways of TianZiFang (田子坊) pack a plethora of crowded bars, restaurants, snack shops and boutiques. Choose from a range of local and worldwide cuisines, and know that you have the choice to head into the rabbit hole of bars or take a taxi back to your accommodation for a long night’s sleep. Your next day is going to need some precise execution.
Qibao Ancient Town
Provided you aren’t nursing a headache from a long night’s partying, I’d advise waking early to get the most out of your short trip. I checked out and quickly wolfed down breakfast (many local Chinese breakfasts are really belly-stuffing), and once again headed to the subway for a trip to Shanghai’s old water town – Qibao (七宝古镇).
Unlike most ancient water towns in China, Qibao is unique in that you can access it by subway. Fast becoming swallowed by new shopping malls and crystal skyscrapers, it remains as a small throwback to China’s past.
After exiting the subway, you may be tempted by the many offers of a taxi to the town, but it is actually less than a ten minute walk right out of the station, before turning right again at a crossroads opposite a mall. Signs are mainly in Chinese, so look for ‘七宝古镇’ or ‘七宝老街’. Entry is free.
Qibao is a tourist paradise and is packed with holiday goers in the sunny months. Shops are spilling over with souvenir goodies and over the small river is a range of cafes, restaurants and shops to buy snacks such as pork buns, tofu and fried meat. It is worth a sample if you’re not in China for long, although it will be more expensive than the norm.
The river itself is nice to see, although there didn’t seem to be any boat trips being offered as are available in larger water towns like Wuzhen (乌镇). In any case, you’ll be satisfied after a morning of strolling around.
Now, your time will almost be up, and it’s time to head home. The easy thing about Qibao is that you’ll be directly linked to the station by subway, so all that’s needed is for you to gather up your bags and newly-bought momentos and head home.Leave an hour or two for any unexpected delays, especially as the main train stations and roads can be jammed with commuters.
So there you have it, my experience of 24 hours in Shanghai. Of course, tastes may vary, but I felt like I made the most of my time and the trip packed in a great blend of the old and the new. I’d originally planned to visit a converted slaughterhouse that is now a hangout for artists and photographers, but in the end I felt that Qibao promised more adventure. Was I right or wrong? If you think I missed out on a must-see, let me know in the comments!