Shanghai’s appeal has long been its breathtaking skyline, glitzy nightlife and brash, anything-goes attitude. A cultural mecca it was not. In recent years, though, China’s commercial capital has started to develop a more sophisticated side. A host of high-profile museum openings and the launch of several influential art fairs — ART021, West Bund Art & Design and Photofairs Shanghai — have solidified Shanghai’s status as a major player in the Asian art world, while new performing arts venues like the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra Hall have vastly improved its theater and music offerings. Yes, there are still shopping malls aplenty, but also, increasingly, independent bookstores, creative entrepreneurs and seriously good coffee shops.
3 pm - Art Stroll
For a city its size, Shanghai had been famously short on two things — green space and art. To remedy that, the city splashed out to build its own Museum Mile, along with a riverside park, in a new district known as West Bund. The Yuz Museum, housed in a Sou Fujimoto-designed former aircraft hangar, has been at the forefront of the cultural awakening here, hosting high-profile shows featuring Andy Warhol, Alberto Giacometti and the Brooklyn-based artist KAWS in recent years. A short walk down the river is a fast-growing arts complex filled with studios and galleries, including the venerable ShanghART, which exhibits works by emerging Chinese artists and sells pieces by more established names like Zhou Tiehai and Ding Yi. Added to the mix last fall was another highly-anticipated gallery, the Tokyo-based Ota Fine Arts.
6 pm - Happy Hour On High
It’s hard to fathom that the futuristic skyline of the Pudong financial district was little more than farmland 30 years ago. Ponder that while sipping a cocktail and taking in the fantastic light show at sunset, when the gleaming towers are illuminated with flashing “I Heart Shanghai” messages, and boats, twinkling with lights, glide by on the river. Perches abound for this neon-bathed sundowner, but the 30th floor balcony at the Hotel Indigo’s Char Bar offers one of the best vantage points — not to mention a highly drinkable Aperol spritz.
7:30 pm - Beef Auction
Shanghai is loaded with celebrity chefs, but none can match the staying power of the Frenchman Paul Pairet, founder of the late-night stalwart Mr & Mrs Bund and the boundary-pushing, USD600-a-head (RM2,356) Ultraviolet. His latest offering, The Chop Chop Club, continues his penchant for quirky dining experiences with a grill-focused menu that pits diners against one another for the freshest cuts. A giant electronic board in the dining room announces the time dishes will be ready, along with available servings: “Bertha-oven charred oxtail teriyaki, 19:45, 4 portions, 250 renminbi!” First come are first served. The meats and fish are all expertly prepared and if you miss out on your first choice, the “B’ocktails” (pre-made cocktails in handsome glass bottles) are available all night.
9 pm - Cabaret Rebirth
Shanghai’s newfound wealth has led to a revival of the decadence and debauchery of its pre-World War II years — minus the opium dens. The most ribald party in town can be found in the distant, gritty Hongkou district at The Pearl, a former Buddhist temple transformed into a cabaret club with plush red banquettes and two tiers of balconies surrounding an intimate stage. The programme runs the gamut from gender-bending drag and burlesque shows (trapeze artists and fire jugglers make frequent, heart-pounding appearances) to less risqué fare like “jazz diva” tribute concerts, featuring largely local performers.
10 am - Mao’s Shanghai
Start the day with a history tour in the atmospheric former French Concession. The Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre takes some effort to find — it’s in the basement of an apartment building — but inside is the collector Yang Pei Ming’s impressive display of Communist propaganda art, spanning the 1940s to the post-Mao Zedong years in the late 1970s. Original posters are on sale, as are Mao’s Little Red Books in English, French and even Tibetan. Next, take in the stately, early-20th century mansions along Wukang Road, built in an array of styles. Most are closed to the public, but the nearby Former Residence of Soong Ching-ling, better known as Madame Sun Yat-sen, is worth a visit for a peek at her lovely camphor-shaded garden and the 1950s-era Soviet limousine gifted to her by Josef Stalin.
12:30 pm - Slurp Your Lunch
The sign above the wall-mounted menu says it all: “Order now, stuff now, steam now, eat now.” At Lin Long Fang, freshness is a virtue — the hole-in-the-wall restaurant specialises in one thing, xiaolongbao (soup dumplings) and does it exceedingly well, making each batch to order. The cooking demonstration is something to behold — the talkative chefs roll, stuff and pinch each bao with swiftness and precision. And the dumplings themselves easily trump those found in more upmarket locales, particularly the delectable chun xiefen (pure crab. Napkins are a necessity as these morsels can be messy.
3 pm - Artistic Threads
Amid all the same-same luxury malls in Shanghai, there are a plethora of independent boutiques to be found. Dong Liang, the go-to place for emerging Chinese women’s fashion designers, expanded two years ago with a men’s boutique; check out Chuang Qu’s mud-dyed jackets and the bold eyewear conjured up by the Shanghai label ChairEyes. For traditional textiles with a modern design, the newly opened Klee Klee sells womenswear made from organic silk and colorful pillows and quilts stitched by minority Dong artisans in rural Guizhou province, while Shokay specialises in sustainable yak-down blankets and sweaters sourced from Tibetan herders in western China.
7 pm - No-Meat Zone
For vegetarians, China can be a risky proposition — even seemingly safe dishes like green beans and tofu are often sprinkled with pork. But at Dashu Wujie, a serene restaurant with wood tables, soft lighting and translucent gauze screens separating diners, the aim is to showcase inventive vegetarian cooking with a seasonal menu and ingredients from far-flung regions of China. (The wild mushrooms, for one, are flown in from Yunnan province on the Myanmar border.) Dishes like chive-oil walnuts in a green pepper sauce and Japanese-style panko-crusted mushroom tonkatsu are flavorful, as well. It’s a dry restaurant, though you’ll hardly notice after tasting the fizzy oolong cranberry vinegar tea.
10 pm - Vintage Tunes
From the art deco lettering out front to the polished brass fan design arching above patrons on the ceiling, the intimate jazz bar Heyday evokes the glamour days of 1920s and ‘30s Shanghai when jazz flourished in the hedonistic foreign concessions. The drinks menu, too, gives a wink to jazz classics, with concoctions like “Minnie the Moocher” (Benedictine, amaro, lemon, yuzu marmalade and egg white), named after a song by Cab Calloway. Led by the Russian-Israeli pianist Oleg Roschin, a longtime fixture on the Shanghai jazz scene, the Heyday band plays nightly, fronted by a rotating cast of singers. Cover charges for the tables and booths vary, but seats in the bar area are free. And in a venue this cozy, there’s literally not a bad seat in the house.
6 am - Bundrise Wake-up
Late-night revelers and early risers find common inspiration at the historic Bund this time of the day — the tranquil sight of pensioners practicing tai chi as the sun rises over the Pudong skyline and the Huangpu River (known to some as a Bundrise). It’s also a great spot for a jog — north along the Bund across the century-old steel Waibaidu Bridge and then along Suzhou Creek. If this is too early for you, grab coffee instead at The Press, an atmospheric café in the beautifully restored, historic Shun Pao building, the former home of one of Shanghai’s first daily newspapers.
10 am - Lofty Lookout
At 2,073 feet, Shanghai Tower, the second-tallest building on earth, doesn’t just dwarf the other skyscrapers around it, it makes them look laughably small. On a clear day, the bird’s-eye view from the observation deck on the 118th floor is equally impressive — an endless tableau of apartment blocks and office towers stretching to the horizon, interrupted only by the placid, snaking Huangpu. For skyscraper aficionados, the swooping, cylindrical tower also has an informative museum with all sorts of factoids. Not only does the building feature the world’s heaviest damper to prevent swaying (1,100 tonnes), it also has the world’s fastest elevators, whisking visitors to the top at an ear-popping 40 miles per hour.
The long-awaited Capella Shanghai, the Singapore-based luxury chain’s first China property, opened in September last year in a restored Shanghai Shikumen lane complex originally built for French traders in the 1930s. The property features 55 villas set in three-story traditional houses with private courtyards and rooftop balconies.
Another recent arrival, the W Shanghai has a plum location just north of the Bund, providing stunning views of the Pudong skyline from the outdoor pool deck. A comical touch in the 374 rooms: pillows in the shape of soup dumplings and oversized chopsticks.