At the mouth of the Yangtze River, Shanghai became the hub of European imperial ambitions in mainland China after the Opium Wars, and today is the powerhouse of a dramatic economic revolution. Double-digit growth over the past decade has added over 4,000 skyscrapers to its futuristic skyline (twice the number of New York’s). Giant TV screens, neon-lit malls and 10-lane expressways have become emblematic of the downtown area, whose big-name designer boutiques and supercar showrooms are striking reminders of China’s new affluence.
Monuments to Shanghai’s previous mega-boom, which transformed the city during the 1920s, abound along the Bund, the iconic walkway lining the Huangpo River. The best place in the city to get your bearings, this breezy promenade backed by stately old Neo-Classical and Art Deco buildings faces the dramatic skyline of Pudong across the water – a mesmerizing spectacle around sunset when the twinkling lights of its innumerable tower blocks are reflected in the water.
The contemporary pleasures of shopping, eating and gallery browsing are very much the order of the day here, but you shouldn’t miss the fabulous museum – one of China’s finest – nor the classical Ming-era gardens of Yu Yuan.
To get a sense of what the port must have been like at the twilight of the colonial era, explore the low-rise and leafy French Concession district, where the European powers first took root in the 18th century, and which later became a desirable residential neighbourhood; it’s now filled with elegant villas, shops, cafés and restaurants.