Home to one of the world’s most dramatic skylines, Shanghai is a 21st-century boomtown, a glittering, nonstop celebration of economic success. Yet there are hidden pockets of the city’s former life here, made all the more precious by the neon glare around them.
Author Gabrielle Jaffe Photography Chris Sorensen
DAY ONE | Propped up on your canopied bed at Hotel Indigo, you gaze out onto the broad Huangpu River, upon which hulking cargo ships vie with pleasure boats and ferries for right-of-way. To your left is The Bund, an impressive sweep of neoclassical and art deco buildings erected in Shanghai’s early-20th-century heyday. Opposite, on the east bank, the megascrapers of the Pudong district pierce the sky, forming a dreamlike futuristic tableau.
Downstairs, you pause to take in the lobby’s undulating walls of wood and rusted metal, built to mimic the inside of a ship with materials salvaged from nearby dockyards. It’s a fine example of the inventiveness that characterizes much of Shanghai’s design, but you have a busy day ahead, so you pull yourself away and catch a cab to Kabb. Arriving at this downtown international bistro—a favorite among cosmopolitan locals—you sink into a burgundy leather booth and watch smartly dressed Shanghainese business types conduct breakfast meetings before you are distracted by a generous portion of banana-walnut French toast and fruit salad.
Kabb is tucked away in a courtyard in Xintiandi, a pedestrianized complex of old-style gray-brick shikumen buildings that accommodates some of the city’s most stylish cafés and boutiques. In the midst of all this, incongruously, is the Museum of the First National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, a study in Communist self-aggrandizement: Artifacts celebrating “the heroic struggles of the Chinese people” are nearly crowded out by photographs of current officials touring the exhibition. Still, you are fascinated by the grainy photos of revolutionary Shanghai—its rickshaw jams, its somber military men.
After paying your respects to a wax figurine of Chairman Mao, you head east toward the Old City, a route that takes you through Dongtai Road Antiques Market, a maze of open-air stalls selling everything from phonographs to Mao’s Little Red Book. “It’s all real!” cries one vendor, who’s eager to sell you a “Ming dynasty” calligraphy brush. You pass.
Next up is the Wan Shang Flower and Bird Market. On entering, you’re hit with a wave of sound: chirps, squawks, parrots mimicking Mandarin. Squeezing through the thrushes and cockatoos, you spy a group of men bent over something. They are busy evaluating crickets, which are kept in tiny boxes. “We keep them because they sing,” says one of the men, before passing over 30 RMB (about $5) for his chosen specimen.
Outside, you continue past shoeshine stands and sidewalk barbers until you reach Shouning, a street famed for its seafood, where you pick up a heap of cheap, delicious oysters roasted on an open grill. Crossing over Renmin Road, you reach White Cloud Temple, a red-walled edifice whose traditional, upward-curving eaves contrast with the buildings towering around it. Inside, amid a haze of incense, devotees light candles. You go up to the second-floor balcony, which looks out onto a construction site—another warren of old streets soon to be replaced by high-rises.
Next, you put yourself in the hands of tour company Shanghai Flaneur, billed as a “walking think-tank.” Your appointed guide, an architect named Fanny Hoffmann-Loss, walks you along The Bund, the broad riverside boulevard lined with belle epoque and art deco structures. Inside the grand 1920s-era offices of HSBC, there’s a series of frescoes that was covered up by the government in the 1950s for being too decadent. “Luckily, they were only painted over with a thin layer, so were easily restored,” Hoffmann-Loss says. “The architect must have known what he was doing when he covered them so lightly.”
From here, you cross the river via the kitschy Bund Sightseeing Tunnel, a multicolored tube that resembles the inside of a roller disco. In Pudong, you stand on an elevated walkway, taking in the imposing parade of glass and steel giants, then ride the ferry back. From the deck, watching the sun fizzle over the water and the skyscrapers light up, you contemplate your evening meal.
Dinner tonight is at Hotel Indigo’s Char, one of the city’s best steakhouses. You tuck into a degustation board of perfectly cooked wagyu fillet, grain-fed sirloin and grass-fed rib-eye, as well as a helping of banana cheesecake, whimsically served in a round wooden cheese box. Having eaten your fill and then some, you ascend to the terrace bar for a nightcap. You stay here longer than you intended, losing yourself once again in that killer skyline.