Shanghai: Past, Present, and Future

Something that I really love about Shanghai is that you can simply turn down a different street and end up somewhere that feels like a whole new city. Many of the main roads feel like any major metropolis in the world, but turn down a small winding ally and you find yourself in a China that you know only from the movies. One direction will take you to a more European past and another will take you in to a neon Future that belongs to China.

So here are my favorite places in Shanghai which reflect it’s storied past, it’s trendy modern flare, and it’s dreams of the future.


The koi pond in the Yuyuan Gardens


The Past

If you want to see China as you think about it from Kung Fu films, then the Yuyuan Gardens are it. It’s a recreation of a historic town, which means at times it borders the line between history and kitch. That being said I a) don’t mind kitch, and b) it is still beautiful. It’s worth a go to see yet another facet of Shanghai and to indulge in an aesthetic of the past. Admittedly I’ve never been here when it’s not packed with tourists–so if you can’t put up with the people this will not be the place for you. Actually, China may not be the place for you…think about that one before you book your trip.


Ink drawing in the Shanghai Museum

If you want guaranteed proper history, then the Shanghai Museum, located just off Renmin Square, is the place for you. This is history covering the full range of Chinese history and is a major attraction in the city (see above note about crowds).

french consession

Building in the French Concession


In 1842 Shanghai was one of five port cities that were open to foreigners and foreign trade which explains why parts of the city have such a distinct European vibe. The French Concession is one of these neighborhoods that were populated quite heavily by Expats in days gone by and their imported architectural styles still remain. For being in the middle of a major city, either tree lined streets are amazingly quiet and a nice place for a leisurely walk.

renmin park 2

The lily pads in Renmin Park


Modern China

The closest comparison that I can think of for Shanghai’s Renmin Park is Central Park in New York. The park is huge, with different buildings and various gardens through out. It’s a great spot to just sit and chill for a while. Something I’ve always enjoyed about visiting parks in China are watching people have their wedding photos done. Wedding photos in China are really elaborate affairs that occur weeks before the actual wedding (the pictures will be displayed at the event). On a nice day around every corner you can find another woman and in a massive cupcake dress having living up her modeling dream. I really don’t care so much about the getting married part, but it looks like a lot of fun to get to wear pretty dresses for a day and have your picture professionally done in the nicest park in the city! Some of the gardens that make up the park are very historical but the park also holds the Shanghai Art Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art.


Fountain in Xintiandi


For the height of trendy, wander over to the Xintiandi neighborhood. Old buildings have been restored and now house cafes, restaurants, and cute boutique shops. This is the kind of place to grab a drink and a seat on the patio and just people watch. Also if you’re looking for a unique and uniquely Chinese souvenir, I’d look here. On the main tourist roads like Nanjing Lu you will find a lot of the shops selling the same things. In Xintiandi’s small shops you’re looking at more bespoke shops, though prices will, accordingly, be higher. Or if shopping isn’t really your thing, while you’re this neighbor hood check out the building that was the birth place of Chinese Communism. You can’t miss black and red stripped building!


The view across the Huangpu River

The Futuristic

First thing you need to do is go to the Bund. This is a walk along the western bank on the Huangpu River. Behind you are old buildings that are a part of the city’s European heritage. Across the river is the Pudong side, and this is the iconic skyline of neon lit skyscrapers that we think of when we think of Shanghai. Take some pictures, take a nice leisurely walk and really start to get a feel for the city. For the same view, but with drinks, a couple blocks away there is a hotel/hostel call The Captains which has my favorite view of the city from it’s roof top bar/restaurant. They also happen to be my favorite place to stay!

the bottle opener

Left: The World Financial Tower. Right: The view of the city from the bar in the Park Hyatt

If you’re going over the the Pudong side of the river, you’re probably planning on going to the World Financial Tower. It’s the really tall one that looks like a bottle opener. One of this building’s claim to fame is that it has the highest observation walk in the world (at least at the time of writing this). It is cool, don’t get me wrong. But I don’t really feel like it is quite 180 RMB cool. A way better option is to go the bar in the Park Hyatt instead! Only a couple of floors below the observation deck you can take the elevator up to the hotel for free. The only cost will be your drinks and there are no crazy and loud crowds shoving each other out of the way to get a better photo.


Nanjing Lu, always a classic

If you want to get your over dose of neon, head over to Nanjing Lu. Save this pedestrian street for night so you can see the hundreds of neon signs that line the street in their full glory. If all this walking making you hungry but you’re in the middle of Nanjing Lu and all you can see is the McDonalds on one side and Starbucks on the other but not feeling the western food options, never fear you are never far away from a whole other side of this city. Look around for a small side street all lit up and just take a wander down. What you may find may be a whole other side to China you did not expect.