Sunday, Oct. 19, 2008


Shanghai bristles with buildings, but the city doesn't boast must-see sights like New York or Rome. The joys of Shanghai, instead, are on the street level, where everyday life unfolds with bewildering variety. An elderly woman in pajamas will be chopping vegetables on the stoop of her lane house, while a Prada-clad beauty will sashay past on her way to a nearby art gallery. So sharpen your elbows, pick up a pair of chopsticks and dig in.

1. Shanghai Maglev Train

The magnetic-levitation train ride from the international airport to the city is the perfect metaphor for Shanghai. The train reaches speeds of 430 km/hr (267 miles/hr), and the trip takes less than eight minutes. You'll be feeling a bit whiplashed, but that sense of disorientation hints at the fast-paced city that lies ahead. As of now, the Maglev doesn't extend to the rest of the Shanghai — the train line was built mostly as a prestige project to impress visitors, not to service locals — so the airport run is the one place you can enjoy the ride. Single-ride tickets cost 50 yuan.

2. Fuxing Park

Unlike many Chinese cities that appear to have forgotten that people occasionally like to perambulate, Shanghai is made for walking. Start your own walk in Fuxing Park smack-dab in the colonial-era French Concession, with its shady sycamore trees and stuccoed villas. In the park, you'll find grannies in pajamas belting out Chinese opera, and Mao-suited men taking their caged birds for a stroll. Around the corner at 7 Xiangshan Road is the former residence of Sun Yat-sen, modern China's founding father. His house, which contains period furniture and books, reminds you of what Shanghai felt like during its first heyday. Afterward, wander the nearby lanes — past elegant mansions now subdivided into several families' homes, complete with outdoor wok stations and billows of hanging laundry — to get a sense of street-level Shanghai today.

3. Shanghai Museum

Given its much-vaunted 5,000 years of history, China's museums are, in general, a sorry lot. Exhibits are badly lighted, the English information often a jumble of incomprehensible nouns. (In truth, some of China's finest artwork was carted off by the departing Nationalists in 1949, when they quit the mainland for Taiwan. But that still doesn't excuse the pathetic state in which most of the country's national treasures are displayed.) The Shanghai Museum, located on People's Square, is a welcome antidote to all that's dark and dingy. You don't — and shouldn't — try to digest it all in one go. My suggestion: Pick one section, whether it's calligraphy or jades or ceramics, and dig in. Personally, I find the bronzes strangely fascinating; in fact, the shape of the museum itself mimics that of an ancient bronze cauldron.

4. Din Tai Fung

The soup dumpling, or xiaolong bao, is to Shanghai what the chicken wing is to Buffalo. A delicate dumpling skin is wrapped around a juicy pork filling (or, in luxe versions, crab), and like magic, the dumpling also contains a shot of tasty broth. But be warned: All those famous local places listed in guidebooks promising to delight you with an authentic recipe? They're underwhelming. The sad fact is that the very best xiaolong bao in Shanghai are to be found in a sterile mall built by a Hong Kong developer. It gets worse. These dumplings come courtesy of a Taiwanese restaurant chain called Din Tai Fung No matter. Tell your friends you partook of Shanghai's greatest culinary joy. You don't have to mention the whole Taiwanese-made-in-a-mall aspect of the tale.

5. Dongtai Road

There's a store on Dongtai Road, a chockablock stretch of antiques and curio shops off Xizang Road, that proudly displays a milk-bottle delivery box from the 1920s. I once tried to buy it from the couple who owns the shop. The husband laughed. The wife told me that several museum curators had already offered big money, but she wasn't selling. Amongst all of Dongtai Road's tourist tat — and, trust me, there is plenty of it — are treasures. Some, like the milk box, aren't for sale. But plenty else is, including lovely art-deco pieces and lots of Cultural Revolution memorabilia. About halfway up the street is my favorite book-dealer. Collectors of tiny antique metal teapots are also in luck — there's an entire store devoted to that esoteric object. Just east of Dongtai Road is a plant-and-animal market, where you can pick up a championship cricket for the next time you need an insect to enter in a prizefight. Doesn't everybody?

6. Green Massage

Traditional Chinese acupressure is not for the weak. This isn't some oil-slicked Swedish relaxation or even the passive yoga that characterizes Thai massage. Chinese acupressure is a little like China itself: You may be blinking back tears of pain, but ultimately, it's a rewarding experience. Green Massage (98 yuan for 45 minutes), behind Huaihai Park, offers an experience that's a few notches above the thousands of hole-in-the-wall massages parlors in Shanghai. At Green, there are proper massage tables, clean pajamas to change into, soothing woodwind music and scented candles. None of that changes the fact that your body will be entering the space between pleasure and pain. Enjoy.

7. 50 Moganshan Road

Chinese contemporary art now sells at international auctions for gazillions of dollars. Derivative stuff is everywhere, so it's all the more important to head to the nerve center of Shanghai's buzzing art scene at Moganshan Road. A collection of once-deserted warehouses near Suzhou Creek, Moganshan now houses Shanghai's best contemporary art galleries. Best of all, several top artists, like Zhou Tiehai and Ding Yi, keep their studios here, so if you're lucky you can wander in and see the creative process unfold in real time. One of the city's oldest and most respected galleries is at 50 Moganshan, ShanghART, which represents the cream of the art world and is run by Swiss native Lorenz Helbling.

8. The Bund

Yes, this riverfront boardwalk is touristy, a particular magnet for Chinese farmers in polyester suits who come to gawp at all the fashionable Shanghainese. But part of the fun of an amble down the Bund (it rhymes with fund) is checking out the Chinese checking out other Chinese. Recover from the crowds with a classic martini at the roof terrace of M on the Bund, located in one of the 1920s-era buildings that still line the riverfront. The M is for Michelle Garnaut, an Australian restaurateur who in the spring oversees Shanghai's very own International Literary Festival, which has in the past lured everyone from John Banville to Amy Tan.

9. Jishi

True Shanghai food is a world away from what you get at home in paper take-out cartons. The best place to try local eats is Jishi. The place is tiny and always crowded. The English menu is long and relatively incomprehensible. At the very least, order the following, even if you're dining solo: radish pickled in soy sauce (jiang luobo), tofu skin with mushrooms (fuzhu), cucumber with aged vinegar (pai huanggua), sweet-and-sour spare ribs (tangcu paigu) and minced dried tofu with wild greens (malantou). Those are the appetizers. Now, for the main courses: red-braised pork with bamboo shoots (hongshao rou he zhusun), fish smothered in scallions (congbao yutou), and a stir-fry of Yunnan ham with an untranslatable Shanghai vegetable that tastes like a cross between asparagus and green beans (luhao huotui). If it's crab season, definitely order the crab with vermicelli sheets (xiefen fenpi).

One more thing: That fish you just ordered? It's actually fish head — a giant carp's noggin, to be more specific. But you would have never known unless I told you. And if you didn't order it out of some misplaced squeamishness, you might have missed the best damn fish you will have ever tasted.

10. Vue Bar

Shanghai is a vertical city, so you should climb up and enjoy the view. The aptly named Vue Bar, located on the 32nd and 33rd floors of the new Hyatt on the Bund, offers tremendous vistas of both the historic waterfront and Pudong, the futuristic business district on the other side of the Huangpu River that looks like it was designed by George Jetson. Members of Shanghai's gilded class like to lounge on the daybeds or, in the summer months, take a dip in the whirlpool on the terrace.