From the moment you arrive, it’s evident that spending time in Shanghai, known as the Pearl of the Orient, is an adventure like no other. In contrast to Beijing’s gray skies and a more traditional Chinese experience, Shanghai’s glitz and glamour offer a view into a very different China. From the culinary delights to a place that oozes history, you’re likely to find a piece of the city that will steal your heart.
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History behind the Pearl of the Orient
Shanghai, known as the Pearl of the Orient, has paved the way for Chinese reforms for over 100 years. It’s been a hub of activity going back to the days of the Opium Wars. The Opium Wars, fought between the English and the Qing dynasty, included opposing views and attitudes about trade.
After that war, Shanghai became one of five treaty ports during the Treaty of Nanking in 1842. This same treaty ceded the island of Hong Kong to the United Kingdom. The treaty ports ensured that foreign trade stayed open and accessible to the British. As such, Shanghai became a significant administrative, trading and shipping centre, and it remains so today. A genuine Pearl of the Orient.
Spending time in Shanghai today
I was excited and curious to spend some time in Shanghai while visiting China. It is one of the largest and populous cities in the world, with over 24 million residents. I wanted to see what being in a place with that many people felt like. Would it be overwhelming? Crowded? Something else?
Surprisingly, I found my time in Shanghai to be an adventure for the senses. It’s like being in a city made up of large urban centres. There were interesting coffee shops, bars and restaurants as well as temples, buildings and shopping malls. I have never seen so many malls, especially on this scale. It was fascinating.
Things to do in Shanghai
Shanghai is full of contrasts, and I was blown away by all the luxury everywhere. It is a city where you can’t use the Gucci store as a reference point, and there is one on every corner, just like Starbucks.
There are expensive stores, cars and everything is designer. You can find it here no matter what you are looking for, from cheap knock-offs to costly designers. It was very different than Beijing.
On the other hand, you will find the poor begging on the streets. I lost count of how many times I saw a person with missing limbs lying there in despair, begging for change. It was heartbreaking. Communism is a confusing system based on the principle of common ownership without social classes and money. This is in direct contrast to what I saw in Shanghai. It was a lesson that not all you learn about in school is as it seems until you see it yourself.
Expore The Bund
The Bund is an exciting area, full of history, charm and money. Lots of it. It’s a very picturesque part of town, along the west side of the Huangpu River. You can’t spend time in Shanghai without ending up here at some point. With the bright lights of the Pearl Tower in Pudong across the river, this is a trendy spot among tourists.
After the treaty of the 1840s, the Bund underwent significant development. Rows of European-style buildings were constructed, and it became a central financial hub of East Asia. Even 100 years ago, this was a cultural and political centre. The Bund was home to major banks and consulates, businesses and newspapers. In other words, this was the place to be.
I enjoyed the architecture here, and it was somewhat familiar yet in a foreign place. Incredibly, you can find the familiar in the most unexpected places in other parts of the world.
Walk along Nanjing Road
Nanjing Road starts at the Bund, and it continues for 5.5 km (3.4-miles) until Jing’an Temple and West Yan’an Street. It is China’s premier shopping strip and a must-see destination for fashion shoppers. Thanks to its status as a treaty port, this English Concession and later International Settlement became a shopping destination many years ago.
Walking along Nanjing Road is fascinating. The street, lined with hotels, restaurants and shops of all kinds, seems busy no matter what time you are here. You’ll find many western brands, along with local ones and others that I haven’t heard of. The street is full of lights and people, tourists and locals alike. The options are wide and varied, from McDonald’s to Tiffany’s to street vendors. If you want some shopping done during your time in Shanghai, this is the place to be.
Nanjing Road is a sight during the day and night. Street art, outdoor bars, and street musicians add to the experiences. You can even hop on a sightseeing train if you are tired of walking.
Visit the Jing‘an Temple
At the other end of Nanjing Road is the Jiang’an Temple. It is a famous spot in Shanghai, and it is impressive. As beautiful and detailed as it is, the temple is not the original structure.
The temple, first constructed during the Three Empires Period (220 to 280 AD), was located in a different spot. It was relocated to its current location during the Southern Song Dynasty, between 1127 and 1279 AD. The original temple was destroyed by fire in 1972. It was re-opened to the public in 1990 after extensive renovations.
The Jing’ an Temple is worth visiting during the day, and I recommend seeing it at night. It looks spectacular with lights, and I couldn’t get enough of the place. Luckily, our hotel was just down the street, which meant I walked by it all the time.
visit the Jade Buddha Temple
The Jade Buddha Temple is another spectacular sight to visit during your time in Shanghai. It’s away from the wealthy parts of the city, in a more humble neighbourhood. The temple gets its name from the two jade Buddha statues housed inside. The figures came from Burma at the end of the 19th century, and it was at that time the original temple was constructed.
Unfortunately, the political unrest destroyed the structure. The statue you see today was rebuilt in 1928. This was my first time in a place of worship, so very different from what I’m familiar with thus far. I found the smell of incense a bit overwhelming, but it was fascinating to watch. As much as I tried to be respectful of the worshippers, I wondered if all the tourists trampling around annoyed them. If they did, they didn’t show it. It’s a peaceful experience and a nice break from the busy streets of Shanghai.
Explore the French Concession
Going back to Shanghai’s colonial past, the French Concession area is another example of how the past has shaped the city we see today. It was pretty much what it sounds like. The government conceded the territory for development to the French in 1849, and it remained in its stronghold until World War II.
Today, the French Concession is a large neighbourhood with tree-lined streets and certain old-world charm. There is a hipster vibe here with the low-key coffee shops, restaurants and bars. Not as flashy as other parts of the city, this is a great place to stroll around and soak up the past.
visit the Yuyuan Garden
The Yuyuan Garden with the nearby Yuyuan Tourist Mart and the City God Temple is what I imagine China looked like before modernism. It’s very intricate yet simple and simply beautiful. The architecture makes you feel like you’re in a different world.
Pan Yunduan built the garden around the middle of the 16th century for his father. Over the years, it changed hands, had many improvements and additions. Today, it’s a very touristy area where you can buy anything you want.
Despite the harassment from pushy street vendors trying to sell me pearls, iPhones or other things I didn’t need or want, I enjoyed strolling along here. The old architecture with the gardens is truly spectacular. The only thing that spoiled it a bit was the giant Starbucks sign in its mist. I guess you have to pretend it’s not there to get the whole experience.
Overall impressions of my time in Shanghai
Visiting Shanghai is an experience. It’s a mix of the old and new styles, cultures and politics. Everything I had ever heard about China before coming here was nothing compared to what I saw. I had so many questions about this whole system, flawed yet somehow functional. My time in Shanghai proved to be very educational.
The über rich, the ex-pats, the poor and everyone in between. It was a feast for the senses.
Shanghai is a different China than what I saw in Beijing. It is a country that raises more questions than answers. For me, it was an educational experience. I saw amazing things and some I’d like to forget. Despite that, I’m glad I had the opportunity to visit the Pearl of the Orient.
Have you been to Shanghai? Let me know! What did you think?