It is a testament to the cinematographers of the James Bond oeuvre that the backdrop to the action typically looks like a million bucks (make that a billion, to adjust for 50 years of inflation). Naturally, Skyfall, set in Shanghai, is no exception. Except that anyone intimately familiar with the city knows that the streets, seemingly paved in gold in the Daniel Craig du jour, are a relative bargoon beneath the surface.
Sure you can have a helicopter convey you to the Peninsula Hotel for high tea and a 230-minute scrub in the spa. But if you fancy, you can also get by on $10 a day, like they used to in Europe during Sean Connery’s heyday (not including hotel, of course). Or go for a happy medium and watch your dollars stretch to include the following treasures.
In the throes of crushing jetlag, you’ll be heartened to hear that Shanghai has its own rather charming version of Central Park, free of charge and free of hassle (it’s in the dead centre of town), but rich in cultural eccentricity. Fuxing Park is where swarms of locals gather for morning tai chi, couples practise ballroom dancing to eighties-era boomboxes, and retirees in Mao suits squat at tables by the pond for games of mah-jong. Kids fly kites on the lawn or roll around inside giant plastic spheres on the lake. And if you happen to see someone fishing for his supper in the koi pond, smile, bow and continue on your way.
The rapidly growing, climate-controlled Metro is so affordable, even banana peddlers take it to work. The No.10 (purple) line spans the centre of the city. Take it westbound to Hongqiao Road and explore Red Town (570 Huaihai West Road), a whimsical sculpture garden surrounded by design shops, cafés and contemporary art galleries that are all free to enter. Or head eastbound to North Sichuan Road and walk south the length of Zhapu Road, a “snack street” hidden within a cloud of dumpling steam and barbecue smoke. Seek out stalls where women carve pineapples into swirly edible figurines, juicers pulverize bushels of fresh fruit for pennies, and sweet-and-spicy squid comes on skewers.
The Shanghainese are so obsessed with freshness, even their noodles are made “while u wait.” Happily, the most authentic are also the cheapest. At Lanzhou La Mian (249 Wuyuan Lu, near Yongfu Lu), one of Shanghai’s last remaining noodle-pulling dynasties in a (literal) hole in the wall, those in the know hunch over enormous platters of noodles smothered in chili sauce or garlic and bok choy, or swimming in hearty soups with shredded pork or tofu. Point to the patron who looks like he’s enjoying the tastiest feast, then watch as a pasta craftsman beats, twists and pulls a mound of dough into your afternoon repast.
Coastal Shanghai? This is not a beach city. Except in a former parking lot on the South Bund, where some genius had the idea to import several tonnes of fine golden sand, a volleyball net and first-class loungers. Locals call it Rico Rico Beach (Waima Lu, near Maojiayuan Lu), and for the price of two Cokes you can pull one of those loungers up to a patio umbrella, order a cold bottle of Tsingtao and contemplate the Blade Runner backdrop: the cluster of towers across the river in Pudong, including Asia’s tallest building, affectionately known as “the bottle-opener” (see below).
As a rule, Shanghai’s museums are bombastic odes to antiquity or contemporary art. One of few exceptions is the Propaganda Poster Art Centre (Room B-OC, 868 Huashan Road), run from a warren in the basement of an unmarked apartment building in the former French Concession. Here, one stealthy collector has accumulated a wealth of original Chinese propaganda art from the latter half of the 20th century; it’s arranged chronologically and interspersed with narrative placards. Along with the small adjacent museum shop, it offers the sort of enlightenment you don’t often find in China today. A gem.
This is likely the most you’ll ever spend on a taxi within Shanghai – for what might be the most bewildering few minutes of your life. Cab drivers almost universally speak Mandarin, but there’s an app for that. The Shanghai Taxi Guide translates thousands of destinations from Roman lettering into Chinese, so you can simply flash your phone at your driver. If confusion persists, there’s a hotline number posted in every car that rings through to a free translator. Alas, nobody has created an app that will tell your chauffeur to “slow the [expletive] down!” For that you’ll have to learn the local Shanghainese: man yidian (MAN ee deeEN). Start practising now.
The art deco palace that is the Peace Hotel (20 Nanjing Road East), refurbished by Fairmont in 2010, is a destination in its own right. The atrium’s stained-glass dome and solid gold murals are so exquisite you’ll want to weep. The river-view roof garden has four private karaoke rooms. And the jazz bar has been employing the same old-time musicians since the 1940s. Prices at the bar reflect today’s economy – a martini will set you back $13 – but it’s worth it for the entertainment. (Get there before the 7 p.m. start to guarantee yourself a table.) One other reason to go: The evening approach along the frenzied Nanjing pedestrian road, where the signage creates a veritable tunnel of neon that literally buzzes (it’s so flashy even sunglasses can’t fully dull it).
You tend to lose count of all the luxury hotels fanning out along the Huangpu River. Few are as storied as the Waldorf (2 Zhongshan Dong Yi Road), however, a hopelessly elegant throwback to the last time the city was flooded with money (i.e. the 1930s). Back then the Shanghai Club occupied this spot on the magnificent historic riverfront boulevard dubbed the Bund, and the city’s elite waved their cigarette holders around the 11-metre raw-mahogany Long Bar. The bar was restored piece by piece, and two years ago relaunched with a menu including the “Shanghai Waldorf,” the classic salad topped with a chunk of crabmeat.
CN and Sears have nothing on the newfangled Asian towers, of which Shanghai’s World Financial Center (100 Century Avenue) is second tallest (and counting). Locals call it the “bottle opener,” and $23 gets you access to three observation decks on the 94th, 97th and 100th floors. Or you can scrap the fee and the queue and head instead to the 91st-floor bar – tallest in the world according to folks who measure these things – and snag yourself a vertiginous seat by the window. Drinks cost in the low teens and nuts come gratis.
Achy muscles are a non-issue in Shanghai, where there’s a burly masseuse for every complaint. Dagu Road is fairly nondescript but for the fact that it counts more than a dozen spas of varying quality over just two blocks. The legendary Taipan Foot Massage (370 Dagu Road) spawned all those imitators with its winning formula: private rooms furnished with La-Z-Boy loungers, flat-screen TVs and a menu of free snacks, juices and teas. The drill is to come with a friend and a DVD and settle in for a 90-minutes leg, foot and shoulder rub while you watch and nibble.
Dim sum is the tapas of South China, though in Shanghai you can get it, and good, on every other block. But why pound the pavement when you can take an elevator 55 storeys up and nosh on superlative char siu bao (barbecued pork bun) while watching helicopters land on the rooftop pads of lesser buildings. Canton (88 Century Ave.), part of the Grand Hyatt in the palatial Jin Mao Tower, has 360-degree views of the city and a sexy lacquer-and-gilt decor that might inspire you to take your dessert up to a room. For the quality on your plate, they could be charging a whole lot more.
Many an expat has experienced the regal convenience of being shuttled from work to gym to restaurant in a chauffeured car, but if you’re not versed in the spendthrift practices of foreign bankers you probably don’t know that you can have your own for a (relative) steal. Outfits such as ShangCar.com rent wheels by the day, week or month from around $87 a day for a 2012 Passat and a driver of saintly patience. This will come in handy for fleeing the heavy city smog for Anji’s bamboo forest or Hangzhou’s West Lake.
Or go for broke
The dazzling new Four Seasons Pudong occupies 11 floors of the 55-storey 21st Century Tower (locally called the “jewel box”), in the core of Shanghai’s Lujiazhui financial zone. No hotel project in China better captures the striving spirit of the age – globalization, trade and mirth.
At the opening bash earlier this month, cocktail servers decked out in metal hoop skirts pased out champagne flutes with poise. The bejewelled set feasted on tea-smoked duck and savoury chive dumplings created by executive chef Weimar Gomez. The hotel’s lush decor, featuring opulent semi-precious gems and peacock feathers in minimalist patterns, had flashbulbs popping.
Art-filled interiors evoke the city’s golden age of the 1930s. The 187 rooms and suites are each accented with fresh flowers, Lorenzo Villoresi bath products from Italy, an Illy coffee machine and a bar with all the fixings needed to make the hotel’s signature cocktails. Book one of the Deluxe Pearl View rooms for the clearest views of Pudong’s whimsical urban landscape.
Four Seasons Hotel Pudong, 210 Century Avenue, Shanghai; 86-21-2036-8880; fourseasons.com. Rooms from $480. – Si Si Penaloza