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).