Until 1842, the "City Above the Sea" was a small fishing village. After the first Opium War, the village was carved up into autonomous concessions administered concurrently by the British, French, and Americans. As the most Westernized city in China after Hong Kong, Shanghai is at the forefront of China's modernization. Nearly a quarter of the world's construction cranes stand in this city. Still, architectural remnants of a colonial past survive along the winding, bustling streets. In its heyday, Shanghai had the best art, the greatest architecture, and the strongest business in Asia. With dance halls, glitzy restaurants, international clubs, brothels, and a racetrack, it catered to the rich. The Paris of the East was known as a place of vice and indulgence. Amid this glamour and degradation the Communist Party held its first meeting in 1921. In the '30s and '40s the city suffered raids, invasions, and occupation by the Japanese. After the war's end, Nationalists and Communists fought a three-year civil war for control of China. The Communists declared victory in 1949 and established the People's Republic of China. Between 1950 and 1980, Shanghai's industries soldiered on through periods of extreme famine and drought, reform, and suppression. Politically, the city was central to the Cultural Revolution and the Gang of Four's base. The January Storm of 1967 purged many of Shanghai's leaders, and Red Guards set out to destroy the "Four Olds": old ways of ideas, living, traditions, and thought. In 1972, with the Cultural Revolution still going, Shanghai hosted the historic meeting between Premier Zhou Enlai and U.S. President Richard Nixon. In 1990 China's leader, Deng Xiaoping, chose Shanghai as the center of the country's commercial renaissance, and it has again become a testament to hedonism and capitalism, one of China's most ideologically, socially, culturally, and economically open cities. Shanghai is a sprawling city with large districts, but the downtown area is fairly compact, and the subway reaches many place you'll want to visit. Today beauty and charm coexist with kitsch and commercialism. From the colonial architecture of the Former French Concession to the forest of cranes and the neon-lit high-rises of Pudong, Shanghai is a city of paradox and change.
You'll notice that most Chinese restaurants in Shanghai have large, round tables. The reason becomes clear the first time you eat a late dinner at a local restaurant and are surrounded by jovial, laughing groups of people toasting and topping off from communal bottles of beer, sharing cigarettes, and spinning the lazy Susan loaded with food. Whether feting guests or demonstrating their wealth, hosts will order massive, showy spreads.
Shanghai's standing as China's most international city is reflected in its dining scene. You can enjoy jiaozi (dumplings) for breakfast, foie gras for lunch, and Korean beef for dinner. It's traditional to order several dishes to share among your party. Tipping is not expected, but sophistication comes at a price. Although you can eat at Chinese restaurants for less than Y30 per person, Western meals go for Western prices.
Most restaurants in Shanghai offer set lunches—multicourse feasts—at a fraction of the dinner price. Also, check out the dining section of City Weekend, That's Shanghai, Time Out Shanghai, or Smartshanghai.com, all of which list dining discounts and promotions around town.
Shanghai's stature as China's business capital hasn’t stopped it from catering both to business and leisure travelers, especially the handful of boutique hotels. Business hotels can be divided into two categories: modern Western-style hotels with all the latest amenities and older hotels built during the city's glory days. The latter may lack great service, modern fixtures, and convenient facilities, but they often make up for it in charm, tradition, and history.
Judging by the number of international chain hotels in Shanghai, the city has proven just how much it has opened to the outside world. Many aren't merely hotels; they're landmarks on the Shanghai skyline. Even the historic properties that make up the other half of Shanghai's hotel market feel the pressure to update their rooms and facilities.
Fueled equally by expatriates and an increasingly adventurous population of locals, Shanghai boasts an active and diverse nightlife. Shanghai lacks the sort of performing-arts scene you'd expect from a city its size, but it's getting there. Chinese opera remains popular with an older crowd and is even enjoying resurgence with a younger audience.
Perched on the 87th floor of the Grand Hyatt, Cloud 9 is among the city's loftiest bars. It has unparalleled views of Shanghai from among—and often above—the clouds. The sky-high views come with sky-high prices: after 7 pm, there's a Y100 entrance fee (even if al you want is a bottle of beer or a glass of house wine). Kick back while nibbling the tasty Asian-inspired tapas.
This friendly, laid-back favorite moved many times before settling into the current old garden house. Busy without being loud, Cotton's is a rare place where you can have a conversation with friends—or make some new ones. The patio here is one of Shanghai's loveliest.
Shanghai favors slick nightclubs and posh wine bars, but Time Passage has always been the exception. Cheap beers, friendly service, and a cool, if grungy, atmosphere makes it the best way to start—or end—a night on the town.
Jade on 36
This swanky spot in the newer tower of the Pudong Shangri-La is the place for creative cocktails. Exquisite design and corresponding views (when Shanghai's pollution levels cooperate) have made Jade popular with locals.
Crowded at all hours with locals of all ages crooning pop favorites, the popular Haoledi chain has branches virtually everywhere. A few of the outlets in downtown are at 180 Xizang Zhong Lu in Huang Pu and 1111 Zhaojiabang Lu in Xuhui.
Flamboyant drag queen Eddy has had to move this gay bar around the city over the years, but it has found a more permanent home on this stretch of Huaihai Zhong Lu, from which the "gayborhood" spreads out.
Barbarossa is a popular evening destination, especially with nearby office workers who pack in for happy hour. The interior is straight out of Arabian Nights, albeit possibly flammable, with billowing draperies swathing the space. Usually quiet and classy, it switches to hot, hip, and hopping on weekend nights, especially in summer.
In the trendy Bund 18 complex, Bar Rouge is the destination du jour of Shanghai's beautiful people. Pouting models and visiting celebrities are among the regular clientele. Views of Pudong are knockout, and so are drink prices.
Short for Tou Ming Si Kao, this exquisitely designed little bar is an aesthete's dream. Glisteningly modern, TMSK is stunning—as are the prices of its drinks.
Opened by a collective of Shanghai's leading DJs, this former bomb shelter is not for the claustrophobic but is a favorite with Shanghai scenesters for its cheap drinks and reasonable cover charge. It's a bit musty and damp down in the basement, but that doesn't stop revelers from packing in whenever there are big-name shows.
A veteran on the club scene, Judy's is infamous for its hard-partying crowd. The den of iniquity was memorialized in Wei Hui's racy novel Shanghai Baby.
This bumping club is packed to the gills every weekend night with throngs of sweaty young dancers grinding up against one another to Top-40 hits. The rooftop, with its own bar, is a far better option.
At the heart of Shanghai's "alternative"—that is, gay—scene, Studio is the place to see and be seen, pick up, drop off, dance, sing, and remove one's shirt.
Cashbox Party World
This giant establishment is one of Shanghai's most popular KTV bars, and among the few that are dedicated to the KTV instead of the KTV girls. There's another location at 139 Xinhui Lu in Putuo.
Shanghai's only gay live music venue, 390 bar is also popular with Shanghai's straight club-goers. The decor is outrageous and flaming, perfect for the space. The drinks are proper cocktails, so before you try the A Clockwork Orange (made with gin and orange liqueur), fill up on a sausage and chutney made by a local British jam merchant.
On a quiet street in the Former French Concession, a few blocks from the bars along Yongfu Lu, is Senator Saloon. The unmarked entrance is easy to miss, and you'd never guess there was a swinging speakeasy within. Cocktails include classics as well as contemporary concoctions. Big band music on the stereo, velvet wallpaper, and a pressed-tin ceiling all lend to the feeling that you've traveled back in time.
For a laid-back night out near the Bund, Mokkos Jiao is your best (and only) bet. The music, when it's playing at all, is very low, so you can focus on the drinks, snacks, and conversation. Choose from a huge selection of shochus—Japanese liquor made with barley or rice—and order a few rounds of edamame.
Unpretentious and free of frills, Kaiba is the ideal neighborhood bar. It's been around for a while, serving Belgian brews and a few other imports.
It's a family affair at Shanghai Brewery, where you're equally likely to find a group of sports-loving parents with toddlers in tow. There are seven house-made brews here, including a Black-Eyed Pear Stout and the sweet, summery peach beer. The food menu is all over the place, with both Western dishes and a handful of Asian options, but it's all quite solid.
A Latin-inspired lounge where you can kick off your night before you go clubbing, Unico offers a dizzying array of cocktails, divided up by compass coordinates. From the Carribean, there's the El Presidente, made with rum, sweet vermouth (made in-house), and grapefruit bitters, topped with an orange twist. The music is loud enough that you can dance, but if you're not standing next to the band you can still have a conversation. Skip the lackluster food.
The Kerry Hotel's microbrewery is tightly run by Kiwi brewmaster Leon Mickelson. The crisp cider is very good for those who don't love beer, while the Pilsner and IPA are the most popular among brew-heads. Shooting pool, tossing back peanuts from a tin pail, and sipping brewskies, you may well forget you're in China.
Muse on the Bund
Loud and crowded, Muse on the Bund is where people end up after hitting a few other drinking establishments. It plays hip-hop, house, and electro music and throws themed parties. When you need to chill out, there's a huge rooftop with a wading pool. Weekends see the club absolutely teeming with monied locals (and a smattering of expats) ordering up bottle after bottle from the top shelf. This is flagship club of a chain that includes M2 at 283 Huaihai Zhong Lu in the City Center and Muse at Park 97 at 2A Gaolan Lu in the Former French Concession.
The hottest wine bar in Shanghai, Salute has three ramshackle rooms and a courtyard that are positively teeming all weekend and on spring, summer, and fall evenings. It's bottles only here, but for China, they're reasonably priced. The charcuterie and cheese platters are good, but the teeny kitchen really shines with its delicious panini.
Its name means "grape" in Italian, so it's no surprise that UVA is a little wine bar. Run by a pair of Italians, it offers quite good value wine by the glass and bottle. The bar is popular with couples as well as office workers who turn out for happy hour. From the kitchen come some of Shanghai's better pizzas.
Everything from the furniture to the glassware is beautiful here, as is the view of Pudong. The drink prices are on the high side, but you're definitely paying for ambiance. Be sure to reserve a table by the window. Hot pink is everywhere, down to the dainty teacups.
Malls usually don't open until 10 and boutiques at 11. The upside is that stores tend to stay open later, with many closing at 10 pm. Markets generally start earlier, at around 7:30 or 8, and close at around 6. Most stores are open seven days a week.
Shanghai Museum Shop
This selection of books on China and Chinese culture is impressive, and there are also some interesting children's books. Expensive reproduction ceramics are available, as are more affordable gifts like magnets, scarves, and notebooks.
Amy Lin's Pearls and Jewelry
Friendly owner Amy Lin has sold pearls to European first ladies and American presidents, but treats all her customers like royalty. Her shop offers inexpensive trinket bracelets, strings of seed pearls, and stunning Australian seawater pearl necklaces.
The porcelain goods here are truly lovely, available in an eye-popping array of colors. Designs range from delicate Chinese landscapes to modern geometric prints. You'll also find here equally pretty candles, incense holders, and pipe-and-water-spigot candlabras (which are very cool, but a bit large to carry home). There's a second location on Dongping Lu in Xuhui.
The sketches of Raffles Design Institute grads come to life at this boutique, where the well-curacted selection highlights Shanghai's rising design talents. Graduates apply for six-month showcases and, during their residency, must produce two more collections. Its mostly women's clothing and certainly not cheap. Jersey tops start from around Y600, while jackets and the like hover around Y2,000.
Shanghai Acrobatics Troupe
This troupe performs remarkable gravity-defying stunts at both the Shanghai Centre Theater, inside the Portman Ritz-Carlton and at Shanghai Circus World, a glittering, gold, 1,600-seat dome, which is north of the city center, in Zhabei. There are also performances at the Shanghai Circus World at 2266 Gonghe Xin Lu in Zhabei.
Kunju Opera Troupe
Kun opera, or Kunju, originated in Jiangsu Province more than 400 years ago. Because of the profound influence it exerted on other Chinese opera styles, it's often called the mother of Chinese opera. Its troupe and theater are located in the lower part of the Former French Concession.
Shanghai Centre Theater
This stage serves as a home to tourist favorites like the Shanghai Acrobatic Troupe and has hosted such performers as the Israel Contemporary Dance Group and Wynton Marsalis. The building's distinct bowed front was designed to resemble the Marriott Marquis Theater in New York's Times Square.
Shanghai Concert Hall
More than a decade ago, city officials spent $6 million to move this venerable concert hall two blocks to avoid the rumble from the nearby highway. Only then did they discover that it now sat over an even more rumbling subway line. Oops. It's the home of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, and hosts top-level classical musicians from around China and the world.
Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center
The city's premier theater venue and troupe, the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center presents an award-winning lineup of its own original pieces, plus those of other cutting-edge groups around China. It also stages Chinese-language adaptations, sometimes very inventive, of Western works, such as a festival of Samuel Beckett works reinterpreted through Chinese opera.
This small underground space hosts everything from experimental dance to performances of Joe Orton's edgy What the Butler Saw. Occasional film screenings or literary events (usually in Chinese) are also popular.
Although the renovation of Shanghai's oldest theater sadly replaced the richly stained wood with glaring marble and glass, the design of the space makes for an intimate theater experience. The Lyceum regularly hosts drama and music from around China as well as smaller local plays and Chinese opera performances.
Not only Beijing Opera but also China's other regional operas, such as Huju, Kunju, and Yueju, are performed regularly at this theater in the heart of the city center. Considered the marquee theater for opera in Shanghai, it's just a block off People's Square.
Shanghai Oriental Art Center
This cultural powerhouse present traditional Chinese works as well as a superb selection of Western shows. The Royal New Zealand Ballet, Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, and Netherlands Symphony Orchestra are just three among a slew of groups that have performed here.