Classic-looking buildings and modern skyscrapers mix along the dark Huangpu River in the middle of Shanghai, a city with such a reputation that it used to be called the Whore of the Orient. The Bund fills the river bank with tall buildings that light up at night, becoming a sort of beacon in the middle of the river and one of the biggest attractions in China, where both the modern world and history live together to create a unique atmosphere in this Asian city.
Shanghai used to be the center of the commercial exploitation of China by European countries, which made great fortunes through trade. However, this city was not only deeply rooted in business, but it also catered to every perversion you can think of: gambling, prostitution, and opium, while allowing criminal gangs to go around the streets as if they owned the city.
What can you see there?
Despite its reputation, European Shanghai brought a bit of dignity back to the city with the creation of the Bund. Impressive buildings along the Huangpu River were the head offices of major banks, trading companies, and insurance houses. You can experience old European Shanghai by visiting the Customs House, which used to be and still is the most remarkable building in the Bund while keeping its original function. After that, we recommend heading to the Peace Hotel, previously called the Cathay Hotel, which used to be the most stylish building in Shanghai. It has been recently renovated, and it’s currently the most historic and atmospheric hotel in the city.
In true Chinese fashion, the authorities never destroyed the colonial buildings. Instead, they built new more imposing ones to make the old ones look insignificant in a unique display of one-upmanship. Even the Pudong New Area on one side of the Huangpu River, which used to be simply marshland, got recovered and transformed into an immense stretch of tower blocks. Don’t miss the spectacular 88-story Jin Mao Tower -that holds the Grand Hyatt Hotel in its top 35 floors-, the symbolic Oriental Pearl TV Tower and the Shanghai Tower, the third tallest building in the world with 632 meters.
One could even say that Shanghai splits in two: from the top of its towering buildings, you can appreciate how they seem to intimidate and push the Bund into the river. But back on the ground, the small area keeps some of its past dignity and presence while still being one of the most influential symbols of the city.
Additionally, it’s also the center of Shanghai life. Throughout the day, you can see couples dancing before work, big crowds of kite flyers and elders practicing t’ai chi and qigong in the morning. Then, in the middle of the day, tourists from all around the country come to the Bund to take pictures against its backdrop. And later in the evening, locals come out to the streets to enjoy the cool river breeze. There is not a moment when the waterfront is not crowded and filled with life.
Another part of Shanghai you shouldn’t miss is the Chinatown area of the city. As crazy as it might sound to have a Chinatown in a Chinese city, you should definitely go see the old streets of Shanghai where locals were forced to stay back when Europeans used to rule over it and ban, among other things, dogs and Chinese in their public gardens.
However, many of these streets have been demolished to build new tower blocks, which means that the ones still surviving are probably under threat as well. Some of the remaining ones are between the old Yu Yuan (Jade Gardens) and the river, being some of the most atmospheric of all. The gardens are a must-see as well. They were built in the mid-16th century during the Ming dynasty, and they are typically Chinese with rock gardens, pagodas, and sheltered pools that create a shelter of peace in such a loud city. Nearby you can also find the Yu Yuan Bazaar, a large shopping complex with an “ancient” theme.
Don’t think the intrigue and atmosphere of old Shanghai have gone away. Even though Communists restrained them in 1949, they are coming back to surface again. Don’t be too surprised when you walk along the Bund and get offered fake watches and even sex. After that, it’s quite easy to imagine European sailors and traders stumbling down the old streets of Shanghai looking for opium and women. However, the general atmosphere nowadays is a lot less dramatic, and you can appreciate everyday people going on with their daily lives with the sound of chirping crickets kept in little bamboo cages for luck as their constant background music.
How can you get there?
Shanghai can be easily reached by air from almost any country since it’s one of China’s main international gateway cities. You will find a wide range of variety when it comes to accommodation, but we recommend staying in the atmospheric Peace Hotel or high in the sky in the modern Grand Hyatt Hotel. Although Shanghai is a large city, most of the main attractions stand along the river. You can move through the city using the modern underground railway or taking a ferry over the river. Don’t forget to see the famous Shanghai acrobats once you get there.
If you loved this article or found it useful, don’t forget to share it with your adventurous and travel-loving friends! If you want more posts like this, like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Instagram, and subscribe to our newsletter!