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Any city that can make New York City feel laid-back must be extraordinary—and Shanghai is just that. Due mainly to the speed at which the city is growing, changing and reinventing itself, there’s an undeniable energy that’s invigorating and exhausting at the same time. Exploring in layers and with a well-mapped-out itinerary that builds in plenty of down-time is key if you don’t want to leave Shanghai feeling utterly spent.

Cheat Sheet

Lay of the Land

“I have seen places that were, no doubt, as busy and as thickly populous as the Chinese city of Shanghai, but none that so overwhelmingly impressed me with its business and populousness.”
~Aldous Huxley, 1927

Shanghai is split between Pudong and Puxi, the east and west sides of the Huangpu River.

The Bund: Shanghai’s most famous riverfront boulevard, in Puxi, is lined with neoclassical buildings from the 1920s and ’30s. Some of the city’s top hotels, including the Peninsula, are located here.

French Concession: This is one of three areas where the Chinese let foreigners govern until 1949. It retains charming, tree-lined streets and colonial-style houses. Within it is Xintiandi, a nine-acre quarter of low-rise shikumen houses (traditional brick buildings with arched stone gateways and enclosed courtyards) that were rebuilt to contain shops, restaurants and cultural venues. It was in one of these houses in 1921 that Mao founded the Chinese Communist Party.

Old Town: This is one of the few remaining low-rise areas left in the city, and it resembles New York’s Chinatown; its noisy streets, festooned with paper lanterns, teem with people. Except for the 233-year-old teahouse near the entrance to the Yuyuan Gardens, the traditional Chinese architecture is all recently built.

Nanjing Road Area: One of the world’s busiest roads in the city center, Nanjing is divided into Nanjing Road East (a commercial and largely pedestrian zone with tons of shopping) and Nanjing Road West. Nanjing Road East starts at the Bund and runs to People’s Square. The western section begins at People’s Square and continues to the Jing’an District.

Pudong: Playfully referred to as Pu-Jersey, this area east of the river is where delta mud flats that were nothing but rice paddies 20 years ago have been transformed (seemingly overnight) into some of the most recognizable and outlandish feats of architecture in the world, including the Oriental Pearl Tower and the Shanghai Tower, the second-tallest building on the planet. By the way, there’s no bedrock, so all those 1,000-foot skyscrapers are built on floating lattices of pine logs, just like Venice. The urban landscape displays the ingenuity of dozens of international architects. As one German architect has raved, “There is no comparison anywhere…the time when cities were built from zero in Europe are over.”

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