Tue 26 October 2021

Kyle Taylor provides another tonic with his mood-based travel guide

Current Mood: Inspired

Need a kick up the bum to get you moving again? Shanghai is the spot. It’s a global city on the rise and there’s no shortage of interesting, exciting and inspiring sites, sounds and tastes to leave you feeling ready to take on the world.

What to Expect

Nowhere is the extreme more on display than Shanghai. You land at a world class airport and hop on one of the world’s fastest magnetic trains, where you zoom into the city at 431kph. What’s whizzing past outside? Farm fields, Mao-era apartment blocks and new builds covered in bamboo scaffolding.

You’ll wander along streets where a Louis Vuitton store is perched 20 metres from a Uighur-style noodle stand where a bowl of mian (Mandarin for noodles) will set you back about £1. It’s truly surreal and – even after living there for years – it continued to blow my mind on the daily.

The headline of any visit to China has got to be “oh my god, everything is to the extreme.” Extremely tall, extremely crowded, extremely fast, extremely rich, extremely poor, EXTREME.  This is a country that has lifted 600 million people out of poverty in less than 20 years and where – simultaneously – you can still find fields being ploughed by ox-pulled carts.

Extremely tall, extremely crowded, extremely fast, extremely rich, extremely poor, EXTREME.

Shanghai is not really a “tourist” city. There aren’t tons of historic sites or museums and the history is difficult to explore because everything old is – in good time – razed to the ground to build a high rise of some sort. This doesn’t mean, however, that it is in any way not exciting. Quite the opposite. It claims the second place slot on my list of favourite cities (behind London only, because London). Shanghai is a perfect week-long destination if you want to really live like a local.

Before Sunset

Every good day starts with coffee and Shanghai has no shortage of craft barista-style beverages to feast upon. You’ll want to situate yourself in the French Concession neighbourhood, which is the cultural, culinary and artistic hub of the city.  Save for a trip to the Bund riverfront, you won’t be leaving the French Concession often but don’t worry, it’s ENORMOUS. Shanghai itself has about 25 million inhabitants and the French Concession over a million.

But wait. There’s more. The journey has been turned into an attraction that’s so terrible, it’s wonderful.

The two best coffee spots in town both have symbols in their names – &Coffee and % Arabica. Everything is taken to the umpteenth degree here, making the performance around the preparation a attraction in and of itself. Once you’re caffeined up, it’s time to eat. Food is Shanghai’s greatest pleasure and I’m mostly going to recommend things you need to eat so get ready and be hungry.

It’s got to start with jianbing. This is a fresh batter poured over a piping hot piece of round steel. Next, an egg is cracked over it, followed by scallions, soy bean paste and chilli to add a little kick. The pancake is then scraped off the steel and masterfully folded in on four sides before a stick of crunchy tofu is laid down. This is followed by another round of folding until you’ve got the perfect breakfast parcel. These are made on the street all around town.

Photo courtesy Kyle Taylor

Most of the best food is street food, which isn’t easily navigable as it would involve instructions like “go to the corner of Anfu Street and Changle street then walk west on Anfu for 50 metres, turn right down an alley and knock on the third green door on your right side.”

Because of this, the best way to really eat your way through street food Shanghai is on an UnTour, which runs two foodie heaven experiences in tiny groups that can go to tiny places. The first is their street food tour and the other is their noodle tour. If you do want to venture alone, then the dishes you MUST find are: peanut noodles, hand-spun long noodles, hot steamed dumplings, hot pan-fried dumplings, hot small dumplings and scallion pancakes that are cooked on an open coal flame. Health and safety first, of course.

Photo courtesy Kyle Taylor

Once you’ve filled your stomach with the morning burst, hop in a taxi or onto one of the 13 metro lines (9 of which have been completed in their entirety in the last 10 years) to People’s Square – the central park of Shanghai. It’s worth a wander around but don’t take the bait of the only scam left running in town – students approaching asking to practice their English over tea. The hitch? The tea comes to hundreds of pounds. A polite “no thank you” or – in Mandarin – “bu yow” – will put them at bay. From the park, head west along Nanjing Road. This pedestrianized street has to be seen during the day and at night as the hundreds of neon signs glow brilliantly after dark.

Shanghai is one of the places you just want to be and it’s not always easy to articulate why

Keep following Nanjing Road until it hits the river and opens up onto panoramic view of the world-class skyline on the other side. Again, this is something worth seeing during the day and again at night (don’t worry, dinner will come with a view!). Once you’ve snapped a sufficient number of photographs, follow the signs to the “Bund tunnel” and be ready to be very, very confused/excited/exhilarated.

For those unfamiliar, the Bund tunnel is a small tran car you get into to travel to the other side of the river. But wait. There’s more. The journey has been turned into an attraction that’s so terrible, it’s wonderful. You journey through heaven and hell, through ice and fire. There are sound effects. There are light effects. It is AMAZING. And it lets you out where you want to be – right near the other riverfront, which offers spectacular views back to the historic riverfront lined with all the 1920s trading houses including HSBC’s original headquarters (HSBC of course stands for Hong Kong Shanghai Banking Corporation).

By now, you’ll need a nap. Hop on the metro line 2 and zoom back to the heart of the French Concession. While you’ll find every major hotel chain in the world, the best way to really experience Shanghai is in an AirBnB. The platform is prolific in the city so find yourself a cute little laneway house in the French Concession to call home.

Before Sunrise

Shanghai is a city that never sleeps and in all honesty, you won’t want to. The city takes on a whole new identity after dark with world class dining, bars and of course karaoke!

Photo courtesy Kyle Taylor

The absolute all around best restaurant in the city is Lost Heaven on the Bund. Yunnan cuisine (Chinese cuisine is more diverse than perhaps any other region in the world), Lost Heaven has managed to retain a soul while still being large and ready for tourists. The menu is in English and the absolute do not miss dish is the ghost chicken. Order a bottle of China’s first home grown champagne as well. The grapes were brought over by Chandon and are now producing absolutely wonderful sparking whites.

Make sure to pop to the outdoor patio bar before you go to snap more pictures of the Bund. If you really want to splash out (like, eat the most spectacular and most expensive meal of your life) book in to Ultra Violet (ideally 6 months in advance) for an all-encompassing dining experience like no other.  There’s only one table of 10 in this single-room immersive experience. Absolutely every sense is satiated as the lights, floor-to-ceiling digital screens that cover ever wall and even smell change to compliment each of the what feels like dozens of courses. It’ll set you back about £650 per person.

After dinner, hop a cab to the rooftop Char Bar for sweeping views of both sides of the river before the lights turn off at 11pm. Their dirty martini is to die for. You’ll have to hop another cab back to the French Concession to keep the night going, as the subway closes at varying times between 10:30pm and 11pm. Head directly to Senator – a cosy, dark, luxurious cocktail bar that you’ll never want to leave.

Photo courtesy Kyle Taylor

Stay there until they shut at 1 or 2am then hop one more cab (don’t worry about the cost, base fare is £1.50 and you get from one side of the French Concession to the other for about £2) to K Party karaoke, where your private karaoke room will come with all-night access. There is no greater Shanghai experience than emerging from a windowless karaoke room to beaming morning sunshine.  And there’s no better post-night, pre-bed treat than a bowl of street chow mien.

Shanghai is one of the places you just want to be and it’s not always easy to articulate why. It’s a city that’s alive and you can’t help but get sucked into the energy, excitement and extremes of it. Enjoy!

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