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Long On History, Culture And Nightlife, Shanghai Is One Of China’s Top Destinations

Shanghai is much more than Las Vegas on steroids: It has quiet neighborhoods, perhaps the best museum in China and a vibrant nightlife.

Shanghai

From the eastern banks of Shanghai’s Huangpu River, you can see a skyscraper that resembles a pineapple, a building that looks like a skewered olive and a massive office tower standing proudly on the opposite side of the river that looks a lot like a giant bottle opener.

But don’t be fooled. Shanghai is much more than Las Vegas on steroids: It has quiet neighborhoods, perhaps the best museum in China and a vibrant nightlife. When the six-month-long World Expo kicks off here in May, an estimated 70 million visitors will get a chance to experience this astonishing megalopolis, and few will be disappointed.

The Bund is the signature sight of Shanghai. The historic portion of the city’s riverfront, the Bund is lined with art deco towers from the early part of the twentieth century, a period when Shanghai — along with New York and London — was a world financial center.

After a long but remarkably comfortable flight on Cathay Pacific, I dropped off my suitcases at the Peninsula Hotel and went out to explore the city. That evening, as I walked along, I saw families on after-dinner strolls, children licking ice cream cones and husbands talking on cell phones while ignoring their nearby wives. There were also tourists from China’s heartland: grannies eating sunflower seeds, young women wearing the colorful cotton skirts and blouses of the region near Tibet and unabashed young soldiers on holiday who wore their olive uniforms and hugged each other as they laughed and talked.

The next day I went to the French Concession. This is where the wealthy foreigners lived when Shanghai was controlled by Europeans and is still home to many of Shanghai’s best restaurants. Rather than visit any particular place, I wanted to soak up a sense of the past layered over. The French Concession is made up of quiet lanes that would not look out of place in a Paris arrondissement, art deco buildings with porthole windows and severely pruned trees whose trunks and naked upward twisting branches reminded me of the wrist of a waiter holding a tray. What made the French Concession special, though, was the Chinese presence. Although Shanghai is Western, beneath the surface are lovely Chinese oddities — such as hunks of cured meat hanging from some of the ornate porthole windows.

In Shanghai, unlike Beijing, seeing centuries-old history requires a trip to a museum. The Shanghai Museum is probably the finest one in China and contains the foremost collection of ancient Chinese art in the world. I am not one to spend a lot of time in museums when visiting a country as exotic as China. Yet, walking through the galleries one afternoon, looking at bells that were used as musical instruments nearly 3,000 years ago and knowing that similar ones can be found in temples today, I couldn’t help but be struck by the continuity of Chinese culture.

Seeing beautiful objects always puts me in the mood for retail, so I headed to Xintiandi, a pedestrian-only shopping district, which has some of the oldest and most elegant houses in Shanghai. The houses, which have been thoroughly restored and modernized, are described as shikumen (“stone gate”) style because of their ornate stone entrances. The area has plenty of cafés where you can buy an $800 bottle of wine to drink as you sit and watch the young and the beautiful pass by.

At the risk of sounding like a tourist, no trip to Shanghai would be complete without attending a performance of the Shanghai Acrobats. I sat behind some genteel ladies from the Southern U.S. As the performers pulled off such wonders as catapulting themselves across a vast stage, landing on chairs stacked on chairs standing on seesaws, the women kept saying, “What will they think of next?” I had a similar thought during my stay in Shanghai: What will I see next?

The Essentials:

STAY at the Peninsula Shanghai (peninsula.com), the city’s finest location combined with stunning art deco beauty, or at the Four Seasons (fourseasons.com) for that classic Four Seasons’ service.

EAT at Sir Elly’s (peninsula.com), modern European cuisine with Chinese inflections. The chef, Arnaud Berthelier, is a veteran of three-Michelin-star restaurants. The oyster shooters are not to be missed.

DRINK at Jade on 36 Bar in the Pudong Shangri-La Hotel (shangri-la.com), where you’re guaranteed to experience breathtaking views combined with a glamorous crowd.

DON’T MISS a stroll down Nanjing Road, a pedestrian-only shopping street, with such remnants of Mao’s China as Shanghai’s top department store.