Throwback post: A quick pass-by through Shanghai

Yes, I’m incredibly late in posting this blog. I took this trip to Shanghai over Easter weekend in April, but hey, better than late than never, right?

Offices in Singapore were closed for Good Friday (and I was not yet working), so Zé, our friend Stef, and I boarded our Juneyao Airlines flight at 11PM on Thursday evening, April 18. I was suspicious of this ‘Juneyao Airlines,’ but all-in-all, it was a basic but decent flight, and we arrived in Shanghai safely just ahead of 4AM on Friday morning.

After passing through immigration and customs and hailing a taxi into the city, we landed at the apartment of João Jalles, a friend of Zé and Stef’s from their MBA program. He had generously let us stay in his apartment for the weekend, while he stayed with his girlfriend. And what a welcome it was—we all immediately fell asleep to catch up on those lost hours of evening sleep, rising again around 11AM.

We were feeling hungry once we left the apartment, so we headed into Xintiandi, the center of Shanghai City, for brunch. While Xintiandi is a modern, posh center for shopping, bars, cafes, and restaurants, we stumbled upon a su(uuuuuu)per local-looking place, with no English menus and a line out the door. We decided to risk it because the massive line seemed like a good sign, and it turned out to be a strong decision. We found one waiter that was able to communicate with us, as we pointed to photos of the dishes we wanted on the restaurant wall. We had a good system going with this guy of pointing and receiving, and filled our stomachs with Shanghai-style breakfast delicacies like scallion pancakes, fried noodles, and noodle soups.

The weather was beautiful, so we walked around the neighborhood afterwards, doing some shopping in the open-air stalls around us in the French Concession area. The French Concession neighborhood of Shanghai was beautiful, and really surprised us. All three of us traveled to Shanghai expecting the chaos of a big city: dusty, loud streets, people constantly shouting, and lots of traffic. What we were met with were leafy and elegant boulevards filled with cozy live-music venues, boutique wine bars, indie fashion shops, European delis, and restaurants offering a range from soba noodle shops to chic French bistros. We fell a little bit in love with Shanghai on that day.

After our leisurely morning shopping, we headed to Tianzifang, an arts and crafts enclave that was developed from a renovated traditional residential area, also in the French Concession. It is now home to boutique shops, bars and restaurants. The perfect place to spend a relaxing Friday afternoon (and some $$).

Stef and I continued our Tour de Shopping, while Zé went to get some suits made (quickly and cheaply at high quality, as Shanghai is famous for). He met up with us about two hours later when he was done, and we all stopped for a coffee (remember that 4AM landing…?), and continued to Nanjing Road. Nanjing Road is the main shopping street of Shanghai, China, and is one of the world’s busiest shopping streets. The 5.5-km-long (3.4-mile-long) road features over 600 businesses, including massive modern multi-level shopping malls, historic stores, specialty stores, theaters, and hotels. It’s like Times Square on steroids.

A quick aside: Shanghai has over 26 million residents, making it China’s most populous city and the largest city proper in the entire world. While I love living in a smaller city where I can really get to know the neighborhoods and people within them, I was reminiscent of my time living in New York, where the buzz and energy that radiates from the city is contagious.

We ended our walk at the Bund, a mile-long (1.6km) stretch of waterfront promenade along the Huangpu River in central Shanghai. On one side, it houses the best view of the city’s famous skyline, and on the other side, a stretch of buildings of various architectural styles, including Gothic, baroque, and neoclassical styles. It is often referred to as “the museum of buildings.” A great place to end our self-guided walking tour of the city.

For dinner that evening, we met Jalles and his girlfriend Camila at Sense 8 in Xintiandi. This place was cooler than cool. A Cantonese restaurant resembling an opulent teahouse of the past, it was entirely adorned with real antique Chinoiserie decor (much of it bought at an auction and imported from Europe at a cost of over 2 million USD, as the Internet just told me). With hanging birdcages, lacquered walls, tapestries, tiered lanterns, and a DJ spinning modern beats and Chinese opera in the distant background, the restaurant succeeded at bringing us back to the last century—and filling us up with good food and drinks along the way. We stuffed ourselves with all kinds of dim sum dishes, and a few bottles of bubbly, nearly closing down the restaurant. We got to meet Camila, and I got to meet Jalles for the first time, so it was overall a slam-dunk evening.

The next morning we woke up a bit late (wonder why), and pulled ourselves together for brunch at an Italian place that none of us can remember the name of. We were originally meant to go to another spot, which was closed, so it was a real trek that involved at least one stop for a takeaway coffee. But brunch was lovely and brought us back to life again. From there, we took a day trip to Zhujiajiao Water Town, which Zé found while doing some research for the trip.

It’s touted as the best-preserved ancient town in Shanghai, with unique old bridges across bubbling streams, small rivers shaded by willow trees, and houses with courtyards along the pearly river. IRL, it was filled with vendors selling oddities, and there wasn’t much to see. It did serve as a nice way of walking off our food, especially after sitting in traffic for over an hour to get there, so we were thankful. But after taking a stroll around the town, we decided to head back to our favorite place back in Shanghai: the French Concession.

We landed at a bustling bar for happy hour just as the clouds parted that day. A beautiful start to the evening. After a few drinks, we headed back to Jalles’ apartment to shower up and change (Stef and Zé will call me out if I don’t mention this, but we had a guest cockroach in the bathroom with us starting from Friday evening, so our showers were short and stressful, lasting about 90 seconds each).

After changing up, we went to a Sichuan restaurant. For those of you less familiar with the cuisine, it’s a style of Chinese cuisine originating from Sichuan Province. It has bold flavors, particularly the pungency and spiciness resulting from liberal use of garlic and chili peppers, and the unique flavor of the Sichuan pepper. It’s hot, hot, hot.

We were joined by two of Jalles and Camila’s friends, and ordered a massive amount of plates, as well as some delicious cocktails. I can’t remember the name of the restaurant, and so there’s no point in sharing much about the vibe and atmosphere, but it was a yummy evening (that ultimately had our stomachs spinning a little, but it was well worth it). Afterwards, we headed to a cool, speakeasy-type bar with a DJ spinning Latin jams. Shanghai is filled with great bars for happy hours and evenings out. Even the Manhattan snob in me was impressed by the city’s nightlife and dining options—so many interesting and fun options to choose from!

The following morning, Sunday, we wandered back into Xintiandi for more dim sum. Stef was staying in Shanghai that Monday for work, so Zé and I were on our own for the flight back. We rushed through brunch, said our goodbyes, and made our flight just in time (if you’ve ever traveled with Zé before, you’re likely not surprised by this). Luckily, he managed to snag a last-minute upgrade to business class (and passed the seat to me because he is a wonderful human). We arrived back in Singapore in the early evening and settled back into life in our little city, reacquainting ourselves with the tranquility and calmness we left behind for Shanghai.

I think there is no better city than Shanghai to experience the energy and complex rise of China. Shanghai has always prided itself in being very open to foreign ideas and investment, and is a leading choice for expats in China, which adds to its cosmopolitan allure. Despite its massive population, its charismatic old neighborhoods help maintain a local community lifestyle. I was completely lured in by its beautiful contrasts: amazing modern buildings, traditional spots, remarkable nightlife places, and local charm. I’m already looking forward to our next visit!

Some photos from our trip to Shanghai: