Jane Adams explores the historic riverside hub of the world’s largest city discovering Shanghai’s hidden arts, eats and other oriental treats.
Who would imagine that the highlight of a long weekend in the world’s largest city was a bath – a deep curvaceous contemporary white porcelain tub on the 16th floor of the Hotel Indigo affording panoramic world-beater views of the famous bend in Shanghai’s mighty Huangpu River – the renowned Bund precinct.
Meaning ‘muddy waterfront’ in Urdu, The Bund has been the hub of Shanghai life since the mid-1800s when the city prospered from fishing and weaving. Its sweep of solemn neo-classical and Beaux Arts edifices erected by colonising bankers and traders anchor the reality that this busy riverfront is still the major artery of China’s most populous sprawling city of 23-million striving citizens.
Barges, cargo and cruise ships, tugs and wedding charter vessels constantly ply up- and down-stream like bumper-boats; while dodgem ferries criss-cross from the skyscraper-peppered Pudong side – an orderly riparian parade symbolising Shanghai’s restless dynamism. The 16th floor Bund bath view also posits another Shanghai attraction – the apparent infinity of this fascinating megalopolis, its skyline studded by soaring skyscrapers disappearing into clouds.
Shanghai’s scale and concentration is daunting, but stroll The Bund boardwalk at 6am for a taste of morning calm. Clusters of elderly Chinese, some in pristine cream silk pyjamas, greet sun-up with tai chi routines, others workout, dance, jog or fly kites. Then they pause for a gossip before another day begins…
Whether your mood is congee or croissants opt for the gilded chinoiserie of the Dragon Phoenix restaurant in the artfully restored Fairmont Peace Hotel offering Deco-era nostalgia in spades and sweeping river views. For fair-weather weekend brunch, choose the terrace at the contemporary New Heights brasserie atop the erstwhile Union Building, Shanghai’s first steel-framed structure erected in 1916, now housing numerous restaurants and known as Three on the Bund.
Just a few blocks from the river is the bustling Old Town zone and the YuYuan Gardens created by the affluent Ming dynasty Pan family in the mid-1500s. The walled complex’s sweeping black-tiled rooflines provide the backdrop for one Shanghai must – xiao long bao – glorious glutinous steamed dumplings at Nanxiang Steamed Bun Restaurant. Sit upstairs to suck intense crab broth through straws inserted in king-size steamed wantons, or queue for take-aways. Then stroll the garden and the adjacent streets for a taste of rapidly disappearing Old Shanghai.
The southern extremity of The Bund is known as Cool Docks, a reclaimed wharf area now housing a clutch of restaurants, bars and the high octane 19-room design hotel, The Waterhouse. Its restaurant is Table No 1 where expat-Brit chef, Gordon Ramsay alumni, Jason Atherton plies patrons with produce-driven, simple, subtle, seasonal food in a stylish canteen-like dining space. The communal recycled timber tables ensure you’ll likely strike up conversations with fellow gastro-travellers before the pan-seared sea bass. Express 3-course lunch menu 188 RMB.
The Three on the Bund complex also houses the indulgently revivalist Deco Whampoa Club specialising in contemporary Shanghainese cuisine. Exquisite dim sum star on weekends, a grazing selection that may include shrimp chicken siew mai, finely fluted steamed cod or delicate hairy crab dumplings. The moreish house tea is made from roasted buckwheat. Dim Sum Menu 158 RMB.
Walk off these delicate dim sum delights along the riverfront, then pop in to the Rockbund Art Museum (RAM) in the restored 1930s Royal Asiatic Society building, boasting changing contemporary exhibitions. It’s the hub of the vibrant Rockbund district where the Suzhou Creek and Huangpu River converge. Chill at the rooftop café or seek the legendary High Tea, complete with string quartet, in the celadon-hued 1920s lobby round the corner at the Peninsula Hotel.
Shanghai is without doubt a late night city, but you don’t have to wear a slinky cheong-san to delve into its dining diversions. And The Bund precinct offers many temptations.
Fall into high altitude Yunnan-meets-Tibet at the vast multi-storied Lost Heaven where over 300 diners sup on Yunnan wild vegetable cakes, Lijiang stir-fry pork, succulent Tibetan beef, and steamed chicken with bamboo fungus. Dimly lit, tantalising traditional Tibetan décor.
A total contrast is the boisterous brasserie Mr & Mrs Bund an expat mecca serving contemporary French bistro classics, strong cocktails and savoir faire. Ranked No 7 in the San Pellegrino Asian Top 50 list. Ask for a window table for a glimpse of Pudong’s nightly skyscraper light show.
For Yin Yang modern Cantonese cuisine, head to the South Bund Y2C2 where chef Zhou Han Ming takes innovation seriously. Soups are served in teapots, sea cucumber is stewed with millet, and the casserole may be goose paw with ginger. A riveting, innovative repertoire.
Nightclubs abound on The Bund but for tradition’s sake there is just one must, the Jazz Bar at the Peace Hotel where septuagenarian musicians entertain nightly. Less sedate with striking after-dark rooftop neon views is Bar Rouge atop Mr & Mrs Bund.
The Bund boasts numerous swanky hotels, most installed in rejuvenated historic buildings, all with very discreet signage and river vistas.
The exception to the rule – new, modish Shanghai-tang-style, intelligent hospitality, and jaw-dropper views from the deluxe Pudong riverside rooms. Be sure to check it comes with that bath – then start counting barges as the storyboard neon lights phase and flash.
Swatch Art Peace Hotel
Originally the southern annex of the Peace Hotel, built in 1906. The joint venture restoration between Swatch and JinJiang Hotels combines an artist- in-residence program with a boutique hotel. Cutting edge and costly, choose from four suites or three rooms on the fourth floor. Lively rooftop bar with prime views.
Don’t misjudge the dilapidated exterior of this South Bund one-time factory totally transformed to a 19-room design hotel by Shanghai architects Neri + Hu. (Previously rated on Condé Nast Traveller’s Hot List.)
Les Suites Orient
Low key, luxe, offering varying size studio-style rooms with muted design motifs and all comforts.
Fairmont Peace Hotel
The Deco jewel in the Bund crown, sumptuously restored and deserving of its starred reputation.
Evokes the ‘Orient Paris’ period with panache and pampering tradition. Call in at least for High Tea.
HOT TIP: Looking to escape from the city and explore some of the countryside, head to Moganshan, just 2.5 hours from Shanghai in the mountains.
* Photos courtesy featured hotels, bars & restaurants.