Travel review: Shanghai - Bright lights, big city

The towering Pidong skyline in Shanghai. PIC: PA
The towering Pidong skyline in Shanghai. PIC: PA
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No time to apply for a visa? You can travel for up to three days without one in Shanghai. Katie Wright shares her tips for a whirlwind stopover.

It’s 8am on a Friday in Jing’An – the central district of Shanghai, packed with gleaming hotels and shopping malls – and already the pace on the streets is frenetic. I’m trying to cross a busy main road but even super-sized traffic lights, a green man and a zebra crossing hold no sway against drivers who seem to see pedestrians as an annoyance best ignored.

I make it across unscathed (just) and head for the Jing’An Park, a leafy haven where pensioners are huddled around Mahjong boards and a bunch of teenagers are attempting to get a drone camera into the air.

It’s 20 years since I’ve been to China – I lived in the southern city of Guangzhou for a year when I was 10 – and boy things have changed. In those days, my blond siblings and I were gawped at like we were aliens wherever we went, but in modern day Shanghai, Westerners (or “guilos” in Mandarin) are 10 a penny.

The number of foreigners visiting the world’s largest city (currently home to 24 million) has grown significantly since short-term visa restrictions were relaxed in 2013. You can now stay in China for up to 72 hours without a visa, making it more attractive to travellers already in South East Asia or on route to Australia.

So how do you maximise a three-day stay in this metropolis? While I could happily gawp at the view from my 17th floor room at the Puli Hotel all day, I’m keen to explore old-school Shanghai. So after my stroll I make a beeline for Tian Zi Fang, where the narrow criss-crossing streets are lined with low rise “Lane” houses, built in the 1930s.

The area now has a market feel, with former residential homes mostly transformed into shops selling silk clothing, loose leaf tea, cartoonish trinkets and other tourist-friendly goods.

I haven’t retained much Mandarin in two decades (and bartering is made all the more difficult because the Chinese have a system of hand symbols for numbers that’s more complicated than our one to 10 fingers) but with the help of my iPhone calculator, I manage to haggle down the price of some silver jewellery and a traditional silk Cheongsam dress.

Ready for a breather, I make my way over to the picturesque Yu Garden to watch koi carp and turtles paddling in jade green ponds, as I walk across the Zigzag Bridge to reach Huxinting Teahouse and a refreshing jasmine brew. Later that night, I head out in search of the one sight I’m most excited about.

Ever since I learned that Shanghai’s space-age skyscrapers were used to represent futuristic Los Angeles in the Spike Jonze film Her, I’ve been dying to experience the vertiginous views with my own eyes.

The best place to do so? It’s got to be the Bund, the wide riverside boulevard opposite the iconic Pudong skyline that is to Shanghai what the Southbank is to London.

I stroll happily along the riverfront as the sun is setting, and by the time I’ve finished my first mojito at the seventh floor POP terrace bar at the top of Three On The Bund, Pudong is lit up in all its neon glory.

The following morning we wander through the avenues of the historic French Concession, stopping to sample all kinds of delicious hangover-busting dumplings, my favourite being the soft white steamed buns filled with sweet, sticky black sesame paste.

I spend the afternoon walking off my humongous lunch and perusing the works of local artists in the cool M50 art district, before heading back to the Bund for dinner and one last glimpse of that irresistible vista.

Not long before midnight, I watch the lights of Pudong go out one by one, but that doesn’t mean this city is going to sleep.

Far from it. I’ve got 12 hours until my plane departs, and I intend to make the most of them...

Stay: Puli Hotel and Spa. Shooting up 23 storeys, the Puli Hotel and Spa in Jing’An offers spectacular views across the city. Rooms from £478. Visit www.puli.com

Eat: If you want to taste authentic Shanghainese food but you don’t want to end up with traveller’s tummy, book yourself on a four-hour Untour street food sampler (www.untourshanghai.com) which includes the services of a guide.

For more upmarket dining, head to the Bund, where Michelin star supremo Jean-Georges Vongerichten oversees three of the five restaurants at Three On The Bund (www.threeonthebund.com).

FACTFILE

Katie Wright was a guest of the Puli Hotel & Spa (www.thepuli.com). Rooms from £478 per night, including complimentary stocked mini bar, wi-fi and unlimited use of Health Club, sauna, steam room and indoor infinity pool.

Air France (www.airfrance.co.uk) offers up to 14 flights a week to Shanghai in China via Paris, from 10 UK airports. Return fares start from £446, including all taxes and fees.

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