Let me start by saying that Shanghai is definitely not China. In the same way that New York is not America, London is not England and Paris is not France. However, the difference between Shanghai and China is far greater than any of the other major cities I have been to in the world.
I went to China expecting a much more backwards big city but was very quickly put into my place after wandering around for a few minutes. Shanghai is so incredibly westernized, it easily gives NYC and London a run for their money.
The crazy differences between old and new are so apparent everywhere you look. Old buildings from early Shanghai are shadowed by the intergalactic modern skyscrapers quickly filling every inch of the skyline. It’s amazing how fast things are changing in this country and how quickly they are adopting the western ideals of wealth and status. Everywhere you look you see enormous gated communities and apartment blocks, luxury cars of all kinds and every single designer and non designer brand store from every big city in the world. However, just slightly out of the bright lights and commerce driven parts are the much more humble abodes, wet markets, and the people make the city run.
If shopping and designer brands are the number one past time for the Shanghainese, then food is most definitely a close second. It is undeniable that this culture is largely a food focused one. Every other store front is a restaurant or a quick bite to eat, street food sellers are on every corner and wet markets are found every few blocks. Whether everyone is passionate about what they eat or just interested in filling their bellies, the means is always the same and there is absolutely no possible way that you can go hungry here. Unless of course you are vegan, gluten free, watching your fat intake and on a low sodium diet, all at the same time. In that case, bring some raw bars!
But in all honesty, the food is so incredibly flavorful which is something that surprised me. Unfortunately about 80% of my experience with Chinese food has been the American version which more than pales in comparison to the real thing. I usually avoid it like the plague as for me the only flavor profiles that I can taste are incredibly sweet and mouth dryingly salty with very little in between. In reality, the real Chinese food which I’ve had little tastes of through my life is a delicate balance of flavors and this was so very apparent in the food I was able to eat in Shanghai.
I’m sure I’ve said it more than once, but markets are my must see on any trip I go on. I love the exchanges and the passion for food that can only be found in market type settings. However, markets in the east are a whole other type of experience. They usually have a feeling of mass chaos but one that is generally organized in its own special way. The food preparation follows a whole different set of rules than we are used to in our sterile clean supermarkets in the west.
The meat and fish in China is often alive just before you select and purchase it, when is then very kindly slaughtered and cut to your liking on an alfresco chopping board that has previously seen thousands more lives, right before your very eyes. In a way the freshness is something to be desired in the clingwrapped artificially fresh food that is becoming the norm in the west, however the standards of hygiene might take a tad bit getting used to! Right next to the meat is always a huge array of vegetables and greens that make me always want to start cooking as soon as possible. It’s always a little bittersweet for me as the Omnivores Dilemma and In Defense of Food reading part of me questions how and where all this food comes from. However, sometimes ignorance is the best policy when abroad!
This trip was one of my most eye opening being able to see how the other side of world goes round. It was far different than I could have imagined and I expect many more influencers in design, architecture and food will be popping up around the world very soon!
Though the very modern aspects of Shanghai are unavoidable and spectacular in their own ways, I always enjoy finding the world where little has changed over time. If you want pictures of skyscrapers, google them. Instead, I hope you enjoy what I feel is a little piece of the heart of this city.
After exploring the Bund and its beautiful buildings and amazing views, find your way to the former french concession area of the city. Just wander the streets and have fun getting wrapped up in all the different types of markets. Dong Tai Lu has a little antique market that is unfortunately quickly disappearing with the tear down of old and the influx of new- but worth a visit. Tangjiawan Road has the most amazing street market filled with fish, vegetables and all sorts in between. Have a wander through Tianzifang and see some of the old architecture of Shanghai (make sure to go early and avoid weekends as it gets very busy) and more importantly walk around the areas around Tianzifang to get a less touristy experience.
If you’re looking to see some of the beautiful temples of China and bit of nature, visit Hangzhou for a day. The Lingjin Temple complex is set up in the tea mountains with an amazing view overlooking West Lake and the city. If you can survive the trek to the top, you will be rewarded with a fantastic view!
Hakkasan| Restaurant | Fancy new restaurant in Bund 18 serving delicious cantonese food and amazing cocktails. Great atmosphere and extremely attentive service. Must have the China Mule, Crispy Duck Rolls and the Jasmin Tea Soaked Chicken!
Tori Yasu | Restaurant | Delicious Japanese yakitori hidden behind a very unassuming door. Inside is a homely and cheery atmosphere with lots of kirin beer and great food. I didn’t try anything I didn’t like, but the chicken wings were especially delicious!
Din Tai Fung | Restaurant | A must have if you’re in Shanghai. These xiaolongbao soup dumpings are no secret and people around the world come here to enjoy these amazingly delicious and mouth burning little dumplings. I was skeptical about the chain store status of this brand at first as most of these are found in malls and business buildings, however every Shangainese person that I asked wholeheartedly recommended this place for the flavor of it’s food and most importantly the quality of the meat. You must try the traditional xiaolongbao with pork as thats what you come for. However, the hot and sour soup, pickled cabbage, sauteed spinach with beancurd, Coconut milk with tapioca and taro, and taro sweet dumplings are all so good too!
Imperial Treasure (Yu Bao Xuan) | Restaurant | One of the best dim sum restaurants in the city located close to the Bund. The dim sum menu is served only on the weekends and despite how big it is, the place is always packed so make a reservation. There are so many options but everything is so delicious. The flavors are delicate and everything tastes incredibly fresh. The baked pork buns were especially good
Lost Heaven | Restaurant | This new restaurant is super popular at the moment and serves food from the Hunan Province. Though the place is filled with expats, the food is really actually delicious. Lots of flavor and a little bit of spice.
Elixir Health Pot | Restaurant | Though this restaurant is touted to be healthy, it is not your bland health food that is served here. This hot pot is absolutely packed with flavor and filled with dried berries, aromatics and whole spices. I loved the spicy hot pot, but definitely get the duo with two soup bases so you can try a bit of everything. Along with the usual meats and veggies, get the egg dumplings and the sweet purple yam balls, you won’t be disappointed!
Dragonfly | Massage | Great place to get a massage and relax after exploring the city. Very reasonably priced compared to western standards and very clean.
Mandarin Oriental | Hotel |Fantastic new hotel on the Pudong side. The staff were so attentive and make you feel very welcome. The breakfast buffet is full of anything you could want. The olympic sized pool and spa area is to die for.
Cha Mi | Shop | Great little tea shop with locations scattered throughout the city. Great place to buy ceramics or some delicious tea.
Spin Ceramics | Shop | Amazing place for beautiful modern chinese ceramics. From plates and platters to tea and sake sets, I couldn’t walk away with just one thing, but the good news is that they ship worldwide!
Wang De Chuan Tea | Shop | Beautiful shop in the Xintiandi shopping area selling very high quality teas. Try what you like before you buy anything, though I’m sure you’ll have a hard time leaving with just one.
Design Republic | Shop | Really awesome modern design shop with lots of new and classic designers. Well worth a visit even just for inspiration if you can’t fit anything to take home with you!
Dong Liang | Shop | Another beautiful shop in a converted lane house featuring homegrown designers from around the world.