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Off the Brochure Travel Guide: Shanghai, China

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Streets of shanghaiWith the Summer Olympics kicking off in the North and crowds of travelers distracted elsewhere, there’s no better time to explore Shanghai, the metropolis on the Yangtze.

Despite its exploding population (more than 18 million and growing) and burgeoning international industry, Shanghai is one historic locale that maintains its nostalgic charm.

It continues to strengthen its cultural roots while staying afloat (it is a river city!) with the new deals and attractions that enliven its bustling streets. Here’s what’s what—and what’s worth it—in off-the-brochure Shanghai today.

UNDER THE SHANGHAI SKY

Starting in the out-of-doors, early risers are sure to appreciate the tradition of tai chi as celebrated in the outside spaces of Shanghai. Every morning, starting between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m., hundreds of devotees of the Chinese tradition can be found in People’s Park, the blossoming green space of the city center.

Shanghai SkyHere, respectful visitors are welcome to watch the patient (and ancient) practice that blends soothing physical activities with intense spiritual meditation. Though we may not rise for tai chi every morning, one early start for cultural immersion and natural beauty is—hands up, hands down, pose with them to the side—well worth it. Nanjing Xi Lu 231; 86-21-63720626

Another lauded, but lesser known, open-sky appreciation of Shanghai’s splendor: a ferry ride on the Yangtze. With views of the flashy Pudong skyline, a cruise on the famous river offers a refreshing and affordable alternative to the chaos of close-contact tourism. On the boat, riders are awarded a peaceful and contemplative perspective of the otherwise bustling city. Plus, on the river, East and West—the two sections of the city, divided by the waterway—come together with practically picture-perfect views.

THE CITY’S CREATIVITY

On the artistic front, the city’s creative culture is alive and well, trumping the common misperception of Shanghai as a purely industrial locale. For example, the Shanghai Museum, which is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. everyday, houses some the world’s foremost collections of jade, seals, calligraphy, coins, and furniture. Even better—as of March 10, the prestigious museum now offers free admission all day, everyday. Peoples Great Road, #201; 86-21-63723500, shanghaimuseum.net

Cathay Cinema ShanghaiLikewise, adding an alternative twist to the traditional arts destinations on travelers’ agendas, Shanghai’s Cathay Cinema is a 1932 Art-Deco cinema hall that regularly features film exhibitions. The multiplex, which comfortably seats 584, was renovated in 2003 and represents the city’s fusion of old and new, as well as its strong cinematic history. The four-star cinema hall is an off-the-beaten-path pit-stop for film buffs and culturally curious travelers alike. 870 Huaihai Zhong Lu Road; 86-21-54040415

SPENDING THOSE YUAN

Huai Hai RoadAs for shopping, Shanghai has more to offer than strip malls and mega centers—though it has plenty of those too, if that’s what you’re looking for. For a more intimate, less commercialized setting, Huai Hai Road, a trendy, French-style shopping district, proffers more than 400 shops and restaurants. Known for its chic atmosphere and hip items, Huai Hai Road is the perfect alternative to the crowded NanJing Shopping Center.

Similarly, for visitors looking for an old-world experience, Dongtai Lu, the city’s old commercial neighborhood, offers the quintessential antique market experience. With stalls lining the bustling street, and dealers and shoppers with a shared understanding that haggling is a must, Dongtai Lu offers both a spirited atmosphere and an opportunity for scandalously low shopping.

SATIATION IN SHANGHAI

More NoodlesFor food to fuel these busy days of Shanghai exploration, the region’s classic cuisine offers a wide range of flavors and eating atmospheres to fit every traveling plan. For fine dining and a romantic atmosphere, Laris and Lost Heaven are a few Shanghai favorites that offer late-night noshing—the Shanghainese usually dine fairly early—and delicious, up-scale cuisine.

Laris, which is located on the Bund and is open from 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., specializes in fusion cuisine. Lost Heaven, found in the French Concession and with a bar open until 2 a.m., serves fresh, authentic Yunnan food. Laris: 6th floor, 17 Guangdong Road; 86-21-63219922, www.threeonthebund.com; Lost Heaven: 38 Gao You Lu; 86-21-64335126.

For visitors interested in truly immersing themselves in the Shanghai dining experience, there is no better place to chow than the street stalls at the Wujiang Food street, down from Shimen Yi Lu. The bustling atmosphere and wafting smells hint at the flavorful and experiential delicacies. The local cuisine here is not to be missed—you can’t experience real Shanghai without trying it.

Chou dou fu, known as “smelly tofu,” is an amazingly cheap concoction of fermented tofu with vinegar and is often served by elderly ladies with street carts.

Likewise, xiao long bao, translated to “little dragon bun,” is a small steamed bun with thin skin and a juicy inside that is sold on the street.

“Hairy crab,” xa zha xie, is a special river crab, which is usually served during the winter, and tied with rope or bound in a bamboo box and served with vinegar.

Lastly, the Pi dan, “Preserved Eggs,” are a famous Shanghainese delicacy made of preserved duck eggs, rumored to be 100 years old, but, in reality, are likely about 100 days old.

EVENING ADVENTURES

Nighttime Shanghai ChinaCome nightfall, Shanghai’s streets reinvigorate and certain spots, such as the Paramount Dance Hall and CJW, promise an evening of lively fun and entertainment. The Paramount Dance Hall, located in Old Shanghai, is reminiscent of the 1930’s with its historic architecture and old-world ambience. This lesser-known dancehall is ideal for visitors interested in combining historic sight-seeing with modern nighttime fun. 425 Dingxiang Rd, Pudong; 86-21-68541234

In addition, the CJW, which stands for Cigar Jazz Wine and can be found in East Shanghai, features live jazz music, colonial architecture, and skyline views form the 50th floor of the Bund Center. The classy lounge-atmosphere is open until 1 a.m. and can house over 200 people, plus private groups in five private rooms. Shanghai’s got history and versatility in some of its off-the-brochure nightlife favorites. 222 Yan An Road; 86-21-63391777

By Marissa Tinloy for PeterGreenberg.com.

Don’t miss the rest of our Off the Brochure Travel Guide series, including a number of Asian cities like Beijing, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Bangkok.

Taking a trip to China? Don’t miss our Comprehensive Guide to Beijing, the Olympics, and China Travel.

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