24 Hours in Shanghai
One of the world’s busiest ports in the 19th century, Shanghai drew merchants from all corners of the globe who came to trade in silver, tea, opium and other valuable commodities. As a meeting place for different cultures, Shanghai grew to become China’s most cosmopolitan city. The port’s Old Docks, on the Huangpu River, still serve as a gathering spot, although a recent makeover has earned them the moniker “the cool docks.”
Many of the historical buildings and dockside warehouses here have been transformed into bars and restaurants, their façades clad in rich history. Sandwiched between The Bund (a waterfront strip that was part of a former colonial British settlement) and the 2010 World Expo site (the largest and most expensive world fair), the Old Docks sits somewhere between Shanghai’s past and its promising future.
Wake up to a hearty room-service breakfast delivered on an elegant wooden tray in the former Japanese Military Police Headquarters, now a boutique hotel oozing industrial chic. From outside, The Waterhouse at South Bund looks like a roughshod 1930s abandoned warehouse. Within its walls, however, 19 rooms display designer furniture from icons such as Hans Wegner and Finn Juhl.
A short walk from the hotel will bring you to Cool Docks Plaza — a 25,000-square-meter public square surrounded by shops, restaurants, cafes, art galleries and bars. Stop at the rectangular, landscaped fountain in the main square and you might catch a glimpse of models walking the T-shaped platform in the middle of the water, or even a musical performance. Then, as the day warms up, head toward Bund Beach for sunbathing or simply strolling. The sandy man-made “beach” overlooking the Huangpu River is open to the public during the summer (May – September), for a small entry fee.
Along the same strip sit Warehouse #4 and Warehouse #5, which used to belong to Shanghai’s legendary gangster tycoons Huang Jinrong and Du Yusheng. (It is rumored that during the height of their opium business, Huang and Du earned profits that were nearly equal to one-third of the Shanghai government’s total income.) A host of international restaurants and a handful of design stores now live within the buildings, but be sure to check out Yaang Life, which sells European-inspired Shanghainese stationary, home décor items and accessories.
Back along the main Plaza, stop by Ming Tang for a light and healthy Chinese lunch. The first organic restaurant in Shanghai, Ming Tang uses only produce from the company’s own local farms. MSG-free dishes arrive at your table fresh and flavorful, thanks to an emphasis on flash-frying and steaming. Tuck into items such as steamed Mandarin fish in black-bean paste, chilled calamari with mustard sauce, and stuffed organic string beans with minced pork and water chestnuts.
From Ming Tang, walk southward along Zhongshan South Road and turn right on Dongjiadu Road. Here, you’ll see the Spanish baroque-style Saint Francis Xavier Church. Built in 1853, it’s the city’s oldest church and one of the few where Mass is celebrated in English on weekends.
Opposite the church stands the Marine Merchant’s Guildhall. Built by boat owners from Fujian province who would meet to socialize and drink tea, the hall’s wood-carved archways with its gilded eaves and engravings of the folk goddess Mazu have borne witness to many a convivial evening of banter and tales of high-sea adventure. As the last remaining guildhall in Shanghai, the building is protected by the Huangpu District government, but it’s easy enough to sneak past the guard for a closer look.
Head back toward the Plaza for a cool drink before some serious shopping. From 1849 to 1946, the French were given concession of an area known as Xintiandi, to the west of the Old Docks, and their influence can be felt throughout the city in places such as Nova, an authentic French bistro. Get a table on the terrace and order Nova’s signature cocktail, The Planter Nova, made with white and amber rum, amaretto, orange, mango and pineapple juice.
There are more then a dozen shops scattered around the Plaza. Worth looking into are Wu Yun Fang and Building #15. Wu Yun Fang specializes in agate, a precious stone prized in Chinese feng shui at very reasonable prices. Inside suite 103 of Building #15, a respected local tailor makes exquisite customized chi paos (traditional Chinese silk dresses) and Chinese-style jackets.
Cross the main square and head back to your hotel. Dinner awaits at Table No. 1, award-winning chef Jason Atherton’s gastro-bar restaurant, located within The Waterhouse at South Bund. The restaurant’s threadbare interior is designed to resemble a communal dining room, inviting guests to socialize over dishes such as roasted turbot fish with saffron mash, crab salad and salsa verde. End the night at The Roof, the hotel’s rooftop bar, soaking up views of Huangpu River and the city skyline.