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Sophisticated, cosmopolitan and dynamic, Shanghai is an awe-inspiring destination. China's largest city by population -- more than 23 million -- features an ever-changing skyline full of skyscrapers. As you stroll along the landmark Bund, it's difficult to imagine that, 5,000 years ago, Shanghai was little more than a tiny fishing village and textile town.
Shanghai, which means "city on the sea," grew because of its strategic position on the Huangpu River, a tributary of the mighty Yangtze River that flows into the East China Sea. With its advantageous port location and economic potential, the city opened to the outside world and foreign trade following the 1842 Treaty of Nanking, which marked the end of the first Opium War between the British and Chinese.
European, American and Russian traders moved in and built banks, embassies and offices, most notably characterized in The Bund, the sweeping waterfront mile that's lined with Gothic, Art Deco and other historic buildings. Today, the 19th-century architecture vies for attention with the sleek, space-age towers in Pudong, Shanghai's newest district on the opposite side of the Huangpu.
Shanghai's history tends to be eclipsed by its modern day magnetism, but you don't need to scratch far beneath the surface of the designer shopping streets and glitzy malls to find some traditional treasures. Ancient pagodas, temples and gardens provide an oasis of calm in the 24/7 metropolis that makes up China's most contemporary city.
A day is not enough to see all of Shanghai, and typical ocean cruise itineraries begin or end in the city, with the opportunity for extensions, while river cruise operators offer a two-day land-based stay prior to a flight to commence a Yangtze River cruise.
Although the sheer size of Shanghai can appear overwhelming, the top sights are divided into a handful of areas that are covered on full- and half-day excursions. And for independent travelers, surprisingly cheap taxis provide a cost-effective way to get around.
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Known as the Paris of the Orient, Shanghai is a dream for fashionistas with high-end shops selling an A-to-Z of designer names. Those seeking an authentic Chinese souvenir can find Shanghai lacquer items, jade and silk paintings. The best budget souvenirs are wood carvings and Chinese calligraphy, where your name or the recipient's name is written in ink on scrolls, jewelry and other wares. Youngsters will love one of the omnipresent cuddly pandas that come in all sizes.
Mandarin, often referred to as Standard Chinese, is the official language. Shanghai also has its own traditional language called Shanghainese, and it's spoken by about 14 million people, mainly the older generation. English is spoken in all large hotels, shops, restaurants and attractions in the tourist areas.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
China's currency is the renminbi, literally translated as the people's currency, which is abbreviated as RMB. The main denomination is the yuan. ATM's are prevalent throughout Shanghai, and the large hotels can change money. Unlike in many major cities, you don't need to shop around for the best rate at hotels or currency exchanges, as they all offer the same standardized rate. For current conversion figures, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com.
Where You're Docked
One of the world's busiest commercial ports, Shanghai is China's largest port and the only one connecting the country's sea and river shipping systems. Shanghai Port International Cruise Terminal, located in the North Bund area close to downtown, can accommodate three midsize cruise ships. The distinctive, sparkling glass structure of the main building is shaped like a drop of water. Some ships -- mostly larger vessels (more than 85,000 tons) that cannot navigate the low bridge on the Huangpu -- berth at Shanghai Waigaoqiao Port, 18 miles from the city center.
The international port, situated in an attractive landscaped park with great views across The Bund, features a flexible corridor that connects cruise ships to the passenger hall. It offers ATM's, tourist information desks and places to eat. For passengers who prefer to walk rather than take a shuttle bus or organized tour, The Bund is about 15 minutes away, and the main Nanjing Road shopping area can be reached in 30 minutes. Shanghai Waigaoqiao Port features fewer facilities and no real reasons to hang around. All cruise ships offer shuttle buses that stop at The Bund and shopping districts.
On Foot: Although Shanghai can seem intimidating at first glance, it's a very walkable city once you reach your destination of choice: The Bund, Old Town, the elegant French Concession area and car-free Xintiandi district. It's a very clean city, and there are plenty of pedestrian crossings on busy streets.
By Taxi: Shanghai's taxis are incredibly cheap, and a couple of dollars will get you a very long way. The majority of drivers don't speak any English, so you'll need to have your destination written down in Chinese. This isn't as difficult as it sounds, as hotels provide cards with the names of all the main districts and attractions written in English on one side and Chinese on the other, or the concierge will write down the place you want to go. Taxis are metered, and drivers don't expect tips, so you might find them trying to give back gratuities.
By Metro: Shanghai's rapidly expanding Metro system is a fast and user-friendly way to get around, and you can pick up a detailed map at stations or find the main lines listed on tourist information guides available at hotel reception and concierge desks. Tickets are sold from bilingual vending machines, and the main stations are announced in Mandarin and English.
By Bus: Although very cheap, the public bus network is best avoided because it can be very difficult to understand where buses are going. A far better bet is one of the hop-on, hop-off sightseeing tours with English-speaking commentary. Operators include Big Bus Tours Big Bus Tours and Spring Tour.
Watch Out For
China is notorious for counterfeit goods, and Shanghai has whole markets dedicated to fakes. Street hawkers can be annoying when they start following you around with armfuls of knock-off watches, bags, jade jewelry and assorted items and pester you to buy. If you're tempted, don't be surprised if that "Rolex" has stopped ticking by the time you get home. While individuals will have personal views on the rights and wrongs of fake products, anyone who buys them should be aware of the legal issues. The U.S. Customs and Border Patrol allows travelers to bring back one article of each type of counterfeit product (one watch, one bag, etc.), provided they are for personal use and not for sale. It is illegal to sell counterfeit goods, and anyone caught bringing back several, or large numbers, of the same items will have them confiscated and could be subjected to a fine.
The Bund, Shanghai's most memorable mile, is the place to see and be seen for visitors and locals alike. Walk along East Zhongshan No. 1 Road for close-up views of buildings that include the Art Deco Peace Hotel, towering Bank of China and Customs House that's topped by a clock face and bell modeled after London's Big Ben. Or check out the elevated promenade for the best views of the rocket-shaped Oriental Pearl and Jin Mao towers, once the highest buildings on the Pudong side of the river (until they were eclipsed by the Shanghai World Financial Center and then the Shanghai Tower). Although it's a magnet any time of day, the best time to go is at night when the neon-lit Pudong skyline is a nocturnal spectacle.
Flex the plastic in Nanjing Road, the main shopping street that stretches more than three miles from The Bund to People's Square. East Nanjing Road, closest to The Bund, is home to some of Shanghai's grand old department stores and leads into West Nanjing Road with its upmarket malls, designer shops and five-star hotels. And when you've shopped until you've dropped, there are plenty of places to take a break, from familiar fast-food chains to authentic Chinese restaurants.
Designed in the shape of a ding, an ancient circular Chinese cooking vessel, Shanghai Museum, near People's Square, displays a dazzling collection of bronze, sculptures, calligraphy, jade, coins and ceramics. It also has a colorful exhibition of clothing, arts and crafts of "Chinese minorities," the name given to ethnic groups. Admission to the museum is free, but, if time is tight, it's worth renting a handheld audio guide that covers the highlights. (201 Ren Min Da Dao; open daily, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.)
The Old Town, in the southeastern part of the city, provides a tantalizing glimpse of 16th-century Shanghai. Behind the inevitable souvenir stands sit beautiful old buildings, temples and pagodas. The bustling bazaar is a fun place to watch locals queue up for dim sum and to wander through the narrow side streets. The area is bordered by the Renmin Lu and Zhonghua Lu roads that follow the line of the original walls built to keep Japanese pirates at bay.
No visit to the Old Town would be complete without taking in the Yuyuan Garden, just off the central square of the bazaar. Created in 1559 during the Ming Dynasty, the garden is split into six areas divided by dramatic dragon walls. Shady paths lead past pools filled with bright orange carp, serene pavilions, rockeries and a covered walkway originally designed for women to walk on one side and men on the other. (open daily, 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.)
Two priceless white jade Buddhas were transported from Burma to China in 1881 by a monk. Although the original temple built a year later no longer exists, the replacement Jade Buddha Temple constructed in 1928 in western Shanghai provides a beautiful backdrop for the pair of seated and reclining Buddhas. (170 Anyuan Road; open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.)
When it comes to a stylish and historic haunt for a cocktail, the Long Bar at the Waldorf Astoria Shanghai on The Bund is hard to beat. Originally the site of the Shanghai Club, a gentleman's club and watering hole for British nationals, the bar opened in 1910. (At the time, the 111-foot-long bar was reputed to be the longest in the world.) It has since been restored to its former glory, with sumptuous leather chairs, marble columns, stained glass and archive photos that show what it was like in its heyday. (open from 4 p.m. to 1 a.m. Monday to Saturday and 2 p.m. to 1 a.m. Sunday)
Been There, Done That
The site of the First National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921, the Xintiandi area has reinvented itself as a trendy district famous for its renovated old shikumen (stone-gated houses), relaxed cafe society and individual shops and galleries.
If you've seen The Bund from the ground, enjoy a completely different perspective of Shanghai with panoramic views from the 100th floor observation deck at the Shanghai World Financial Center, the tallest building in China that reaches the dizzying height of 1,555 feet. (100 Century Avenue in Pudong; open daily from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m.)
Shanghai Ocean Aquarium is a modern complex next to the Oriental Pearl Tower. In addition to its collection of endangered aquatic species from China, you can also find more than 450 species of aquatic animals from other parts of the world. (1388 Luijiazui Ring Road; open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.)
The Propaganda Poster Art Center is a private museum and the only one of its kind in China. It provides a thought-provoking and powerful insight into social history through thousands of idealized posters dating from 1910 to 1990. (868 Huashan Road; open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.)
Designed by English architect William Doyle and completed in 1910, St. Ignatius Cathedral was the first Western-style cathedral built in China. The vast building can accommodate up to 2,500 worshippers and is known as the grandest cathedral in the Far East. (158 Puxi Road; open daily 7:30 to 11 a.m. and 1 to 4 p.m., with English mass every Sunday at noon)
Shanghai cuisine reflects the cooking styles of the surrounding provinces of Jiangsu, Anhui, Zhejiang, Fujian and Jiangxi, which are characterized by a greater use of soy sauce, sugar, rice wine and rice vinegar than other regional cuisines. That said, Shanghai's 1,000-plus restaurants also serve every other style of Chinese food, such as spicy Sichuan, Cantonese dim sum and Peking, which are more familiar to Western palates. Add the food of virtually every other country you can imagine, and it all adds up to Shanghai being a truly international dining destination.
"Food streets," such as Huanghe Road and Wujiang Road near People's Square, serve everything from cheap local eats to Western-style meals. Just wander around to see what takes your fancy.
As the name implies, The Bund Brewery is just off the waterfront. The relaxed and friendly eatery with its cozy wooden interior serves microbrewed Bundlander beer, great cocktails and reasonably priced food. There's a Western menu, but if you want to try local fare, the waiter will be happy to make some suggestions. (11 Hankou Road; open from 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Sunday to Thursday and 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday)
Vegetarians can enjoy a tasty deal at Songyuelou in the Old Town. Popular with locals and visitors alike, it dates to 1910 and is Shanghai's oldest veggie restaurant. English menus can be found upstairs, and the vegetable-stuffed buns fill a lunchtime hole between sightseeing tours of the nearby City God Temple and Yuyuan Garden. (99 Jiu Jiaochang Road; open daily from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.)
Situated in the heart of the French Concession foodie district, Cuivre serves up a taste of southern France under the direction of Michael Wendling, who worked in Michelin-starred kitchens before going it alone. The decor is fun and quirky, with dissected bicycles acting as bar stools. You can expect to pay around $25 for signature dishes like black pig, which is slow-cooked pork flavored with thyme. (1502 Huaihai Zhong Road; open from 6 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Monday to Sunday and noon to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday)
Boutique: Built inside a 1930's dockland warehouse, The Waterhouse at South Bund is a cool 19-room boutique retreat with artwork by Tracey Emin and designer furniture by icons like Arne Jacobsen. The roof terrace bar provides fantastic views over Shanghai's famous waterfront. (1-3 Maojiayuan Road)
Splurge: The Portman Ritz-Carlton is in a great location next to shops that include lots of top-name designer stores, and it's close to the Shanghai Grand Theatre and the Shanghai Museum. The 610-room hotel has five restaurants, two swimming pools and a gym that's open 24/7, so you can work out in the middle of the night if you're suffering from jet lag. (1376 Nanjing Xi Lu)
Good value: Located on a quiet street, the baroque-style 144-room Anting Villa Hotel is close to the Shanghai Museum of Arts and Crafts, as well as Shanghai's foodie French Concession area. (46 Anting Road)
Staying in Touch
For passengers overnighting in Shanghai before or after their cruises, the most convenient way to access Wi-Fi is in the hotel, where it's more reliable and usually free. Alternatively, look for hot spots in mainstream bars and restaurants in the tourist areas. Internet cafes, which are scarce, are licensed and bound by strict rules; users need to show an ID, often a Chinese one, which means overseas visitors can't go in. It's also worth remembering that Communist Party censorship laws make it tricky or impossible to stay in touch via Facebook and other social network sites or use search engines like Google.
Best Overview: It's a long tour (9.5 hours), but a comprehensive day trip really is the best way to soak up Shanghai's highlights. Typical tours begin with a morning exploring the Old Town and the neighboring Yuyuan Garden with ample time for shopping. After lunch, the afternoon is spent at the Jade Buddha Temple, Shanghai Museum and a silk factory to discover how the precious fabric is made, with plenty of opportunity to buy clothes, carpets and other silk souvenirs.
Best for Thrills: The Chinese acrobatic tradition dates to 700 B.C., with figures of acrobats found on ancient pottery and stone carvings. A trip to an acrobatic show, often combined with a meal on a three-hour tour, is an awesome spectacle, as the artists juggle on unicycles, dive through hoops and perform an array of amazing gravity-defying acts.
Best for Night Owls: Shanghai by night, a three-hour tour, is a chance to see the city at its most spectacular. All tours take in The Bund, and many feature trips to the observation deck on the 88th floor of the Jin Mao Tower, Shanghai's second-highest building, to take in the stunning aerial cityscape.
For More Information
On the Web: China National Tourist Office
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Asia
IndependentTraveler.com: Asia Travel Guide
--by Jeannine Williamson, Cruise Critic contributor