Why Shanghai is one of the most exciting cities in the world right now!
I have been coming to Shanghai now for 4 years. For those who came in the 80’s and 90’s and saw a wholly different China this will no doubt seem very recent. My Shanghai experiences have always been rich and exciting, but it wasn’t until I relocated here that I came to know the city more intimately. There are many reasons why Shanghai might just be the coolest place in the world to be right now. I won’t bang on about the economy and such, because this is widely known…instead I will share my thoughts on why Shanghai has captured my heart and why it might just capture yours as well.
1) Architecture – from modern skyscrapers to charming lane houses
Shanghai is big – 22 million people in one city, same as the entire population of Australia. Yet because the space of the city is so big, the Chinese were able to build out, not always up. This means that while there are some super duper skyscrapers, there are more low rise buildings, fascinating architecture and lovely little lanes with 100+ year old houses. The outcome of this varied landscape is a city that is at once full of cutting edge, modern engineering masterpieces and charming little areas full of old world personality and a time gone by. It’s the seamless way these blend in modern day Shanghai that’s absolutely inspiring vs. other parts of Asia where the “old world” has been ruthlessly replaced for the sake of progress.
2) The markets – from lighting to pearls to silks
Turns out if there is a category of products there is a market for it. As I am shopping for a variety of things I have discovered a market for house plants, a market just for pets, a market for lighting (where you can buy everything from tabletop lamps to iron street lamps) and even a market for pearls. The place I keep going again and again is the fabric market, I find myself here having everything from silk dresses to silk curtains made. My friend even had a Wonder Woman outfit made for a costume party. If you can dream it, they have it in Shanghai…at some market, some where.
3) Nightlife is hot!
After having lived in NYC and Bangkok and visited a great many other cities with pulsing night life scenes, I wasn’t sure what to expect in Shanghai. But it’s all here – from cool cocktail lounges to seedy dive bars to reggae bars to slick night clubs to hard-core dance clubs to gay bars / clubs to late night girls-dancing-on-the-tables kind of places. From private parties requiring “passwords” to new opening parties it seems about every week for some new place. There’s no excuse not to go out in Shanghai – the problem is deciding where!
4) Vibrant and progressive culinary scene
I hear this is really in the last 5 years, but you cannot cross the street without running into some cool new restaurant with a chef that’s trying new things. From Mr. & Mrs. Bund to Maison Pourcel to El Willy there’s an explosion of high quality European culinary destinations. And then there’s all manner of local favourites, like Lynn or Di Shui Dong. And this is barely scratching the surface. As an expat, I also have the feeling I am only seeing a small sliver of the culinary action as well. I plan to pick my new Chinese friends’ brains on the more local places, especially after a recent street-side and mind blowing jiaozi (that’s gyoza or fried dumpling) binge.
5) A truly blooming art culture
There seems to be an irrepressible need for the Chinese to express themselves…and now that they are allowed to (as long as it is government friendly), it is as if the flood gates have opened. While Beijing is still the cultural center, Shanghai is evolving from a city of commerce to also be a city of culture. Whether it’s the Suzhou Creek Art District or Taikang Lu (admittedly less artistic and more commercial these days versus the past) or any of the galleries holding exhibitions all over town, there’s no doubt the Chinese contemporary art scene is booming.
6) Post Olympics and Expo
The Beijing 2008 Olympics have come and gone as has the 2010 Expo in Shanghai. What does this mean? It means that the country has upgraded airports, transportation, road quality and public parks at a level of investment unmatched by any time in the past. I have been traveling to Shanghai for about 4 years and I am just flabbergasted by the transformation of the Bund. It’s exactly what it could have been many years ago, but just like it takes a house move for you to clean out your closet, it takes a big international event for a country to do its housecleaning and repairs. So now in Shanghai you can enjoy flowers planted on the side of the road, slightly reduced pollution and city parks and spaces that are at their aesthetic peak.
7) Access to a vast and varied country
There are more than 160 cities in China with populations of over 1 million people. China is #2 in the ranking of the world’s most billionaires and #3 in the ranking of the world’s most millionaires. And in fact the number of billionaires rose from 64 to 115 in only 1 year! Yet under this back drop of progress and prosperity, there are still extremely rural parts of China. One of the world’s oldest civilizations is also the world’s most dichotomous in terms of economic disparity and development. What this means for the traveler is that Shanghai is the perfect perch from which to explore this 3.7 million square mile country of 33 very individual provinces. There are 40 UNESCO World Heritage sites in China. From ancient capitals like Beijing and Xi’an to old towns like Wuhan to Qufu to the beaches on Hainan Island, one could spend their whole life exploring this vast and varied country.
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