Anyone looking for a bit of entertainment or foodie satisfaction while on a layover in Shanghai will need to look well beyond the confines of the airport. Pudong’s international airport may be a huge, mostly gleaming, modern space, but it has some of the most overpriced, bland food and off-brand shopping with little to do beyond making repeated attempts to connect to the free Wi-Fi.
The airport is situated about 25 miles outside the city center, so anything less than five hours between flights probably isn’t worth planning an exit strategy. With China’s recently implemented 72-hour visa-free policy, as long as you’ve got an onward plane ticket to a third country (Macau, Taiwan and Hong Kong count), you can skip the tiresome visa process and get a good feel for what Shanghai really has to offer. Remember, no matter how short your layover is, pre-print (or download) each destination in Chinese characters to facilitate taking taxis or asking for directions.
6 Hours: Maglev & Noodles
Visitors wanting to get a taste of China’s rapid transformation will want to take a ride on the high-speed maglev train, which zooms to its destination at around 400 kph. It’s a cheap, fun seven-minute ride (and there’s a discount if you show your same-day plane ticket). It stops short of reaching downtown Shanghai, but if you’re on a tight schedule, stretch your legs a bit and walk three big blocks from the terminus at Longyang Lu to some of the best Sichuan-style noodles you’ll find in the city, at Xiaochu Mian. The menu is all in Chinese characters, so check our ordering recommendations or fellow diners’ plates, and get your tongue tingling with authentic levels of the numbing Sichuan peppercorns. You’re within walking distance of Century Park (世界公园, shìjiè gōngyuán), where you can take in Shanghai’s Central Park-esque equivalent. If you’ve still got some time, hop on Metro line 2 and head a few more stops to Lujiazui for a look at the city’s glittering skyline (but as far as food goes, you’ll only find mall dining here).
72 Hours: Visa-Free Stay
You’ve skipped the visa hassles and are ready to see all Shanghai has to offer in three short days. Avoid the temptation to travel beyond the city’s confines on this short layover and make the most of your time (and stomach space).
Start your morning off with a stroll through Fuxing Park (复兴公园, fùxīng gōngyuán) in the former French Concession. This is China’s only French-style park, but the locals’ charming variety of calisthenics routines are what make the morning more than memorable. Head over to Wei Xiang Zhai, just a block away from the north entrance to the park, for the city’s best sesame peanut noodles (麻酱面, májiàng miàn). The run-down joint has been serving these spicy-sweet noodles for decades, and at just 10 RMB per bowl, they are not to be missed.
From there you’re a quick walk away from People’s Square (人民广场, rénmín guǎngchǎng) and two options for museums, either the Urban Planning Museum or Shanghai Museum (free!), which focuses on art and artifacts from China’s long, storied past. Opt for the latter, and enter from the south entrance, where you can get audio guides for 20 RMB leading you through porcelain, bronze works, statues and more, many of which date back several millennia.
With your stomach rumbling by now, head to Da Hu Chun, a time-honored eatery frying up Shanghai’s famous dumplings (生煎包, shēngjiān bāo), all without the tourists thronging the more well-known Yang’s Fried Dumplings. Brave the crowds and stroll down Nanjing Dong Lu (南京东路) to take in the striking daytime view of the Bund (外滩, wàitān) promenade and skyscrapers for the clash of architectural styles that defines the city today.
Take a moment back at your hotel to unwind (or re-caffeinate to get over the jetlag) before dinner. For a lesson in Spicy 101, head over to the former French Concession and try Hunan Xiangcun Fengwei for a taste of a regional cuisine that doesn’t get much press outside of China’s borders. The drypot style of cooking, smoked meats and variety of mushroom dishes will have you salivating over a future trip to China’s interior reaches in no time. For post-dinner drinks with a modern, yet local vibe, head to Yuan, a stylish lounge with creative cocktails featuring local spirits, like baijiu (白酒).
Start the morning off right by skipping the hotel buffet and instead joining UnTour Shanghai’s guided culinary excursion through the former French Concession’s leafy streets. The three-hour walk samples about eight to 10 classic, delicious breakfast foods, such as soup dumplings, hand-pulled noodles and much more, and also pays a visit to a traditional local wet market to see where locals still do their shopping. You’ll also finish off with Lillian’s famous Portuguese egg tarts, so you probably won’t need much lunch.
After the food tour, you’ll be in the area of Tianzifang (田子坊), a fascinating warren of alleyways in a traditional Shanghainese-style neighborhood brimming with shops, cafés and galleries. It’s gotten a bit commercial over the years, but it’s still worth a few hours of exploration for the unique gifts and the beautiful photography studios. For a closer look at contemporary Chinese art in a stunningly large, airy space, head over to the Power Station of Art’s permanent and rotating galleries, featuring unique pieces by local artists on the former World Expo site.
At least one dinner should focus on Shanghainese cuisine, and you can do no better than the home-style classics at Old Jesse. You’ll need to reserve a few days in advance here, so plan ahead, or enlist a concierge to try and work their magic. For more on their order-ahead secret menu, check out our article.
You can’t miss the Bund’s amazing nighttime views, but you’ll need to arrive before 10 p.m., when they turn off a good portion of the lights. Around 9 p.m. head for a bar with a view. When the weather is nice, try Char’s amazing outdoor terrace 30 floors up for a southside view that many tourists miss. If you get a late-night craving for more street snacks, you’re well placed for a quick taxi ride to a streetside hotspot serving queue-worthy bowls of sweet and savory soy milk with all the Chinese breakfast-for-dinner accouterments.
Begin with a breakfast of champions: pick up some streetside dumplings on the southern edge of the former French Concession area. Nanjing Soup Dumplings serves up beautifully translucent xiaolongbao (小笼包), the city’s most famous delicacy. Head south on Gao’An Lu and you’ve also got an assortment of Shanghai’s top street foods, like Chinese crêpes (煎饼, jiānbing), fried, pork-stuffed potstickers (锅贴, guōtiē), steamed dumplings (包子, bāozi) and more.
Afterwards, take a quick taxi ride to the Long Museum Puxi, China’s largest private collection of art, which just opened to the public in summer 2014. It’s located in South Bund Riverside Park, one of the city’s newest, more bustling green spaces and also a great place to relax and watch the Huangpu River freight traffic, slackliners, rock climbers and more (or bring your own running shoes for a workout).
One last stop for noodles is in order, with the city’s best Shaanxi-style noodles by Mr. Li at Zhu Que Men. He’s slowly building a mini empire of locations across the city, but head for his central Dagu Lu location. If you’re in the mood afterwards, you’re just two blocks away from the city’s main knockoff emporium, the Taobao Market. Pirated software and “designer” clothes, bags, shoes and much more can all be had for a pittance if you bargain hard. If shopping isn’t your bag, plan ahead and book a cooking class. If you prefer a more zen hands-on experience, don’t miss a traditional Chinese foot massage before you hop back on the plane. You’ll notice massage studios on just about every street, but expect to pay between 100 to 250 RMB per hour at a reputable, clean establishment. Local mini chains Green Massage and Dragonfly have locations around the city, generally with good ambiance and attendants with passable English.
Before evening falls, head over to Yu Garden to check out the city’s most famous classical gardens. Pay the small entry fee to gain access to the actual walled garden area, or you’ll be engulfed in a maze of seemingly never-ending commercial bazaars. Just a quick stroll away is the Fangbang Market, located in Sipailou Lu’s crowded alleyways. Here, you can snack on a wide array of regional treats, from hand-pulled noodles from China’s far western reaches to Beijing-style breads and classic stir-fries and skewers. Stick with what you see being prepared fresh to order.
End your evening with a walk along the Bund to soak in the city’s evolving skyline – and take a picture, for it will surely have changed by the next time you return.
- June 30, 2014 Fengyu
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