Not that you can really claim to know a city after spending 24 hours there, but sometimes that’s all the time you’ve got to see it.
And although it doesn’t seem like much, you can really handle business in a day if you do it right.
I was recently in Shanghai for work, which meant for most of the week I was on the fairly uninteresting outskirts of town running back and forth between hotel and convention center, but I added on a day and a half or so of free time to see the city before heading back.
Fortunately, I have a friend there who’s been living in town for a little over a year and he gave me a whirlwind tour in just over 24 hours. It was such a good snapshot of the city, I’m recommending the route if you’re there for just a quick jaunt. I saw just enough to fall for Shanghai and visualize myself living there zipping around on a little teal scooter and putting fresh, hot bao in the basket. But I digress.
The easiest way to do this tour is by car, which will probably mean by taxi, but don’t expect the cabbies to speak English, most of them don’t. To avoid a fruitless effort at trying to explain where you want to go, download the SmartShanghai app, which apart from telling you what’s cool in the city, gives you address cards in English and Chinese so you can just show the driver where to take you. Makes. Life. So. Simple.
Here’s an excellent way to spend one day in Shanghai.
1. The Shanghai Tower
If the weather is clear, you can head up the Shanghai Tower, China’s tallest building and the world’s second tallest, for the best views of the city to start the day. If the skies aren’t clear—which can often be the case, just go see the building. It’s pretty cool and sits near the city’s other two tallest buildings, Jin Mao Tower and the Shanghai World Financial Center. From there, you can get the requisite tourist photo looking straight up and getting a glimpse of the tops of all three buildings in one shot.
2. The Bund
Then, since you’ll be nearby, it’s a good time to head to The Bund. Shanghai’s skyline may be one of the world’s most unique, and if you’re lucky enough to get down to The Bund, the city’s famous waterfront area that looks out onto the famed cityscape, on a weekday, you might actually get photos without other people in them. And when it’s quiet, the place is pretty peaceful. You can admire the view and watch the big ships passing by toting the world’s goods. Seeing it at night is probably best for the light show, but note that the lights turn off at 11:00 p.m. (I know, a foreign concept for New Yorkers who could never fathom Times Square just turning off, but at least they’re saving energy).
3. City God Temple of Shanghai
This is the place you’ll finally feel like you’re in China if it’s your first time there and you’re looking for the traditional architecture (like I was). This is Shanghai’s old walled city where most of the buildings are more than a century old. The City God Temple was in use as early as the 1400s and dedicated to the spirit of Jinshan, or Gold Mountain, where people used to pray for peace and good fortune. The famous classical Yuyuan Garden is also here and it’s beautiful. Now, there’s a ton of shops selling everything from jade to mahjong, to tea sets, to highly questionable Louis Vuitton bags and Rolex watches. You can also wait five minutes and have your name hand carved into stone in both English and Chinese for a personalized stamp. The finds are fun and endless. But don’t get frustrated by the strolling vendors who will see your non-local face and want to sell you “bags bags, watch, watch?” Just smile distantly, don’t engage and keep walking. And don’t go anywhere with anyone offering you tea. You might actually get the tea whenever you arrive at their tucked away shop that you can’t see from where you’re standing. But then you might also pay a fair sum for the tea you thought was a token of hospitality. (I was fair warned about this, so paying it forward). Grab a quick bao if hunger is starting to hit you, but hold off on chowing down, because lunch is up next.
This was one of my favorite places on the one-day tour. But before I get into why, let me tell you about lunch because I was hungry and you probably will be too. Tianzifang is a little enclave of alleyways filled with artsy shops and craft stores, eateries and open-air bars. We ate at East, an Asian eatery tucked within the alleys (I wish I could give better directions, but it’s toward the back if that means anything). The place is modern and trendy and I had the Bao Tasting Platter that came with three delectable baos, but there was one that was just, wow. It was basically a bao made of the best fried chicken ever. I’d highly recommend asking if they can make your whole tasting platter of just the chicken. It was my favorite because of the bao, obviously, but it was also cute, quaint and not super touristy. Almost felt like a little prize find.
5. Jing’an Temple
It’s all gold everything and Jing’an Temple, an ancient Buddhist temple originally built in 200-something AD (exact dates are not confirmed) and now surrounded by traffic and luxury malls and on top of a metro station, but whatever. I thought of it as beauty in the midst of chaos. It was burned in a fire but repaired and reopened in the 90s. The Temple has three main halls, one of which holds Mainland China’s largest pure jade portrait of Buddha. We circled the outside and peeked in at the interior since we were on a time crunch, but so much of the temple’s beauty is on the outside that I was still satisfied with having seen it that way.
6. Liquid Laundry
There was enough time in the tour to rest for a couple hours after Jing’an before we headed out again for the evening portion of the day (in case anyone thinks this whirlwind tour is too much whirling). OK, so I don’t typically eat (or condone eating) non-local food when I travel, but part of the beauty of Shanghai is its top rate international cuisine and a lot of young chefs start in the city to make a name for themselves. Liquid Laundry chef Kelley Lee was born in Los Angeles but has been in Shanghai a dozen years and now has a slew of China restaurants to her name. This place was, without a doubt, one of the best meals I’ve had in a while. Now, don’t go expecting a quiet sit-down dinner. It’s more like the offspring of a classy craft cocktail bar, swanky lounge and creative cuisine resto. With a pretty badass DJ at night. The place has fun with itself—the top of the drinks menu says “Farm to liver” with signature cocktails like the “Whiskey Corner” with Talisker, Bourbon, fresh grapefruit, maple syrup and lemon. And for dinner, every bite of every dish I had was the kind of good that makes you literally pause at first taste to savor the magnificence of what’s happening in your mouth. First and foremost, before you get distracted by everything else that’s on the menu, the Bacon-Guajillo Cornbread with real maple butter is not (and I really mean it would be your life’s most terrible misfortune) to be missed. I mean. There are no words. I also had the Warmed House Made Pretzel, Tempura Soft Shell Crab, Mini Reuben Sliders and 4 Cheese Mac & Cheese, all at my friend’s recommendation and all of it was superb.
*Din Tai Fung
If you’ve got even a touch more than 24 hours and can squeeze in one more meal the following day, this is the meal it should be. Din Tai Fung is a dumpling house chain that earned a Michelin Star at its Hong Kong branch and the New York times once named it one of the top ten gourmet restaurants in the world. So go. You can also watch the dumpling masters doing their craft, rolling, filling and pressing dumplings at warp speed and it’s pretty amazing.
I had the special steamed pork xiaolongbao, sauteed cabbage with bacon, stir fried string beans with minced pork and freshly pressed apple juice—perfection.