It may be the most ‘western’ of China’s mainland cities in outlook and history but don’t be lulled into a false sense of security if you’re approaching a visit to Shanghai without any Chinese language skills.

Home to 20 million people (and counting), Shanghai is one of the most recognisable cities in the world. Its extraordinary skyline is, by turns, awe-inspiring and confronting. For every example of architectural brilliance there’s something truly dreadful, often built right next door. There are also, sadly, few examples remaining that showcase traditional Chinese design, particularly in downtown Shanghai, either side of the Huangpu River.

With a bit of planning and some handy apps, independent travelling in Shanghai can be reasonably straightforward. Signs are in characters and in western script, there’s an excellent Metro system and taxis are cheap.

Like many cities divided by a significant body of water, particularly where the traffic is as chaotic as Shanghai, it can be tough to get taxis to cross the river – so choosing the location of your hotel is paramount if you’re expecting to use taxis on a regular basis. This is particularly important to know if you like to head out for a long, lingering dinner or go to a bar or club. The last subway trains, when Greedy Girl last visited in 2010, were surprisingly early – well before midnight and the few taxi drivers that would stop for a European couple on the street, when shown the address, would shake their head. If you’re at a restaurant or club – make sure they book you a taxi before you leave the premises.

The river divides the world-famous Bund and Nanjing Street shopping precinct from the financial district, known as Pudong. Both sides of the river have their merits, but if your goal is to experience food, nightlife and shopping, it’s probably easier to stay on the Bund side, if a little noisier and chronically busy.

Shanghai tips

Sensory overload at night in Nanjing Street

The Bund, while a very attractive strip in its own right with glorious examples of neo-classical architecture, is also the prime spot to gaze across the river (from a sweeping walkway next to the water or one of the dozens of bars and restaurants that have taken over buildings once mainly occupied by European financial powerhouses) at the incredible Shanghai skyline.

It’s dominated by the ‘Oriental pearl’ TV tower and, until developments in Dubai replaced it, what was highest hotel in the world, the Park Hyatt atop the World Financial Centre. Greedy Girl (not at all fond of heights) had a particularly dizzying dinner on the 91st floor there. It proved the adage that restaurants with a view don’t necessarily need to step it up in the food department. The fact she was staying at the relatively stumpy Grand Hyatt next door (only on the 74th floor) also did nothing to acclimatise her to such lofty surrounds.

During the day the view is often dimmed by smog. At night, however, it’s neon on steroids and a simply incredible vista. There are lots of wonderful vantage points, including M on the Bund, a reasonable-enough restaurant in terms of food but with a huge terrace. There’s also a huge number of bars but, if you want to claim a good spot, you need to be early. This is a strip that is jumping from early evening, way into the night, harking back to Shanghai’s rollicking days of the 1920s and 30s.

If you’re looking for a good (western) food experience without a view, Table No 1 by London chef Jason Atherton is in the ultra-cool Waterhouse Hotel in the rapidly redeveloping south Bund area. The food is wonderful and attracts a solid mix of trendy, young locals and tourists. It’s a bit out of the way though so don’t try to navigate there from the nearest subway station – get a taxi. For Shanghai it’s also not unreasonably priced.

An interesting experience is Maison Pourcel, run by two brothers from Montpellier. This is a restaurant in the old French concession with a nice outlook but the food can be a bit hit and miss. Also, even though the wait staff does speak English, they prefer to speak French – so it helps to have a smattering of French to be able to get the full lowdown on what you’re eating.

The other trendy area of Shanghai is Xintiandi. It’s a web of lanes and a mix of newer architecture as well as older style renovated or rebuilt buildings called Shikumen that are almost exclusively populated by cafes, bars and boutiques. It’s a bit too westernised for Greedy Girl’s liking but an interesting place to walk nonetheless.

If you’re looking for good local food, follow the queues. Dumplings being a huge part of Shanghainese cuisine, there is a fair smattering of chain restaurants such as Din Tae Fung but head out on to the streets and look where the locals go. Don’t try to remember what dishes were called from your local dim sum. If you’re from Australia or the UK, it’s likely the names you may know for dishes such as ‘siu mai’ and ‘har gow’ are Cantonese. You may as well be ordering in English.

Shanghai tips

Delectable Shanghai dumplings. Follow the locals

Assuming you don’t have any great facility with Mandarin (the official language and there is, of course, a local dialect) there are things you shouldn’t go to Shanghai without. One is amazingly useful – a smartphone app that allows you to enter an address or attraction name in English and have it rendered in characters to show your taxi driver. During her trip, Greedy Girl did not come across one taxi driver who spoke English (or admitted to it).

The second is your card to access bank teller machines. This is by far the quickest, easiest and, from Greedy Girl’s experience, secure way of obtaining Chinese yuan. Taking your local currency and queuing in a bank to get it changed into Yuan can be a time-consuming experience – and don’t even think about it, if you don’t have your passport on you.

The third is the English-language Shanghai Daily – a free newspaper readily available in most hotels. It’s a great source of information on what you might be able to find culturally or even food-wise. Leave it to your concierge to make any bookings for you. Of course, if you have an iPad or wi-fi enabled tablet, you can find all manner of resources about Shanghai. The city itself is aiming to be a giant wi-fi hotspot in the coming years but during Greedy Girl’s visit, free wi-fi spots were hard to come by. Apparently it’s now readily available at Xintiandi and on the Bund.

While transport is cheap, not much else is in Shanghai – or certainly not what tourists find. Eating out and drinking in a smart bar will cost you plenty. If you’re looking for bargains along the gaudily-lit Nanjing Road shopping strip, you’ll need to look hard. Of course, one of the downsides of being an obvious tourist is being constantly hit on by touts trying to flog you their latest replica designer gear – handbags and watches mainly. Nanjing Road is also a wonderful area to walk at night to see the light show but keep your wits about you. Cars and motorbikes do use cross streets and there are a number of tourist trolleys working the pedestrian areas piloted by rather determined drivers. You don’t want to get in their way.

Shanghai is, without doubt, one of the most over-the-top city travel experiences. It’s serviced well by direct flights and, for the most part, has an efficient infrastructure for tourists of all backgrounds. There’s a very good chance that someone, somewhere in Shanghai will stop you at some point to ask to have their photograph taken with you, particularly if you’re tall and fair (like my dear gluttonous husband). You will have to bat your way through the crowds of local women all carrying parasols to protect themselves from the midday sun. You may find it tricky to find much in the way of Chinese history (outside of a museum) but it’s a fascinating place that’s relatively simple for independent travellers to enjoy.

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