Over the past six months of living in China, I’ve been repeatedly asked where I’ve been and what I liked the best. Being only a few hours from Shanghai by train, many people were surprised that I hadn’t been yet. They also all gave me their opinions of Shanghai all seemingly very high or low opinions; they either love it or hate it.
When I imagined Shanghai, I saw beautiful old European architecture mixed with traditional Chinese buildings and new modern skyscrapers overshadowing all of it. I’ve seen Shanghai in movies and was excited to see the “Paris of the East.” That isn’t what I found though.
Now that I have been, I have my own opinion that’s more of a middle ground. I don’t really love it but I don’t really hate it – I just didn’t feel it. If you love traveling, you’ll understand. Every place you visit has a feeling that gives the place an identity. That feeling is made up of the energy, the culture, the history, the surroundings and the people. When I visited Xi’an or Yangshuo or Hong Kong, I felt it.
Shanghai just felt forced to me. It didn’t seem natural. China has done a great deal to not recognize the past of the city that makes it so unique and helped it develop into what it is today. That past and culture seems to be covered up and replaced with something forced specifically designed for visitors.
All this said my short trip to Shanghai had its highlights. In fact, I fell in love in Shanghai, but more about that later.
The most iconic strip of property in Shanghai is the Bund. No, I don’t know where the name came from. It is right on the river and home to a row of European art deco and classical revival early twentieth-century skyscrapers. These housed various European banks, businesses and government entities while England and France partially occupied the area.
Now these buildings house Chinese financial institutions and high-end retail and offices. Although this is the heart of why Shanghai became the city it is today, that history seems to be ignored. One of the biggest problems I had were the aluminum flag poles put on the roof of each historic building to fly the Chinese flag. None of the flag poles are originals to the buildings and don’t really go with the architecture, but, as if someone were claiming territory after a battle, there is a bright red flag on each building.
The Bund also has the best view of Pudong, the new business district across the river with the iconic Pearl Tower and the Shanghai World Financial Center. It is best viewed from the raised pathway right on the river. From there you can also walk up and down the Bund getting a great view of each building.
One of my first stops in Shanghai was the Urban Planning Exhibition Center in People’s Square. I wanted to visit this museum because I expected to see the future of Shanghai with amazing architectural renderings and models. That’s what I read about and really wanted to see, and that would have been the case had I visited Shanghai five or ten years ago.
Now the museum just shows you stuff that’s already there, except the new tallest building that’s under-construction. There is a bit of history there as well that shows what things used to look like. It is fascinating how this city was practically nothing except the remnants of the European concessions and farms about 30 years ago and now it is one of the biggest cities in the world and one of the world’s financial hubs.
The coolest part of the museum has to be the large small-scale model of most of the city on the third floor.
Also on that floor was a 360 degree projector presentation that takes the visitor on a virtual tour of the city with nine projectors making you feel like you’re in the middle of it, so much so that I got a little wobbly when I went out of it.
That’s all I saw this time round at People’s Square but maybe I’ll see more another time. It is not far from the Bund and easily reached via East Nanjing Road that is mostly a walking street with tons of shopping.