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People take photos at the Rockbund Art Museum.
CITY GUIDE

A local’s guide to Shanghai

People take photos at the Rockbund Art Museum.
  • By Lisa Movius
  • Photos by Yue Wu
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Shanghai is a city for getting lost. With its walkable historic neighborhoods, engaging street life, and expansive cultural and dining scenes, the totality is the appeal. Even though its hundreds of museums, galleries, theaters and parks can overwhelm, Shanghai is better nibbled than gulped.

This municipality holding some 26 million people generates hype for things like skyscraper futurism, a rising financial industry and expensive shops and restaurants, but its greatest charms lie in mundane little rituals, from the grannies buying their daily fish off a morning bike cart to midnight merrymakers at the ubiquitous bottle shops and craft breweries.

Shanghai’s mythos is heavily tied to a romanticization of its tumultuous colonial period. Even under Western dominion, it was Chinese film, theater, literature and music that flourished here. International influences intermingle with modernizing Chinese traditions to form what is known as Haipai, or Shanghai style. Today, in this increasingly international city, Haipai remains alive and lively, constantly reinventing itself.

Meet Lisa Movius

Lisa has lived in Shanghai since 1998, working as a journalist covering art and culture around Asia but with occasional side gigs working at rock club Mao Livehouse and teaching college journalism. She misses the open-water swimming of her native California but plunges into as many of Shanghai’s pools and murky lakes as she can.

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IN THE ACTION
The Bund
The sweeping vista of the Bund is Shanghai’s calling card. Amid the density of luxury boutiques, fine dining and international hotel chains in historical buildings, the most storied is the Fairmont Peace Hotel, occupying the premises of the Cathay, built by Sir Victor Sassoon in 1929. Just off the main stretch, Captain Hostel offers more budget bunks and private rooms, as well as a rooftop bar with a view. Find this neighborhood.
LOW-KEY
Xuhui District
The western section of Shanghai’s former Frenchtown is heavily residential — mostly leafy streets of lane houses and old mansions built in the 1930s and ’40s, and dotted with little shops and restaurants. Historic Donghu Lu is home to popular restaurants and clubs and also contains the Donghu Guest House and Hotel, the mansion and adjacent villas of old Shanghai gangster Du Yuesheng. The area also has a density of short-term residential listings through Airbnb and Booking.com. Find this neighborhood.
Neighborhoods

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Eat

BREAKFAST
Yang’s Fried Dumplings
Deep-fried, starchy and dripping with fat, shengjianbao is one of Shanghai’s most beloved breakfast staples for good reason. Its most famous purveyor, Yang’s Fried Dumplings (Chinese name: Xiao Yang Shengjian Guan), has gone from unassuming street stall that opened in 1994 to a still unassuming but now ubiquitous city-wide chain. Along with the classic pork, Yang’s continues to roll out new flavors like shrimp, shepherd’s purse and crawdad. Though available in most mall and airport food courts, Yang’s is best enjoyed at its early location on the street-food street Huanghe Lu, where it can be paired with xiaolongbao from Jiajia Tangbao across the way.
BTW: Bite a hole in the top and sip out some of the broth before biting in to avoid being splattered with scalding pork fat.
97 Huanghe Lu, Huangpu District, Shanghai, China
BREAKFAST
Bread Etc.
Although Shanghai is thick with fancy, boozy weekend brunches, only a few spots serve Western breakfast all week. This flagship of a local chain, started by a French-Israeli baker and now with two locations, opens at 8 a.m. daily and creates some of the best and most varied breads in the city. Specialties include shakshuka and sourdough, a Shanghai rarity.
BTW: Dogs are welcome in the patio seating area, turning busy weekends into a neighborhood puppy parade.
500 Xiangyang Nan Lu, Xuhui District, Shanghai, China
LUNCH
Lanxin
This hole-in-the-wall, one-room restaurant serves a small menu of Shanghai classics with seasonal ingredients. Shanghai has a handful of these sifang cai, or private-room-cooking, restaurants, with small kitchens and one or two rooms serving and eating family-style bengbucai, or local cuisine. Try the caotou, or greens called toothed bur clover cooked in Chinese wine; the xiefendan, egg with crab; and the xiangyou shansi, fried eel strips. Named for Shanghai’s oldest theater nearby, Lanxin has been in operation here since 1987 and now has three more branches in the suburbs.
BTW: Have your hotel concierge, or a Mandarin-speaking friend, call to reserve seats at this popular but tiny spot.
130 Jinxian Rd, Huangpu Qu, Shanghai Shi, China
LUNCH
Godly Vegetarian Restaurant
Located on a quiet stretch just blocks from the bustle of Fergeson Lane and Anfu Lu, Godly (Chinese name: Gongdelin) is a Buddhist vegan restaurant serving both vegetarian Chinese classics as well as creative imitation meats. Most popular dishes from the bilingual menu include wontons, the vegan cold “duck” and the vegan yuxiangrousi. Gongdelin is a China-wide chain with a score of Shanghai outlets owned by Quanjude Roast Duck, but this particular outpost is a family franchise with a personal touch. There is also a Gongdelin tea shop selling packaged snacks two blocks east on Wuyuan.
BTW: In addition to its interior, done in traditional noodle-shop decor, Godly has a lovely garden seating out back. These are Buddhists who serve beer, making for a very pleasant place for an al fresco afternoon (or evening) drink.
303 Wuyuan Lu, Xuhui District, Shanghai, China
DINNER
Xiaobaihua
This unassuming gem, on the first floor of an old lane house across from Xujiahui Park, serves Shanghainese family dishes. It’s a friendly mom-and-pop operation — the owners live upstairs, and some of the chefs have worked there for decades. Meaning “little white birch,” Xiaobaihua has specials including the tofu-and-wild-herb cold dish malantou, the zuiji drunken chicken, the shizitou pork meatballs on bok choy, the xunyu smoked fish and the suanxiang chengzi garlic-drenched razor clams. Book ahead.
BTW: The xiandan huangnangua — or pumpkin coated in salty preserved egg, then fried — is a healthier take on the french fry and is unique to Xiaobaihua.
Wanping Lu, Lane 299, No 3, Shanghai, China
DINNER
Lotus Eatery
Cheerful and bustling Lotus Eatery serves up the flavors of Yunnan province but without the tourist glitz and steep prices of trendier establishments. Snag a patio table if the weather allows. You cannot go wrong here, and the bilingual menu with pictures is a bonus, but favorites include the mashed potatoes and any of the wild-mushroom dishes.
BTW: The thick slices of fried goat cheese are as delicious here as anywhere, but Lotus Eatery has a second version, jiaoyan rushan, of very thin pieces of fried goat cheese. They resemble chips and are utter heaven.
1112 Dingxi Lu, Changning District, Shanghai
LATE-NIGHT
All
Shanghai hasn’t been quite the same since beloved bunker of sound the Shelter closed in 2016, but the same team behind that underground institution rebounded with All. Though smaller and more polished than the underground original, All continues to showcase leading local and international DJs, drawing the city’s alternative sorts to its dance floor. One floor up is the popular dive bar Perry’s, which serves cheap Western pub grub for peckish clubbers.
BTW: This club continues its predecessor’s long-standing community bona fides, hosting a range of parties and events from album launches to conceptual dance performances by local troupe Slate Contemporary.
2/F, 17 Xiangyang Bei Lu
LATE-NIGHT
Cha’s
Shanghai’s best place to sober up, or to fuel up for more partying, is the wildly popular Cha’s. It serves top-notch classic Hong Kong diner-style dishes, or cha chaan teng, in two locations re-creating the city of the 1960s in meticulous detail. Hong Kong film producer Charlie Hau Kit-Fai launched this Sinan Lu original location in 2009, expanding to three locations today. The set menu of things like instant noodles with Spam offers bang for buck, and the milk tea and pineapple butter buns rival any in Hong Kong. Regular dishes from the extensive menu also satisfy, such as the luohan vegan fried noodles and the shrimp fried egg.
BTW: Cha’s is busy from its 11 a.m. opening to 2 a.m. closing and packs multiple groups into each table. You’ll get seated and fed much sooner with a smaller group.
30 Sinan Lu, Huangpu District, Shanghai
(John Yu for The Washington Post)
LOCALS THINK YOU SHOULD KNOW
  1. Intrepid travelers, try the buses. In off-peak hours, seats can be had; since they face forward, if you look foreign, there’s less staring to endure.
  2. The native tongue of Shanghainese is distinct from Mandarin. Domestic immigration and government Mandarinization campaigns have made it less common, but there’s a movement to preserve it.
  3. Western social networks are blocked but can be accessed via roaming on your international number. To use them on WiFi, download a VPN. Everyone uses WeChat.
(John Yu for The Washington Post)

Do

People’s Park
With a pond-side restaurant and amusement-park rides that reward you with great views, People’s Park is delightful. The Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art, a private institution opened in 2005, sits in the middle and has regular exhibitions. At the park’s west gate is the Shanghai History Museum, which reopened in 2018 in what was originally the Shanghai Racing Club. What makes this place unique: its weekend “Marriage Market,” where parents congregate swapping info about prospective sons- or daughters-in-law, while advertising their own child’s details, like age, height and salary on papers mounted to umbrellas.
BTW: The Marriage Market is a fascinating slice of society to observe, but do so respectfully — it’s a serious matter to the aspiring matchmakers.
People’s Park, Huangpu District, Shanghai
Walk through Frenchtown
The leafy lanes of what Shanghainese call Fazujie, literally meaning the French ethnic quarter, are ideal for aimless wanders. Most of the old French Concession area, stretching through Huangpu and Xuhui districts, remains quietly residential, but at the busy juncture of the streets Anfu Lu and Wulumuqi Nan Lu, Shanghainese street life and expatriate-chic collide for some colorful results. Foreigners queuing for imported quinoa and cereal at Avocado Lady snake past tiny shops stocking nothing but live hairy crabs. Noodle and dumpling joints squeeze in between cafes, poke places, falafel joints, and popular Western restaurants like La Vite and Bird. Somehow, it all just works.
BTW: The west end of Anfu is a miniature cultural hub, with the premiere stage company the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center next door to the art gallery Bank.
143 Anfu Rd, Xuhui Qu, Shanghai Shi, China, 200234
Explore paper goods of Fuzhou Lu
Traditionally called Si Ma Lu, or Fourth Horse Road, Fuzhou Lu underwent a transformation in the late 19th century. What used to be a den of brothels and bars for sailors (coming off ships to the nearby Bund) is now the city’s literary heart. Starting in 1872 with the creation of newspaper Shen Bao, more and more periodicals and printers opened on this road as the city grew. Today, print may have lost its primacy, but lovers of paper and ink find solace in this street still dedicated to book and stationary shops, with block upon block of literary offerings. The Foreign Language Bookstore offers three floors of English titles. The Brush & Ink Museum gives an introduction to traditional forms. Baixin Bookstore stocks the best variety of stationery and pens, and Art Goods Store at No. 402 has the best fine-art supplies. And the little shops are full of rare finds as well.
BTW: Fuzhou Lu’s entrance from the Bund is home to Suzhou Cobblers and Blue Shanghai White, shops founded by modern artisans reinventing, respectively, traditional Chinese silk slippers and porcelain goods.
Shanghai Brush & Ink Museum, Fuzhou Road, Huangpu, Shanghai, China
The Rockbund Art Museum
In the past decade, Shanghai has evolved into one of Asia’s main cities for contemporary art, home to leading artists, renowned galleries and a plethora of museums. The city’s two main art districts — the gallery cluster M50, at 50 Moganshan Lu, and the museums and galleries at West Bund — are somewhat far from downtown. However, one of the most critically renowned institutions, the Rockbund Art Museum (RAM), sits right behind the Bund in a 1932 building that originally housed the Royal Asiatic Society. Opened in 2010 with a stunning presentation by Cai Guo-Qiang, the artist who designed the fireworks display for the Beijing Olympics closing ceremony, RAM consistently organizes engaging conceptual shows. In October 2019, for example, is an exhibition on emerging Asian artists. This museum is closed for installation in between shows, but the exterior is still worth a detour, as are the commercial galleries Lisson, Perrotin and Almine Rech, all across the street at 27 Huqiu Lu.
BTW: Be sure to go to the sixth floor, which is usually a cafe but in 2019 was transformed into a bar by artist Tobias Rehberger, with a balcony offering breathtaking views of the waterfront.
Rockbund Art Museum, 20 Huqiu Lu, Huangpu Qu, Shanghai Shi, China
The Press
Shanghai is crazy for coffee, or at least for cafes. Themed cafes, focused on everything from stuffed animals to Sherlock Holmes to Line Friends, open (and close) at a dizzying pace, and cozy spots full of laptop warriors and social-media-worthy lattes dot most blocks. One of the best cafes in town is the Press, by Inno Coffee, which embraces its building’s history as one of the early offices of Shanghai’s long-running newspaper Shen Bao.
BTW: After admiring the ornate ceilings of the first floor main hall, wander upstairs. There’s more seating as well as more of its collection of papers and pictures tracking Shen Bao’s history since its start in 1872.
The Press, A1-03, 1/F, 309 Hankou Lu 1F Rm. A1-03, Shanghai
Jazz at JZ Club
Jazz runs deep in Shanghai’s identity, back to the jazz-infused pop songs of the 1920s and ’30s like “Yelaixiang” and “Shanghai Nights.” JZ Club, though, primarily showcases the modern iteration of the form, bringing in top international acts as well as showcasing the city’s substantial ranks of local talent. This current location, in the Found 158 nightlife sinkhole, may lack the charm of the original Fuxing Lu club, but it retained the elegant decor, and the bigger digs allow everyone to see the stage. JZ also runs a music school and a festival running every autumn, plus a newer spring spinoff.
BTW: For a stylish double-header, you can go from JZ to beloved nightclub Arkham.
158 Julu Lu, Huangpu District, Shanghai
Lisa Movius
Lisa has lived in Shanghai since 1998, working as a journalist covering art and culture around Asia but with occasional side gigs working at rock club Mao Livehouse and teaching college journalism. She misses the open-water swimming of her native California but plunges into as many of Shanghai’s pools and murky lakes as she can.
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Yue Wu
Yue is a contributing photographer based in Shanghai.
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