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Why go now?
China's most cosmopolitan city is best visited in spring, before the heat and humidity of summer sets in. And now, British passport-holders (along with those of 44 other nations) can stop in Shanghai for 72 hours without a visa – as long as they arrive by air at Pudong or Hongqiao airports and are in transit to an onward destination outside China.
Flights from the UK arrive at Pudong airport, 30km south-east of the city centre. From 30 March, it will be served daily from Heathrow by British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and five times weekly by Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 7310; virgin-atlantic.com). China Eastern (020-7935 2676; chinaeastern.co.uk) offers four departures a week with onward connections to other cities in China, Japan, Thailand and Australia. I travelled with British Airways Holidays (0844 493 0758; ba.com/shanghai),which offers two nights at the PuLi Hotel & Spa (1) with breakfast and flights from Heathrow from £1,119pp.
Shanghai's high-speed Maglev train is the fastest way from the airport (every 15 minutes from 7.02am to 9.42pm; RMB50/£5). It takes seven minutes, but stops only at Longyang Road station (2): ideal if you're staying in Pudong but still a long way from the city centre. LongYang Road is on lines 2 and 7 of the metro. You can buy a ticket for each journey (from RMB30/£0.30) or a metro card, also valid on buses and in taxis.
There are also eight bus routes departing every 15-25 minutes from outside the baggage-claim hall (7am-11pm; from RMB16/£1.60) . Bus 5 stops at People's Square (3).
Get your bearings
Shanghai is split in half by the Huangpu River, with Puxi (meaning west bank) on one side and Pudong (east bank) on the other. Pudong is the city's financial district. Its burgeoning skyline of skyscrapers, dominated by the spike of the Oriental Pearl Television Tower (4), is one of Shanghai's landmarks.
Puxi remains the city's historic centre, home to the Bund – the embankment lined with grand neo-Renaissance buildings that served as the headquarters for big Western businesses in Shanghai's 1930s heyday – and the French Concession, the leafy residential district that is easily the most charming part of the city. In the absence of a useful tourist offices, the best source of information is the official tourism website: meet-in-shanghai.net.
The PuLi Hotel and Spa (1) at 1 Changde Road (00 86 21 3203 9999; thepuli.com) describes itself as an "urban resort". In a city as frenetic as this one, the long bar and lobby overlooking the park offer an escape at the end of a busy Shanghai day. Doubles start at RMB4,067 (£421), including breakfast.
Hotel Indigo (5) on the Bund at 585 Zhong Shan Dong Er Road (00 86 21 3302 9999; shanghai.hotelindigo.com) has fabulous views and a great location. Doubles from RMB1,344 (£139), including breakfast.
Quintet (6) is a B&B at 808 Changle Road in the French Concession (00 86 21 6249 9088; quintet-shanghai.com). Its six en suite rooms are lovely and the staff will go out of their way to make you comfortable. Doubles from RMB850 (£88), including breakfast.
Take a hike
Start at Fuxing Park (7), a rare burst of greenery, and walk amid the fountains and pavilions, passing men playing cards and couples ballroom dancing. Exit by the west gate on to Gaolan Road and turn left on to Sinan Road, where you'll find the former residence (now a museum) of the founder of the Republic of China, Sun Yat-sen (8) at 7 Xiangshan Road (00 86 21 6437 2954; open 9am-5pm; free guided tours every weekday at 10.30am, 2pm and 3pm; RMB20/£2).
Continue down Sinan Road, popping into the delightful antiques emporium-cum-café Antique Garden (9) (00 86 21 5382 1055) on the way, until you get to Taikang Road. Turn right and you'll see the entrance to Tianzifang (10) on your right, a labyrinth of small lanes that house little cafés, boutiques and art galleries (open 10am-11pm).
Lunch on the run
In Tianzifang, Bali Bali (11) at No 18 Lane 274 (00 86 21 5466 0776) is a big local hit. Join the queue at the soup window for a bowl of tofu broth for RMB8 (£0.80) and eat it at one of the wooden tables outside.
Back on the main road is Tsui Wah (12), a Cantonese restaurant at 618 Xu Jia Hui Road (00 86 21 5213 6582; tsuiwahrestaurant.com). Order a delicious barbecue pork bun (RMB9/£0.90) the size of a hamburger from the counter.
For a characterful experience away from the malls, head to Xintiandi, a pedestrianised enclave of boutiques in traditional shikumen houses with beautiful stone doorways.
Head to Shanghai Trio (13) at unit 129, 245 Madang Road for colourful bags, scarves and wallets (00 86 21 5358 0188). Four blocks east along Xintiandi Park is Dongtai Road and its renowned antiques market (14). Avoid the Buddha replicas and statues of Mao and seek out old leather suitcases, vintage lamps and curios. But remember to bargain hard.
Take a view
The Park Hyatt hotel (15) at 100 Century Avenue in Pudong (00 86 21 6888 1234; shanghai.park.hyatt.com) is situated at the top of the Shanghai World Financial Centre.
One of the highest hotels in the world, it boasts spectacular views of the Bund and Puxi beyond. The bar on the 91st floor is fun and thumping; the elegant Living Room next to the hotel lobby is quieter and more refined. Order a fig martini for RMB110 (£11) and then marvel at the city lights beneath you.
Dining with the locals
No trip to Shanghai is complete without an evening on the Bund, the riverside strip of grand buildings that's home to swanky bars and restaurants. Rub shoulders with Shanghai's glitterati at the smart Italian restaurant Mercato (16) at 3 on the Bund (00 86 21 6323 3355; jean-georges.com), the latest from Jean-Georges Vongerichten.
For a more low-key choice, Lost Heaven (17) at 17 Yanan Dong Lu (00 86 21 6330 0967; lostheaven.com.cn) is just round the corner and serves Yunnanese food to a mix of Shanghainese and foreigners. The jin bo ghost chicken and spicy Burmese tea leaf salad are the dishes to go for. Expect to pay RMB250 (£26) per person without wine.
Sunday morning: a walk in the park
Get up early enough (between 7am and 9am) and you will see locals of all ages practising t'ai chi in any open space available. Jingan Park (18) is no exception, plus here you'll find a group of women doing a sort of Chinese line dance to music while having a good old gossip. The benches around the pond are a particularly nice place to pause.
Go to temple
Across the road from the park is Jingan Temple (19) at 1686 Nanjing Xi Lu (open 7am-5pm; RMB30/£3). The original AD247 building has been pulled down and rebuilt so many times that what's left is little more than a replica, but it is still one of China's most significant temples.
The dishevelled central hall on the ground floor is disappointing – and in a seemingly permanent state of renovation – but the Precious Hall of the Great Hero, supported by 46 columns of Burmese teak, is much more impressive and home to a 15-ton silver Buddha almost 9m high.
Out to brunch
For dim sum, head to Din Tai Fung (20) in the South Block Plaza in Xintiandi, 123 Xingye Road (00 86 21 6385 8378; open 11am-3pm and 5pm-10pm). This Shanghai institution (actually a Taiwanese chain) is renowned for its dumplings. The xiaolongbao, Shanghai's famous pork and crab soup dumplings, are exceptional.
The Shanghai Museum (21) at 201 Renmin Dadao on People's Square (00 86 21 6372 3500; shanghaimuseum.net; 9am-5pm daily; free) offers four floors of ancient Chinese artefacts which are revealing and beautiful in equal measure. The audio guide is well worth the RMB40 (£4), though you'll need a passport or driving licence as a deposit.
Across the square is the inauspicious sounding but rewarding Urban Planning Centre (22) at 100 Renmin Dadao (00 86 21 6318 4477; supec.org; open 9am-5pm; closed Mondays; RMB30/£3). Highlights include an exhibition revealing how the Bund has developed over the past century.
Icing on the cake
Head, back and foot massages are daily pastimes in China and massage parlours are both plentiful and cheap. Zen Massage (23) at 210 Wuyuan Road (00 86 21 3368 1227; zenmassage.cn; RMB108/£11 for a 60-minute reflexology foot massage) in the French Concession, has private treatment rooms as well as the usual row of beds where everyone is massaged next to one another. Be warned: a typical Chinese massage errs towards the painful side but the effect is worthwhile.
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