China's commercial hub is modernising at warp speed - so catch the old city while you can, says Joe Bindloss


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WHY GO NOW?

Because nowhere in China is changing faster. The narrow alleys of old Shanghai are vanishing quicker than you can say Chairman Mao, replaced by space-age towers of neon, steel and glass. This is the future Asia of Blade Runner; catch it before the temples are turned into TV towers by the march of progress.

TOUCH DOWN

International flights touch down at Shanghai's Pudong airport, 30km south-east of the city. You can fly non-stop from Heathrow on British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com), China Eastern (020-7935 2676; www.chinaeastern.co.uk) or Virgin Atlantic (0870 380 2007; www.virgin-atlantic.com). Plenty of airlines offer connecting services, including Emirates (0870 243 2222; www.emirates.com) from Gatwick, Heathrow, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow via Dubai.

Before you set off, get a visa from the Chinese Embassy, at 31 Portland Place, London W1B 1QD (020-7631 1430; www.chinese-embassy.org.uk) or from the Chinese consulates in Manchester or Edinburgh. Visas for British citizens cost £30.

The thrills begin as soon as you arrive at the airport, which is linked to the city by the Maglev train. The fastest scheduled railway in the world reaches (briefly) 430km/h on its run to Longyang Lu in Pudong. Services leave every 15 minutes from 7am-9pm for a fare of 50Rmb (yuan) (£3.40). The city terminus is some way from the centre but has a station on the green metro line.

GET YOUR BEARINGS

Shanghai straddles the Huangpu River, which divides the older quarters on the west bank from the modern business district of Pudong. Most things of interest to travellers are west of the river in Huangpu. Here you'll find the Bund, a stately riverside arcade of British colonial buildings, and East Nanjing Road, the main shopping street. The rapidly vanishing old town is south of Huangpu, while the elegant French Concession, with its bars, restaurants and boutiques, is west of Renmin Park.

Tourist offices are dotted around the city - the convenient Century Square branch (1) on East Nanjing Road (00 86 21 6350 3718) is open 10am-7pm daily. The underground metro connects most places in central Shanghai, running under the river to Pudong. Trains run from 5.30am-11pm and fares start at 3Rmb (20p).

CHECK IN

Sharing space with the crown-topped Bund Centre, the Westin Shanghai (2) at 88 Central Henan Road (bookable through 0870 128 6000; www.westin.com/shanghai) is perfectly placed for the Bund and the eateries of Huangpu. Soft furnishings abound and rates start at 2,195Rmb (£145) for a double, including buffet breakfast. Similarly ostentatious is the Grand Hyatt in the crest atop the Jin Mao Tower (3) on Century Boulevard (00 86 21 5049 1234; www.shanghai.grand.hyatt.com); rooms have views normally only seen from private jets. Doubles with breakfast from 2,473Rmb (£165). The Astor House Hotel (4) on Huangpu Road (00 86 21 63 246 388) was built in 1846; it's a gorgeous relic of empire. Wood-lined doubles start at 680Rmb (£46), room only.

TAKE A HIKE

Following the west bank of the Huangpu River, the Bund is Shanghai's favourite promenade. On one side are the relics of the British Empire; on the other are the sky-piercing towers of modern Shanghai. Start at the north end and stroll south along the riverbank - the grandest buildings on the strip are the Peace Hotel (5) at number 20, the Customs House (6) at number 13, and the dome-topped Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation building (7) at number 12, all built in the 1920s by British entrepreneurs.

LUNCH ON THE RUN

Shanghai's signature dish is xiaolongbao: steamed rice dumplings stuffed with chopped vegetables, pork and crab meat. The king of the Shanghai steamed dumpling is Nanxiang Steam Bun Restaurant (8) in the Yuyuan Bazaar complex on Yuyuan Lu (00 86 21 6355 4206). Once you find a seat, the trolley arrives within seconds, and the dumplings are steaming as they hit the table.

WINDOW SHOPPING

After decades of self-denial, the Chinese are embracing consumerism with gusto. East Nanjing Road has the best of the Chinese brands, while the international boutiques are concentrated around Central Huahui Road in the French Concession. China's notorious counterfeiting industry is represented at Xiangyang Market (9), on the corner with South Xiangyang Road; stalls here sell everything from artificial Armani suits to imitation iPods. Be warned: it is illegal to import fakes into Britain.

TAKE A VIEW

For a kite-high view of downtown Shanghai, head to the 88th floor of the Jin Mao Tower (3), which juts up like a Lord of the Rings fortress above Pudong. From this height, even the Oriental Pearl TV Tower (10) is reduced to the size of a table lamp. The tower is open 8.30am-9pm daily. The admission fee of 50Rmb (£3.40) includes the high-speed lift ride to the observatory.

AN APERITIF

Or toast Shanghai in style from Cloud 9 (00 86 21 5049 1234), on the 87th floor of the Jin Mao Tower (3). You avoid the admission fee, but pay handsomely for refreshment: after 8pm, drinks cost at least 120Rmb (£7). Fortune tellers work the tables.

DINING WITH THE LOCALS

Huangpu's "food streets" are lined with banquet restaurants serving fantastic Chinese food. Don't be fooled by the showy lion statues and gilded dragons - a meal at a "food street" restaurant should set you back less than 60Rmb (£4). The best choices in the centre are Zhaphu Lu (11), Yunnan Road (12) and Huanghe Road (13). Note that rice usually arrives at the end of the meal, unless you request otherwise.

SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO A TEMPLE

Capitalism might seem to be the new god in Shanghai, but locals still take time out to pray at the Jade Buddha Temple (14) on Anyuan Road. The temple quadrangle is crowded with incense burners and potted bonsais, and prayer ribbons are tied to every loose piece of masonry and woodwork. It's open 8am-5pm daily, admission 10Rmb (70p).

TAKE A RIDE

Connecting the Bund with Fenghe Road in Pudong, the Bund Sightseeing Tunnel (15) is quite possibly the world's strangest underpass. Visitors are transported down a tunnel of psychedelic lights in bubble-shaped carriages, to an esoteric audio backdrop. The tunnel is open 8am-10.30pm daily (until 11pm Friday to Sunday); the fare is 30Rmb (£2) one way.

OUT TO BRUNCH

Shanghai's grandest breakfast spread is offered by the Pudong Shangri-La (16) at 33 Fu Cheng Road (00 86 21 6882 8888; www.shangri-la.com). The 230Rmb (£16) breakfast buffet (served until 10.30am) covers an awesome range of hot and cold dishes, freshly baked pastries and tropical fruit. Sunday brunch is even more extensive and only slightly more expensive.

A WALK IN THE PARK

Shaded by the futuristic spike of the Tomorrow Square Tower (17), Renmin Park is the people's park. From dawn, thousands flood through the gates to practise tai chi, ballroom dancing, sword-fighting and backwards walking. Behind the park, People's Square (18) is the city's main parade ground.

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

Shaped like a traditional bronze ding (Chinese cookpot), the Shanghai Museum (19) in People's Square (00 86 21 6372 3500; www.shanghaimuseum.net) has the nation's finest collection of bronze, jade, sculptures and ceramics. Some of the delicately engraved pots in the bronze and ceramics galleries date back 30,000 years. The museum is open 9am-5pm daily (last entry 4pm), admission 20Rmb (£1.40), plus 40Rmb (£2.80) for the optional audio tour.

WRITE A POSTCARD

Buy an arty postcard from the magnificent Chinese Classics Bookstore (20) at 424 Fuzhou Road (00 86 21 6351 7745) and find a bench on the Bund.

ICING ON THE CAKE

Acrobats have been flipping their way through Shanghai for centuries. For the full somersaulting spectacular, head to the Shanghai Centre Theatre at the Portman Ritz-Carlton Hotel (21) on West Nanjing Road (00 86 21 6279 8948). The show begins at 7.30pm nightly and seats cost from 100Rmb (£7).

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