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August 20, 2017

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Amidst Shanghai's constant bustle are tranquil European-style quarters and the old Chinese city.

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Shanghai

Old world appetites in China's glitziest city

For almost a century until 1943, trade-hungry Brits, Americans and the French controlled districts of Shanghai. During that time, the city was the West’s main image of China. Its name conjured up somewhere mysterious, exotic and a little dangerous. Today, at 18 million people, Shanghai is the world's most populous city. It may have lost its mystery, but its energy continues to fascinate.

And despite the city’s size, it’s surprisingly easy to navigate on foot, thanks to a large subway network. While you’re exploring, you could indulge in that quintessential local pastime: shopping. They take it seriously here; most shops are open until 10PM daily.

Where to start? The Bund. The city’s waterfront promenade was the heart of the British and American districts and is lined with grand buildings from the turn of the last century. For custom-made suits at a bargain price, try the South Bund Fabric Market (399 Lujiabang Lu, Huangpu District). Nearby is Nanjing Lu, China’s so-called “number one shopping street” — a five-kilometre strip jammed with pedestrians, buskers, glitzy malls and stores selling silk and jade.

An afternoon of window shopping, café au lait and croissants starts on the leafy streets of the old French district. Antique shops and French cafés sidle up alongside luxe boutiques and department stores on Huaihai Lu Street. Even more removed from Shanghai’s bustle is Taikang Lu, a quiet laneway where trendy boutiques, artists' studios and outdoor cafés beckon. For all its highrises, Shanghai still has an old Chinese City. There narrow alleys follow the circular grid of the 11th-century walled town. There are walking tours available, but it can be fun to just wander. Take a break at the Yu Yuan Gardens (218 Anren Street, Huangpu District; www.yuyuantm.com.cn; $6.50), filled with temple pavilions, courtyards and koi-filled ponds. It’s also home to a popular bazaar, filled with trinkets and memorabilia. After haggling hard, stop in at the country's most famous teahouse, Huxingting, whose eaves soar over the pond.

The plate trail

Shanghai's long history of foreign trade translates into culinary diversity. For French fare, Cuivre (1502 Huaihai Zhong Lu, Xuhui District; cuivre.cn) is a consistent critic's fave. It has a polished copper and wood decor and food ranging from Southern French classics to fusion dishes like foie gras sushi, with crispy chorizo and Peking duck sauce.

At T8 (Xintiandi, North Block, Lane 181 Taicang Lu, Huangpu District; t8shanghai.com), one of the city’s most highly rated tables, Catalán chef Jordi Servalls blends Asian flavours with Spanish-influenced molecular gastronomy. Meanwhile, Otto e Mezzo Bombana (6-7/F, Mission Building, 169 Yuanmingyuan Lu, The Bund; ottoemezzobombana.com has netted three Michelin stars for its perfectly turned-out Italian dishes like pappardelle with lamb-and-porcini ragout.

Local boy Austin Hu worked at the Gramercy Tavern in New York before returning home to craft a menu based on regional produce at Madison (Building 2, 3 Fenyang Lu, Xuhui District). Market-style dishes include seared coriander-and-pepper-crusted kampachi tuna served with crème fraiche, chives and caviar.

You don’t have to break the bank at socialite fave M on the Bund for a meal with killer views. Instead, try lobster brunch or afternoon tea at the Dining Room at the Park Hyatt (100 Century Avenue, Pudong District; parkhyatt.com) for understated class.

September is hairy crab season, and you’ll find the local specialty at every mom-and-pop restaurant in the old Chinese City. Another must-taste? The city's favourite pork dumpling, xiaolong bao. Crystal Jade Restaurant (123 Xingye Road, Huangpu District; www.crystaljade.com) tops lists as the best in the city.

Old school appeal

Have a day to spare? The region around Shanghai is known for some of the most picturesque villages in China. The classic destinations are the garden city of Suzhou and the water village of Zhouzhuang. They have charmed visitors since Marco Polo wandered through, but these days they are painfully overrun with tourists.

For a peaceful escape, head to the Song Dynasty water village of Nanxun. It has a mix of traditional wooden canal houses and 18th-century villas built by silk and salt merchants, along with arched stone bridges and cobblestone lanes.

You’ll definitely want to hop aboard a gondola for a tour of the canals — sure, it's touristy, but it's also the best way to see the town the way many locals still do. To get there, you can book a private driver from Shanghai, but an inexpensive alternative is to take a coach from one of two bus stations (865 Qiujiang Road, Zhabei District or 1666 Zhongxin Road, Zhabei District; $7.50). They make the two-hour journey several times daily.

For more on travel to the region, consult meet-in-shanghai.net.

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