Some cities have a certain magic associated with their name: think Paris, Rio, and of course, Shanghai. Back in its post-World War I heyday, the city was booming and the rich and famous flocked here to enjoy its exotic allure. These days Shanghai is again a boom town, with its inhabitants enjoying the highest incomes in mainland China, and there is energy in the air. Amid the cutting-edge architecture, high-end restaurants and sky-high bars, however, old-school Shanghai still survives; to taste it for yourself, just join the queue of people at the nearest roadside stall for a bowl of piping hot noodles.
Contemporary art fans will find plenty to whet the appetite at West Bund, a newly developed riverside neighbourhood that is set to become the Shanghai equivalent of New York's Museum Mile. Flagship institutions include the privately owned Long Museum, where exhibits have ranged from Olafur Eliasson and Antony Gormley retrospectives to revolutionary art showcases, and the state-run Power Station of Art. Don't miss MadeIn Gallery helmed by Xu Zhen, one of China's most prominent contemporary artists. Xu – known for provocative works such as gothic cathedrals made out of bondage gear – uses the gallery to champion up-and-coming artists.
You can always find a meal to match your mood in Shanghai's glitzy dining scene, from classical French cuisine to a perfectly grilled Aussie steak. For a long time, however, finding high-end Chinese food was surprisingly difficult. Culinary dream team Fang Yuan and Tony Lu fixed that with a run of restaurants offering superior Chinese fare in atmospheric villas. Their most acclaimed restaurant, the Michelin-starred Fu He Hui, focuses solely on vegetarian meals that are flavourful enough to convert meat eaters. Your degustation meal might include anything from a delicately flavoured soup of longan, walnut and papaya to a smoked porcini skewer encased in a glass jar that releases heady aromas when you unscrew the lid.
Shanghai's futuristic skyline has become a symbol of the city, but the city's impressive collection of art deco buildings also draws plenty of admirers. Start with a stroll along the Bund, which is lined with landmarks including the Bank of China Building and the neighbouring Peace Hotel. Elsewhere you can still find remnants of older architectural styles, including the 400-year-old Yu Gardens, a classical Chinese garden, and the hip shopping and entertainment neighbourhood Tianzifang, where cafes and boutiques have been squeezed into traditional stone-framed shikumen houses.
Shanghai's mood changes throughout the day, so if you really want to understand this city, get out and about at different times. On an early morning walk, for instance, keep an eye out for people practising tai chi in parks and grabbing breakfast on the run from vendors selling everything from steamed buns to pancakes.
It sits in the French Concession directly opposite the Xintiandi entertainment district, but the Langham Xintiandi's convenient location is only one of this hotel's selling points. Guests can also enjoy an impressive – verging on overwhelming – breakfast buffet and elegant rooms complete with heated toilet seats, which are particularly welcome during Shanghai's winters. The Club level suites offer a host of extras, including garment pressing and a lavish dinner spread.
Shanghai's efficient metro system is the easiest way to get around the city. Tickets are dirt cheap, ticket machines offer instructions in English, and helpful staff are usually at hand. If you do need to catch a taxi, have the concierge write down the address in Chinese; English-speaking drivers are few and far between.