Arriving in Shanghai was like a breath of fresh air after my time in the Middle East. Thanks to a layover in über-trendy Doha, Qatar, the transition from dusty, conservative Jordan to clean, progressive Shanghai was pretty easy, despite experiencing jetlag for the first time in months.

Shanghai is enormous; it’s roughly five times the area of Los Angeles with six times as many people. Located on China’s central coast, it’s the most populated city in the world with over 24 million people! Like in most super populated cities, the solution to house so many residents is to build up, so the nightscape of Shanghai is beautifully riddled with nightlit highrises. (Below is the view from my Airbnb balcony on the 28th floor.)

Shanghai is also home to the busiest port in the world. Due to its optimal position as the gateway to the Yangzi River, the area has long attracted the interest of foreigners. The British first opened a concession here in 1842, followed by the French and Americans ten years later, all looking to establish a post in Shanghai’s trade business.

Because the Chinese had little interest in foreign goods at this time, Europeans were at a trading disadvantage and made to pay top dollar for Chinese silk and tea. To remedy this situation, the British introduced opium to the Chinese market, illegally importing it and building demand for the addictive drug by selling it to the Chinese. Soon Shanghai was overrun with opium dens, gambling joints, brothels and gangs; the Chinese government fought back but were defeated by the British through a series of wars, which eventually lead to free foreign trade and rights for all foreign traders in Shanghai.

Due to Europe’s cultural influence over the last 150 years, Shanghai is like no other city in China. It’s regarded as the country’s financial hub and is exponentially more progressive than other cities in China. English is wildly spoken here and many Europeans, young and old, call Shanghai home.

One of the most famous neighborhoods in Shanghai is the Former French Concession (or FFC); controlled by the French from 1849 to 1943, it has historically remained one of the best residential and retail districts in Shanghai. Unlike other parts of the city, the FFC is full of wide tree-lined streets, and is largely unchanged over the last 100+ years, despite the city’s continuous growth.

One could spend days here, meandering down beautiful avenues and through hidden back alleys. The area is now almost exclusively occupied by Chinese, so exploring requires a bit of discretion as you’re literally walking past locals’ back doors and laundry lines. I received a lot of curious looks, but with a polite nod and ‘Nǐ hǎo’ was left to wander undisturbed.

You won’t find the neighborhood labeled on any current Chinese maps, but a quick Google search will pull up countless walking tour options. I really enjoyed walking through the east side of the FFC especially, starting on quiet Shaoxing Lu (pictured below) and then onto Nanchang Lu, a busy street full of markets and shops.

One of my favorite spots along the way was the below pictured Vienna Cafe on Shaoxing Lu; an institution of sorts with beautiful floor to ceiling windows and opera music playing softly in the background, it’s the perfect place to enjoy a cup of coffee and escape the humidity outside.

It’s best to save a visit to Shanghai’s most picturesque neighborhood for nighttime. The Bund is ground zero for Shanghai tourists and it’s easy to see why.

Lined with art deco and neoclassical buildings built in the early 20th century housing powerful banks and trading houses, the Bund offers amazing sights on both sides of the Huangpu River. There are a ton of restaurants and shops nearby, ranging from backpacker budget to jaw-droppingly expensive options.

Custom House and Former Bank of Communications (built in 1923 and 1947 respectively) pictured above.

The best option though is to just stroll around, enjoying the sites and taking your time walking the mile-long promenade. (Former Charted Bank Building, built in 1923, pictured below.) The architecture here is an art deco lover’s paradise, like something straight out of The Great Gatsby.

As you can see, Shanghai is nothing short of amazing and was easily my favorite city during my few weeks in China. Given the country’s reputation for pollution I was surprised how clean the city is; while many locals don’t speak English, thanks to its high population of expats and the dual-language signs posted everywhere, it’s extremely easy to get around. The subway system is expansive, offering a quick and inexpensive ride to anywhere you want to go. Best of all, the people are helpful and polite; except for my time at the Bund, where tourists were discreetly (and indiscreetly) taking my picture for their vacation albums, I was largely left alone, a very welcome change from the Middle East!

For all these reasons though, Shanghai will spoil you. Yes, you’re in China, but the majority of the country is nothing like this clean, friendly, English-speaking city (more on that later, but don’t say I didn’t warn you!). Shanghai is a total must-see and, if you’re interested in traveling through Asia, the perfect place to either begin or end your adventures in China.

Thanks for reading!

xo Carrie