Springtime in Shanghai: Yu Garden and the Bund

Spring is a magical time to be in Shanghai. The sun is shining, the cherry blossoms are blooming, and the insane air pollution is somehow tolerable.

With more than 24 million residents, Shanghai is the most populous city in the world, which is easy to believe when you’re riding the metro.

My American friends Nicole and Andy have lived in Shanghai with their children for the past four years, and they are part of a large number of expats currently residing in the city. Shanghai has more than 150,000 officially registered foreigners, which include approximately 31,500 Japanese, 21,000 Americans, and 20,700 Koreans. The Chinese government notes that the numbers are likely much higher when unregistered people are included in the count.

On my first full day in town, Nicole took me to the gorgeous Yu Garden. Built in 1559 during the Ming Dynasty, the garden was first opened to the public in 1780. After sustaining damage at several points during the 19th century, Yu Garden was renovated and reopened to visitors in 1961.

The five acre (2 hectare) space has six distinct areas with very charming names such as Jade Magnificence Hall and the Chamber of Ten Thousand Flowers. You’ll find delightful spaces within each of these areas that have names like Tower of Happiness and Hall of Observing in Quietness.

Yu Garden, which is also known as Yuyuan Garden, has its own stop on the number 10 Shanghai metro line (豫园站) and is open to the public from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Admission is RMB 40 (approximately $6.50 USD) from March to October and RMB 30 (approximately $4.75 USD) from November to February.

After enjoying several hours among the peaceful grounds, we made our way across town to the Bund.

The Bund is a waterfront district that runs along the Huangpu River, and it’s a very popular tourist area year round. It offers impressive views of the skyscrapers across the river in Shanghai’s Pudong District, and in the Bund itself you’ll find beautiful Beaux Arts buildings next to modern shopping and entertainment. 

Nicole has learned lots of tricks for experiencing Shanghai without paying tourist prices for everything. Rather than forking over $30 USD for the bird’s eye views offered by some buildings, she whisked me up the elevator of the Swatch Art Peace Hotel for a free rooftop view of the skyline. Score!

We crossed the street to the famous Sassoon Building and Cathay Hotel, which is now called the Fairmont Peace Hotel. Once known as the “number one mansion in the Far East,” the Art Deco building opened in 1929 and retains its original jazz-era glamour as well as its famous jazz bar. The lobby alone is worth a peek.

We wandered down the boulevard through the shopping district and headed toward the J.W. Marriott Hotel. The 60-story building is known as Tomorrow Square, and its 38th floor lobby offers sweeping views of Nanjing Road and People’s Park. We enjoyed a cocktail and live piano music as we took it all in. Even at hotel prices, we still paid less than we would’ve for a ticket to the view elsewhere.

Bonus: J.W. Marriott has lovely Western-style public restrooms with toilet paper and soap for those in need. So hard to find in Shanghai!

Nicole’s friend Dave, who is also an American expat, messaged her to invite us for a drink in his part of town. We met him in Changning and made our way to The Cannery, a gorgeous seafood restaurant and bar on Yuyuan Road.

The Cannery’s cocktail menu is inventive, to say the least. It’s divided into seven sections ranging from boozy to bitter and rich to refreshing. Nicole chose the Black Gold, featuring Bacardi Carta Oro, DOM benedictine, ginseng, lime, and “magical” truffle honey (RMB 88; approximately $14). Dave went with the Martinez by the Seashore, made with Ransom Old Tom gin, Ransom sweet vermouth, Clear Creek kirschwasser, and orange bitters topped with an oyster on the half shell and a spritz of Lagavulin 16-year Islay single malt Scotch whisky (RMB 98; approximately $15.50). I selected the March Madness, with Irish poitín, lime, cucumber, a green pepper/apple/celery shrub, Tabasco sauce, and spicy ginger topped with more of the shrub in frozen granita form (RMB 78; approximately $12.50). The cocktails were nothing short of outstanding.

After happy hour, Dave invited us to see Shanghai at night from his 26th floor apartment just down the road. Gone was the smog, and in its place, brightly-lit buildings as far as the eye could see.

What a great way to end my first day in the “Pearl of the Orient.”

Tomorrow, a very different kind of day in China’s Zhujiajiao ancient water town!