Looking for a new perspective on China’s second city? Try stepping (or riding) out with one of these smartly devised tours
There is no shortage of incredible eating in Shanghai, but language and concerns about hygiene can prove obstacles to discovering the city’s street food. Fortunately, two American expats, Jamie Barys and Kyle Long, have created UnTour, leading travelers on walking expeditions to their favorite snack stands and street vendors. A four-hour breakfast tour takes guests through the former French Concession to tuck into bamboo steamers filled with pork dumplings, vegetable buns, and savory breakfast crepes. By evening, you can follow the colorful street markets through the Old City to the Bund, devouring crayfish, cumin-dusted kebabs, and hand-pulled noodles en route. Between copious dishes, guides share tidbits about local history and Shanghainese culture (untourshanghai.com; US$65 per person).
Even in this avowedly hip city, it doesn’t get much cooler than being picked up from your hotel in a vintage sidecar motorcycle. The fabulous Chang Jiang 750cc is a replica of the Russian Ural that was used by China’s People’s Liberation Army until the mid-1990s. Your English-speaking driver doubles as a savvy tour guide as he steers you around Shanghai’s most picturesque streets at a leisurely 25 kmh. Each outing is tailored to personal interests; an old-fashioned map is unfurled at the start of the tour to help guests decide on a route, which could take in a forgotten villa plastered in Mao propaganda slogans, a traditional market, or an Art Deco abattoir. For an extra RMB400 (about US$65) they’ll uncork a bottle of Taittinger bubbly at a scenic spot along the way (insidersexperience.com; US$245, for a maximum of two people).
Aiming to foster a think-tank exploring urban issues, Shanghai Flaneur gathers some of the city’s foremost experts in their fields, including professors, philosophers and urban designers, who present “walking workshops” covering such topics as architecture, culture, photography, art, and urbanization. Music buffs can join a tour led by Andrew Field, author of Shanghai’s Dancing World: Cabaret Culture and Urban Politics, 1919-1954, who traces Shanghai’s historic jazz scene, past and present, through the French Concession area, including a visit to two of the finest jazz clubs in the city (shanghai-flaneur.com; US$48 per person).
SHIKUMEN PHOTOGRAPHY TOUR
As part of the brand’s global Extraordinary Experiences program, the Four Seasons Shanghai offers an illuminating tour of the fast-disappearing shikumen neighborhoods a short stroll from the hotel. Dating back more than a century, these redbrick lane houses were built with an intriguing blend of Western and Chinese architectural influences. Local celebrity photographer and historian Wang Gangfeng, who grew up in the area and has a studio in one of the heritage mansions, leads guests deep into the labyrinth of lanes and alleys and inside some of the homes, now shared by multiple families. During the four-hour exploration, you’ll pick up pro-photography tips to capture some quintessentially Shanghai sights and participate in a shoot with Wang (fourseasons.com; US$195 per person, for a minimum of two people).
SHANGHAI JEWISH HERITAGE TOURS
It’s a little-known fact that Shanghai has historically provided a refuge for thousands of Jewish immigrants, ranging from wealthy Baghdadi Jews who arrived in the late 19th century to White Russians and approximately 20,000 refugees escaping Nazism in Europe before and during World War II. Israeli documentarian Dvir Bar-Gal shares his vast knowledge of the subject during half-day tours that include stops at the former Jewish Ghetto in the Hongkou district and the 1927 Ohel Moshe Synagogue, now preserved as the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum (86/1300-214-6702; shanghai-jews.com; US$65 per person, for a minimum of eight people).
Art Deco fanatic Patrick Cranley, who led Shanghai’s winning bid to host next year’s World Congress on Art Deco, guides monthly “drop-in” tours of the city’s historic architecture. The city boasts one of the world’s largest and most dispersed Art Deco repositories, and the two-hour walking tours take in a different neighborhood each month. Cranley’s enthusiasm for the early-20th-century design style is infectious as he points out a sunburst motif atop an apartment block, the streamlined facade of a period mansion, or a fine example of Shanghai Deco furniture. His accompanying tales of Shanghai during the 1920s are as bold and glamorous as the architecture itself (historic-shanghai.com; US$32 per person).
This article originally appeared in the October/November print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Shanghai On Show”)