Rachel Dicker and her family in Shanghai, China // © 2015 Rachel Dicker
Feature image (above): Dicker recommends that World War II buffs visit The Bund, a historic stretch of buildings along the Huangpu River. // © 2015 Thinkstock
Now conversant in Mandarin, Rachel Dicker made her first of many visits to China in 1979. She then lived in Shanghai with her husband and two children for 10 years before moving to Austin, Texas, where she now owns Rachel Dicker Travel, an independent affiliate of Brownell Travel.
Dicker’s most recent visit to Shanghai was in 2013, and she shares many insights about the booming metropolis’ appeal as a tourism destination.
What makes Shanghai stand out?
Shanghai is a really fascinating city in China that’s not as rich with historical sites as other places, such as Beijing and Xian, but has its own very interesting history. It’s a very dynamic city that’s modern and sophisticated. Shanghai is a great example of China’s growth.
What type of traveler would you send to Shanghai?
A traveler who wants to see modern China as well as ancient China. Somebody who is interested in modern architecture. Anyone who has an interest in the city and the role it played as a port in World War II.
Visitors can see some of that uniqueness represented in The Bund, Shanghai’s waterfront that has the old historical buildings from back when it was a banking center, before World War II. You can see the historical influence in the architecture, the attitude of the people and in the development of the city.
Shanghai’s growth is apparent in the newer Pudong part of the city, on the opposite bank of the river from The Bund. When I was studying in China and visiting in the mid-1990s, that area was basically Oriental Pearl Tower and a bunch of farms. Now, it’s just full of amazing, modern buildings, including what was once the tallest skyscraper in the world.
What sort of activities and attractions would you recommend for first-time Shanghai visitors?
To fully understand Shanghai, you need to explore the old and the new, and that, of course, involves visiting The Bund on the waterfront and seeing the colonial architecture there.
If you are interested in art, the 50 Moganshan Road modern art district (also known as M50) is full of galleries and artists’ studios, and that’s a good place to get a feel for what is a very rich, modern art culture in China right now.
Another great tour I recommend for everybody is a tour of the Shanghai Ghetto. Shanghai was an open port in World War II. For Jewish refugees who didn’t have passports, the ghetto was one of the only places they could go to escape the Nazis. [Documentarist and guide] Dvir Bar-Gal offers a very interesting tour. I always recommend him, and he runs the tours four times a week.
Shanghai is also a great city for shopping. The Tianzifang shopping area is a really fun place to explore. It’s in the French Concession, which has pedestrian walkways full of cafes, shops and galleries. And then visitors can tour the French Concession, which has beautiful, tree-lined streets with low-rise historical buildings — it’s totally unique and unlike any other part of China.
Are there some must-see options in the surrounding region of Shanghai?
The city of Hangzhou is a really easy one for people to do either a day trip or overnight stay, and it’s just a 50-minute bullet train ride from Shanghai. It’s on the beautiful West Lake and surrounded by hills, where locals grow tea. Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts has a gorgeous property there, the five-star Four Seasons Hotel Hangzhou at West Lake. Hangzhou is a very peaceful, beautiful city to visit and a very nice contrast to Shanghai.
Shanghai is in the Yellow River Delta, and canals run through that region everywhere. There are several ancient towns located on canals outside of Shanghai such as Zhujiajiao and Xitang. Their historical architecture and their charm have been preserved — they haven’t been demolished and replaced by skyscrapers. Zhujiajiao and Xitang make great half-day trips for people looking to get out of the city.
Do you have some favorite Shanghai hotel properties you recommend to clients?
My favorite hotels are located in the historic districts, and for me, a standout is The Peninsula Shanghai, which is right on The Bund. Although it’s a newly constructed building, it was built to look old and fits well with the surrounding architecture. I always recommend people get a room with a riverfront view because the hotel looks down toward the bend in the river, and they can also see the more modern and new Pudong buildings.
What's the food like? Do you have some favorite restaurants?
I think one thing people don’t realize is that Chinese food is so incredibly diverse and not well represented in America. In each region of China, the food has different characteristics, and the characteristic of Shanghai food is that it is often sweet.
My go-to regional dish when I’m in Shanghai is soup dumplings, called “xiaolongbao.” My favorite place to have those is a restaurant called Din Tai Fung, which is actually a Taiwanese chain, but I think the quality of their soup dumplings is above and beyond.
Is Shanghai a good place for families?
Definitely. China is a great destination for kids for so many reasons. One reason is that it’s easy to travel because the people of Shanghai love children, so you never feel like your child is unwelcome anywhere.
Locals will more likely than not be doting on them and wanting to take pictures with them. That is definitely something I warn my clients about. If they are traveling with their children, and especially if they’re blond, locals might want to touch their hair and take pictures with them. Nobody means them any ill will. It’s just novel to them.
In Shanghai, kids usually love visits to the Pearl Tower, which is this very futuristic looking building that kids get a kick out of. Children also love to go up to the observation deck of Shanghai World Financial Center and stand on the glass walkway and look down.
They also often love shopping and bargaining at the markets. You can give them a little bit of money, and that can go a long way. There is the Bird and Flower Market, which kids really love exploring. It’s an everyday occurrence held near People’s Square, with all sorts of animals.