Shanghai: Insider's Guide to the Bund
Written by Yixuan Fan
Shanghai resident and writer Yixuan Fan takes us on a stroll along the city's most striking landmark to savour its bygone past as well as its contemporary style.
The majestic architectural landscape of Shanghai’s riverfront promenade, the Bund, offers a unique glimpse into the city’s glamorous past, as well as a timely reminder of its current resurgence as an international melting pot of styles, customs, and cuisines.
The shimmering skyscrapers crowding the waterfront of Shanghai’s Pudong district represent everything that is modern and robust about 21st-century China. It’s undoubtedly one of the most astonishing, and photographed, skylines in the world. But to get a true sense of this nation’s remarkable transformation, you need only glance across the Huangpu River, towards the ‘old town’ of Puxi, where a cluster of Gothic and neoclassical architectural gems known collectively as the Bund remind you instantly of a century-long history that involved empire-building, earth-shaking revolution, and an intoxicating charisma that was fabled around the world.
Little more than a century ago, the majestic Bund was nothing more than an undeveloped outer riverbank populated by a thriving Chinese boating trade and a small collection of British merchants’ offices. The name ‘Bund’ derives from the word band, meaning river embankment, and was appropriated by the British Raj in India. As the British Empire sailed East and settled into their new home (along with several other European nations), there followed an incredible construction boom of governmental headquarters, trading offices, and economic institutions stretching right along the Huangpu River. With each new building bidding to outshine its neighbour, it resulted in a magnificent hotchpotch of architectural masterpieces – from baroque revival and neoclassical to Renaissance revival and art deco – looming over the waterfront. Such was the frenzy of activity, it wasn’t long before the Bund was being referred to as the ‘gallery of world architecture’.
Numerous banks and trading companies soon followed, along with foreign consulates, private clubs, and hotels, thus promoting Shanghai’s role as an international commercial hub. More romantically, it became known as the ‘Paris of the East’, or the Middle Kingdom’s answer to the Champs-Élysées, and with that mesmerising charm that always appears when East meets West, a collection of restaurants, jazz bars, artistic salons, and gentlemen’s smoking rooms sprang up between the ever-narrowing gaps.
Change and transformation were the key words of the Bund over the decades. Although it no longer holds the title of Shanghai’s financial centre, the Bund is more famed today as a dazzlingly visual artefact of those heady days. Indeed, such was the power that flowed through these buildings that the best way to view the Bund today is not from the pavement outside, but within its interiors, where an astonishing array of designs echo its sophisticated epicurean lifestyles.
No.3 the Bund, an elegant seven-storey building in post-Renaissance style, also known as Three on the Bund (threeonthebund.com), offers some of Shanghai’s finest dining experiences, created by Michelin-starred celebrity chefs. New York-based celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten has four restaurants here. Jean Georges – the French fine-dining restaurant on the fourth floor – is his first signature restaurant outside the Big Apple. Head next door to sibling restaurant Nougatine for a casual lunch. On the sixth floor is his coastal Italian cuisine restaurant Mercato; and CHI-Q serves his latest international twist on Korean food on the second floor.
And the dining doesn’t stop there. You can also find UNICO, specialising in Latin-inspired tapas and also functioning as an artistic rendezvous for the city’s creative elite; as well as the fabled Chinese restaurant Whampoa Club, created by Hong Kong designer Alan Chan, which prides itself on authentic Shanghainese and Cantonese food with innovative modern touches. Indeed, No.3 the Bund could represent Shanghai’s greatest international dining experiences all housed under a single roof. And if you are after some celebrity high life, the extremely exclusive Cupola, on the rooftop, has the answer. Opening after a refurbishment on February 9, it has previously hosted private parties for Beyoncé, Jay-Z, and Tom Cruise.
For a breath-taking view overlooking the shimmering financial towers of Pudong, the legendary M on the Bund (m-restaurantgroup.com/mbund), situated on the roof of No.5 the Bund, is definitely worth a visit. Opened in 1999 by Australian restaurateur Michelle Garnaut, it was the first international-standard restaurant on the strip (and proved to be its longest-standing brand). Although it might have been overshadowed by some of the newer luxury outlets nearby, M on the Bund remains an overwhelming favourite with the well-heeled Shanghainese, especially on a clear spring day, when the unbeatable views from the terrace would have you believe that you’ve been transported back to the Bund’s glittering heyday.
A few steps away, 6 Bund (www.6bund.com) is the Grand Dame of the strip and the oldest building on the Bund. Designed by British architects Morrison & Gratton and completed in 1897, this four-storey building appeals with its Romanesque and Gothic architecture styling. The flagship ATTOS Luxury Department Boutique, with more than 40 luxury designer brands, boasts a lavish one-stop shopping experience. Ascend to the second floor and discover SUN with AQUA, a Japanese restaurant with a scrumptious menu, where you’ll be surrounded by giant fishtanks along the walls, the longest of which is 11m.
Another must-visit destination is the award-winning architectural gem Bund 18 (bund18.com). Through years of careful restoration and reconstruction, this neoclassical structure was awarded the 2006 UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Award for Excellence in Culture Heritage Conservation. Now it houses a selection of fine art galleries, luxury accessory and jewellery brands, and some of the most sought-after bistros and dining options in the city.
From amazing antique 18th- and 19th-century handicraft treasures to cutting-edge modern designs, Masterpieces at Bund 18 offers some rarefied objects of desire for sale. Zhaoyi would be the place to look for some oriental fine jewellery (some pieces are from vintage collections), or, if it’s exquisite Tahitian pearls you’re seeking, then a piece from ROBERT WAN would make a special gift.
Paul Pairet, a resident French chef, is another name that sits high on the Bund’s fine-dining scene. His wildly successful restaurant Mr. & Mrs. Bund (mmbund.com) reopens at Bund 18 in spring and offers classic French dishes with modern twists – and is a great spot for late-night dining and glitzy VIP events. But for a really exclusive eat, Paul Pairet has opened a ten-seat-only restaurant, called Ultraviolet, in an undisclosed location. First, you have to gather at Mr. & Mrs. Bund, then, head to the real location with the help of a guide. The cost of US$480 per person is for a 20-course ‘multi-sensorial’ dining experience where the food and atmosphere meld spectacularly. There’s a month-long wait, so it’s essential to book ahead.
Cruise on the Huangpu River
The best way to admire the Bund in all its bygone (and ultra-modern) glory is from the city’s river. There are daily cruises on the Huangpu River in the mornings and afternoons, and they make a complete circuit of the river to its mouth and back. But the night cruise is definitely not to be missed. It starts around 7pm and lasts for up to 90 minutes. Once you’re on board, relax and enjoy some Chinese snacks and tea, while taking in the lights on both riverbanks. There are amazing laser shows throughout the year on the Bund, and for first-timers it’s a truly enlightening experience.
Fairmont Peace Hotel
Originally named the Cathay Hotel in the 1930s, this art deco marvel on the Bund has seen creative celebrities such as George Bernard Shaw and Noël Coward visiting its hallowed halls, as well as hosted some of Shanghai’s most infamous balls of the 1940s. With painstaking restoration, this 270-room hotel is now back to its former glory, boasting lavish furnishings and original ceiling lamps, as well as modern comforts. Indulge yourself with the hotel’s signature Chinese cuisine at Dragon Phoenix or relax at the Jazz Bar, where the old jazz band’s performances will wing you back to Shanghai’s golden era. No. 20 the Bund
Tel: + 86 21 6138 6888
The Ghost of Zhou Xuan
Arguably the most famous and beloved Chinese entertainer of the 1930s and 40s, this ravishingly beautiful actress and singer is still the undying symbol of Shanghai’s classic past, and an inspiration for its chic present. Listening to Zhou Xuan’s famous song ‘Shanghai at Night’, or watching the classic Chinese film Angels on the Road, will help you catch a true glimpse of the Bund’s exotic and glamorous history.
Bund Sightseeing Tunnel
Some would call it the most bizarre way to travel near the Bund. The Sightseeing Tunnel is an eight-minute ride in a cable car with psychedelic lights projected onto the tunnel walls that narrate a visual journey into ‘the core of earth’. At the very least it’s a fun trip for tourists with young kids.
Entrances: 300 Zhongshan East First Road (Puxi); 2789 Binjiang Road (Pudong).
Tel: + 86 21 5888 6000
Distance: 6,775 km
Flight Time: 8 hours, 5 minutes