Image: Shanghai
Eugene Hoshiko  /  AP
The Pudong New Development Zone is seen at night in Shanghai, China.
updated 9/6/2009 1:55:45 PM ET 2009-09-06T17:55:45

Shanghai lacks the grand monuments and ancient palaces of China's capital, Beijing, but this bustling commercial center has plenty of unique attractions of its own: strolls down leafy streets bordered by elegant colonial villas, sweeping riverside vistas and — for six months next year — what promises to be the biggest World Expo ever.

Shanghai is gearing up for its role as China's showcase for the May 1-Oct. 31 Expo, whose theme is "Better City, Better Life," by remaking itself into the country's most chic and modern city — with prices to match.

But with a bit of planning, savvy visitors to this one-time Paris of the Orient can easily eat well, sleep comfortably and take in the sights without getting "shanghai'd" by over-the-top prices.

A word to the wise: an Expo-related building boom has left some popular standbys temporarily off-limits. That includes the riverside walkway along the Bund — perhaps the city's most famous sight with its imposing Western colonial mansions. Expect city traffic to be snarled by subway construction.

But this business-minded city of more than 20 million still has plenty to offer.

Arriving: A cab ride from the international airport in Pudong, east of the city, costs $15-$30. Ignore the touts waiting to grab unwary visitors; bring the name of your hotel or other destination in Chinese and use the taxi line if you have luggage or are too tired for adventuring right upon arrival. If you're traveling light, for $12 the city's magnetic levitation train — the world's only commercially operating maglev service — will whisk you the 19 miles (30 kilometers) into the city in just 7 minutes. The maglev connects to the city's No. 2 subway line, and 5 yuan (about 75 U.S. cents) will get you across the river to downtown.

Arriving at the Hongqiao Airport in the city's western outskirts can be less convenient for public transport. But a cab to the city's center costs only $6 to $10. Don't be put off by that long, snakey cab queue — it moves faster than you would expect. Another option from either airport is to take an airport express bus, which generally costs $3 or less.

Where to stay: How low do you want to go? The youth hostels that generally serve backpackers and students can be a good option, costing a minimum of 45 yuan (under $7) per night. Shanghai has eight clean, convenient youth hostels, most of them centrally located. A favorite pick is the Captain Youth Hostel, at 37 Fuzhou Rd. just off the Bund. The hostel's 6th floor bar has views of the river and all rooms have hot-water baths, 24-hour reception service, free Internet access, free movie, free tourism information and luggage storage.

Another safe option is to book a room at a chain hotel — the Greentree Inn, Motel 168 and Hanting hotels all have many good locations and cost less than $30 a night for a room with all the basics.

What to see: Shanghai has only a handful of "must see" locations, topped perhaps by Yu Garden, located near the city temple in the center of what used to be the old walled city. Near downtown, it's a brief walk from the city's new No. 8 subway line through neighborhoods of two-story shop houses, a vanishing lifestyle in this city obsessed with trading old for new.

Image: Nanjing Road
Eugene Hoshiko  /  AP
People walk at Nanjing Road, Shanghai's most famous shopping street, in Shanghai, China.
Just outside Yu Garden in a pond graced by lotus plants and goldfish stands the Huxingting teahouse and a huge bazaar. Wander through the crowds — weekdays are a bit less jammed than weekends — through a warren of shops selling silk blouses, tea, tourist kitsch and other chinoiserie. If the crowds get to be overwhelming, not one but two Starbucks outlets offer a chance for non-obtrusive people-watching.

Not far from Yu Garden is the Shiliupu ferry pier — terminal for cruises along the Huangpu river and for a 50 fen (about 7 cents) ferry ride to Dongchang Rd. and the glittering financial showcase of Pudong (literally east of the "'Pu"). Continually busy but not overcrowded except during rush hour, the ferry is one of the few cross-river commuting options for the bike and scooter crowd.

Longer river cruises are also an option.

Once in Pudong, a short walk north, again past construction hoardings, takes you to the Riverside Promenade, which provides broad, stunning views of the Bund and busy river traffic — and scores of skyscrapers.

If it happens to be a rare clear day, you might splurge on a 150 yuan ($22) ticket to the top of the Shanghai World Financial Center, whose transparent floors allow a look 100 floors straight down, and to the horizon in all directions.

Whatever you do, don't yield to the temptation to try to zigzag across the river to the Bund via the ferry. Regardless of what the signs and staff say, until the construction finishes, ferries headed in that direction are letting passengers off in the midst of a pedestrian no-man's-land.

A quick No. 2 subway ride back to Puxi (west of the river) (only 3 yuan or 44 cents) will take you to Nanjing Rd., Shanghai's most famous shopping street. Nearby People's Square is the location of several other key sights, including the city's renowned Shanghai Museum, and the Urban Planning Exhibition Hall, with its huge, detailed model of the city now and into the future.

Image: Dumplings
Eugene Hoshiko  /  AP
Shanghai's most famous snack called xiaolongbao or dumplings are seen at Yu Garden.
Admissions for those facilities are inexpensive, but a stroll through the French Concession, one of several zones controlled by foreigners before and during World War II, can be had for free. Ditto for a gander at Xintiandi, a cluster of renovated "shikumen" traditional buildings housing elegant coffee shops, clubs and boutiques — but check the menus before sitting down for a bite to eat.

Farther afield, a quick trip to Longhua Temple, on the No. 1 subway line, is a nice antidote to the crowding, noise and traffic of the center city. In the sprawling, quiet compound, worshippers young and old burn incense and prostrate themselves before seemingly countless golden Buddhas.

While Shanghai's outskirts lack the rugged scenery of the Great Wall, day trips or overnight visits by train or bus to the close-by garden cities of Hangzhou and Suzhou are easy, inexpensive getaways.

Getting around: The good news is that although most Shanghainese speak only their own local dialect and the national dialect of Mandarin Chinese, city street signs and maps in subway stations include both Chinese and "English," or roman-letter (known here as "pinyin") names.

Notices posted in cabs offer a free English-speaking hotline for visitors having trouble communicating with taxi drivers.

As for city buses, though they are cheap at just 1 yuan to 2 yuan (15 cents to 30 cents) and sometimes convenient, many have been rerouted in very circuitous ways due to construction. It might not be worth the bother.

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When walking, keep an eye out for traffic, especially scooters and bikes. It comes from all directions, even on the sidewalk.

Good eating: Shanghai was renowned for its talented chefs and excellent dining even back in the days before China became a mainstay for fast food joints and other Western eateries. With few exceptions, the city offers good value for the money, whatever the cuisine.

Tokyo, My CutShanghainese dishes tend to be relatively sweet and rich, without the stronger, hotter flavors of northern and western China. One highlight is xiaolongbao, dumplings plump full of piping hot, succulent juice — bite carefully. Locals swear by the Nanxiang Xiaolongbao outlet in the bazaar outside Yuyuan, but be prepared to wait in a long queue, even in the off hours, for a plate costing just a few dollars.

Wujiang Road, which branches off of Nanjing Road, is a pedestrian street with a smorgasbord of options, inexpensive and otherwise. Other filling and affordable choices include Cantonese dim sum, especially at any of the city's Bifengtang restaurants, Korean barbeque or Japanese set meals for well under $10 a head.

Streetside stalls peddle buns, pancakes, noodles and other Chinese-style fast food — just be sure to size up the hygiene before sampling.

Best time to go: The Expo starts May 1 and runs until Oct. 31 and is expected to attract 70 million visitors. Whatever your budget — Shanghai is best visited in the autumn or spring: winters are bone-chillingly damp and summers sweltering hot.

Whatever time you come, bring an umbrella. Shanghai is rainy almost year round.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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