Having been to Shanghai more times than i care to count, i henceforth proclaim myself as an "old China hand" and will proceed to give pointers to first-time visitors on how to survive this mega-metropolis.
The city of Shanghai is divided into two parts by the Huangpu River: Puxi (west, i.e. the "old" side) and Pudong (east, i.e. the "new" side). Most of the restaurants, museums and tourist spots are in Puxi, and i find this side to be quite charming. Meanwhile, Pudong is more of modern, high-rise buildings and industrial areas - rather blah, in my opinion. Keep this in mind, dear reader!
Here's a photo of the Puxi side waterfront: (Photo credit: Rebekah Pothaar)
1. Location is everything.
For first-time visitors, it is generally best to stay at a hotel close to the tourist spots. In Puxi, this generally means somewhere along Nanjing Road, with its (over-rated) pedestrian stretch. Good picks would be Howard Johnson, and Central Hotel.
In Pudong, this would be anywhere close to the Lujiazui financial district. This is an extremely expensive part of town to be in, though. A good bet would be Eton Hotel.
When booking accommodations online, do try to find out where exactly your hotel is! If the hotel blurb says something like, "only 20 minutes away from the airport", etc., rest assured this hotel is FAR, FAR AWAY from every tourist spot in Shanghai!!! (Pudong international airport is at least an hour away from the city centre, that's why)
Better to choose a hotel which is accessible or near the extensive Shanghai Metro lines.
2. Taxi drivers = NO Engrrish!
I can say with absolute certainty that 99.9999% of Shanghainese cab drivers do not speak nor understand a word of English. As for the remaining 0.0001%, well, they've gone off to become tourist guides. Ha ha (lame pun).
Before setting out, get the hotel concierge to write down the names of your destinations in Chinese characters, so you just show it to the taxi drivers. Also, get a small card with your hotel name and address written in both English and Chinese characters; otherwise, jabbering "Holiday Inn" or other hotel name in English to the cabbie will never get you anywhere.
One last thing, wait for the taxi receipt ("fa piao"). The cabbies are generally scrupulous about giving it (and your change) to you.
One touristy destination would be Xintiandi at Puxi side, literally meaning "Heaven on Earth", basically a shopping mall-cum-restaurant/live band complex for foreign visitors who prefer to stay in their comfort zones.
What makes this place interesting is the old "Shikumen"-style architecture, prevalent in Shanghai during the mid-19th century, which the developers retained.
In case someone mentions the Cool Docks ("Lao Ma Tou" in Chinese), forget it. This place is a third-rate, trying hard copycat of Xintiandi, and is quite inaccessible by public transport. And as the bubbly Sasha of Shanghai Novice told me, it's not a happening place at all.
4. Choose your view wisely.
Check out this photo of the Pudong skyline: (Photo credit: Rebekah Pothaar)
Standing front and center is the Oriental TV Tower, a standard stop of all tour group packages.
It boasts of a 360 degree view of the Shanghai skyline, especially lovely at night.
However, I'd much prefer the Shanghai World Financial Center (that tall building with a rectangular-shaped hole, sort of like a bottle-cap opener, slightly on the left side on the photo). Not only is it much less crowded, it makes for a much SCARIER experience.
Why? The SWFC has 3 different observatory decks on the 94th, 97th and 100th floors. Try the "Sky Walk" on the 100th floor, with its transparent, glass-walled walkways, and i guarantee you will pee in your pants.
5. Take a walk
For a more in-depth experience, join a local walking tour with Newman Tours. Interesting choices include their tour of the French Concession area in Puxi, the Bund; and even a Gangster tour, with Cops vs. Robbers shooting competition afterwards!
6. Get pampered
All this touring around will take its toll on your feet, and you'd be glad to know that surprisingly, Shanghai offers a bevy of day spas for relaxation. They're mostly in Puxi side, on/around the French Concession area.
Good choices include chains like Green Massage, Dragonfly; and stand-alone places like Apsara. I particularly recommend Peony Aroma Spa on Dagu Road, Jingan District. Lovely place, old-world ambiance and excellent massages to be had here!
7. Try the Maglev.
On the way to the airport, try the Maglev train (or in Communist Party-speak, "Shanghai Magnetic Levitation Demonstration Operation Line". Whew!)
This is supposedly the only commercial train line using magnetic levitation technology in the world right now. It connects the Shanghai Metro (Longyang Road station) to the Pudong International Airport. Despite topping out at around 400 km/hour, the ride is extremely smooth and the outside view doesn't pass by like a blur.
Tip: Show your passport and plane ticket to the person manning the Maglev ticket booth, and you get a RMB10.00 discount off the regular fare of RMB50.00.
So, dear reader (and first-time Shanghai visitor), have fun! Don't get Shanghai-d in Shanghai! :D