Things to do in Shanghai

Despite being a travel fanatic China is one continent I have barely explored… and Shanghai seemed like a good place to start, known for its vibrant food scene and thriving culture. After a long international flight from London, our senses were overwhelmed stepping out onto the streets of Shanghai. The language barrier was an immediate challenge, and without WeChat (the local Chinese messaging, social media and mobile payment app) we struggled to communicate in a lot of circumstances. But once we accepted the difficulties of travelling in China, Shanghai proved to be a real adventure and a brilliantly educational and exciting destination. Here are a few of my favourite discoveries…

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To Stay

The Middle House – The Middle House opened in 2018, a beautiful new addition to the House Collective group. This stylish and contemporary hotel is found in the heart of the city, with spacious luxurious bedrooms, wonderful eateries and amazing facilities.

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To Eat

Gracie’s – The temperature can get hot in Shanghai, cool off with the best ice cream from retro inspired Gracie’s. We loved the ‘Half-baked cookie dough’ but apparently ‘Mint Chocolate Chip’ is a winner too.

HaiDiLao – Head to one of the many branches of this local institution for comforting hot pot. We visited the venue on the 4th floor of shopping centre in Du Pu. While you wait for your table manicures, board games, shoe shine and snacks are available to keep you occupied. Once it is time to eat there are many options to choose from – we opted for vibrant Tomato broth, with handstretched noodles, beef and lots of flavoursome toppings. Don’t miss the scallion roti prata on the side.

Egg – For a hearty Western brunch head to Egg, a charming all-day breakfast café on Xiangyang Lu. The eatery is by Shanghai Supperclub founder Camden Hauge, and the egg-centric offering includes classics like avocado on toast with sunny side up eggs, and great coffee.

Yi Ling Court at The Peninsula – For an exquisite dim sum experience head to Yi Ling Court at the Peninsula Hotel. At this elegant restaurant Chef Tsui prepares signature dishes such as steamed crab and crab roe with garlic and glutinous rice, crispy pigeon smoked with premier oolong tea and crispy beef brisket with Chinese gravy. If you are visiting for dinner, enjoy an aperitif first at Sir Elly’s.

Mr & Mrs Bund – I wasn’t a massive fan of the uptight (and forgetful) service at this refined restaurant, but the French food by chef Paul Pairet is wonderful and the city skyline views are second to none.

RAC – A stylish French cafe with good coffee and irresistible brunch dishes. Order the Far West Galette (cheese, mushroom, pancetta, egg, cream).

Strictly Cookies – Founded by Lexie Comstock, Strictly Cookies is the best biscuit shop in town. Unsurprisingly Lexie is American, and has always had a love of baking… when she moved to Shanghai in 2010 she noticed a gap in the market and began Strictly Cookies from her flat. The company now has its own premises and supplies cafes and restaurants all over China. The classic chocolate chip is the most popular, but I loved the highly inventive ‘Snack Box’ variety.

Sui Tang Li – The Chinese restaurant at the Middle House Hotel has very much become a destination in its own right. Highlights included Hairy Crab XiaoLongBao; Braised Beef Short Rib, Beef Tenderloin, Beef Puff; and gin cocktails made with Shanghainese Peddlers Gin.

Jia Jia Tang Bao – This simple canteen style cafe has become known as one of the best Xiao Long Bao outlets. Order the classic Xiao Long Bao (12 for ¥18) and the Hairy Crab Xiao Long Bao (12 for ¥35). Watch the ladies make the dumplings fresh and then enjoy them moments later. Watch how the locals ‘nip and slurp’ them to avoid burning your mouth!

Jianbing (348 Wulumuqi) – The perfect Shanghai breakfast. It is not easy to find the right stall, but the queue should give it away. The freshly made Jianbing (crepe, egg, spring onion, coriander, doughnut, red paste with options doughnut) are moreish and delicious, costing just ¥6.

Ah Da’s Spring Onion Pancake – If you have the time queue up for hours to try these famous street stall pancakes, which Rick Stein raved about when he visited Shanghai.

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To Drink

Speak Low – This Japanese style speakeasy is one of the best cocktail bars in Shanghai, and has recently been included on the ‘Worlds 50 Best’ list. You enter through a seemingly normal drinks equipment shop… to then discover three floors of mysterious cocktail bars. Try to get a booking on the middle floor bar where the cocktails are more elaborate and exciting… our favourite drink was the delicious ‘Into the Woods’.

Arabica – There is always a crowd of Shanghai trendsetters outside Arabic. I originally tried this coffee brand in Japan, and am pleased to report that the quality was just as good in China. Stop by for a strong iced coffee, or a creamy cappuccino.

Onirii – If you are looking for expertly sourced, roasted and poured coffee in Shanghai Onirii is the place for you. This tiny coffee shop is minimalist in design, with just a few seats for visitors. If you let the barista guide your caffeine decisions you are sure to receive a delicious, balanced cup of coffee.

SeeSaw Coffee – SeeSaw is a giant on the Shanghai speciality coffee scene. The fun, modern cafes are a favourite with the hipster crowd, serving up full-flavoured, fuss-free coffee. SeeSaw are also a stockist of the Strictly Cookies, the perfect accompaniment to a flat white!

Cafe del Volcan – This cute cafe is found on Yongkang Rd, amongst many lovely eateries and boutiques. Inside the roastery takes up most of the space, so I suggest getting a coffee to go. Pick one of their carefully selected coffee varieties and enjoy.

Sober Company – Sober Company is the sister company to Speak Low and comprises of three spaces: Sober Café offers small plates and all-day brunch, Sober Kitchen is a restaurant serving modern Chinese dishes and Sober Society is a bar focused on digestif cocktails. If you visit all three spaces you receive a special invitation to the private, most exclusive bar. In the Sober Society we sat at the bar and relished our innovative concoctions – favourites included the ‘Godfather 3’ and ‘Tiger’. The Sober Company team also have new bar called The Odd Couple, which is 1980s themed.

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To Do

Long Museum – This private museum was founded by Liu Yiqian and his wife Wang Wei. The brutalist building was designed by Atelier Deshaus, built around the remains of a stand-alone 1950s coal-ferry unloading bridge, and houses contemporary art exhibitions. There is also a second museum in Pudong.

Tianzifang – Tianzifang or Tianzi Fang is a busy (and touristy) arts and crafts maze of small streets that has developed from a renovated traditional residential area in the French Concession area. It is home to boutique shops, bars and restaurants.small streets, shopping, cafes and bars.

Wukang Building – You’ll know when you’ve arrived at Wukang Building as you’ll see the hoards of photographers pointing their lenses towards it. Found in the French Concession district, the building would not be out of place in New York… a protected historic apartment building designed by the Hungarian-Slovak architect László Hudec and completed in 1924.

Jing’an Temple – Perhaps the most famous temple in Shanghai, the Jing’an Temple is located on West Nanjing Road in downtown Shanghai and has over 780 years of history. There are three main halls to see here: The Mahavira Hall, the Hall of Heavenly Kings and the ThreeSage Hall.

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To Shop

FNJI – This wondrous furniture emporium showcasing both Chinese and Japanese designs in an atmospheric and beautiful space in the French Concession area of town.

Klee Klee – An eco-friendly fashion brand by Shanghai-based label ZUCZUG. The collection features luxurious organic materials and natural dyes in their chic clothes collection.

Lost & Found – A charming concept shop set up by Paul Gelinas and Xiao Mao in 2008, specialising in clothing and furniture inspired by the aesthetics of Old Beijing. Pick up a unique gift here to take home and treasure.

In the Park – This exhibition and clothes space in the Xintiandi district is a lovely place to while away an afternoon. The shop is a multi-brand collective with high quality products and a focus on design.

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To Escape

Zhouzhuang Ancient Water Village – If you fancy a day out of town the Unesco World Heritage site,  Zhouzhuang is beautiful and calm, known by some as ‘Venice of the East’. You can get a fast train from Shanghai Railway Station (20 mins to Kunshan South Station, ¥25 pp and foreigners need a paper photocopy of their passport) and then a taxi from Kunshan South (45 mins, ¥112 on meter) to the village. Visitors must pay ¥100 to enter Ancient Village but then you can wander round and see everything easily. Things to see include the Double Bridge; Zhang’s Residence; Shen’s Residence; Fu’an Bridge; and the Quanfu/Changxu Temple. Sample the famous Wansan Pork Knuckle at Shen’s Restaurant/Shenting Restaurant and take a 20 min boat trip (¥150 per boat) around the water town.

The Middle House, Shanghai

Shanghai is not an easy city to navigate as a tourist who doesn’t speak the native language. That’s why, each day after a full itinerary of exploring, I was relieved to be returning to The Middle House, a beautiful new hotel in the heart of the city.

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The Middle House is the newest member of the House Collective Hotels, which also includes Upper House in Hong Kong, Temple House in Chengdu and Opposite House in Beijing (the first which opened in 2008). These luxury hotels are harmonious with the local surroundings while also making a statement with their artistic common spaces, indulgent rooms and cutting-edge facilities.

After a very long international flight we were delighted to be greeted by the Middle House’s smart Tesla car, which transported us to the hotel in less than an hour. (I highly recommend pre-arranging transfers when arriving in China, as it can be quite overwhelming to organise on the spot!)

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There are 111 rooms at Middle House including the 14th floor penthouse, where the hotel’s most exclusive visitors stay. The majority of the rooms fall into three categories: Studio 50 rooms, Studio 60 rooms, and Studio 70 rooms, the room names simply referring to the size of the space in sqm. We were in room 1308, a studio 70 corner room on the 13th floor, with epic panoramic views of the city and plenty of natural daylight. The rooms are designed with feng shui in mind, they are very spacious, with carefully placed striking artwork. I particularly enjoyed the walk-in wardrobe, well stocked mini-bar, and amazing lighting and black-out curtains.

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The bathroom was lavish and luxurious, with specially made Bamford toiletries which feature in all the House Hotels collection. I loved the minimalist double sinks, the stylish bathtub made by Claybrook and the elegant attention to detail.

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Breakfast each morning at Middle House was a real treat, and it was soon evident that food here is definitely not an afterthought. Both the Western options and the local delicacies were made with the upmost care and attention, and using the finest ingredients. I was stunned by the Viennoiserie selection, as good as many of the patisseries in Paris, and the Shanghainese dumplings and noodles were divine too, once my stomach got accustomed to the different time zone!

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The restaurants at Middle House are just as popular with outside guests as with those staying. Choose from upmarket Italian food at Frasca, or enjoy a contemporary Chinese feast at Sui Tang Li. I was equally impressed by both eateries.

At Frasca we opted for homemade pasta, cooked to perfection and wonderfully flavoured, paired with cocktails from their ‘gin and tonic’ list. At Sui Tang Li I thought it was best to get the waiters opinion and with his help we tried an array of the menu favourites, including hairy crab dumplings, wagyu beef puffs and melt-in-the-mouth crispy duck. This restaurant is known as one of the best modern Chinese restaurants in the city, and after trying much of the menu, I can definitely see why!

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On Day two in Shanghai while the jetlag was still taking its toll, we checked out the Middle House’s Mi Xun spa and gym. This serene part of the hotel is found in the basement. Founded by Laurent Boillot, President and CEO of Guerlain, Mi Xun at The Middle House is the first hotel spa in China to offer the boutique Cha Ling treatments, focusing on skincare treatments using combined techniques of traditional Chinese medicine to re-harmonise energy flows and detoxify the skin. We tried the immersive Cha Ling massage, which was reinvigorating and relaxing in equal measure. After a treatment be sure to leave time to experience the beautiful pool and sauna room.

The high-tech gym has everything you need for the most extensive of work-outs. You can also try Hypoxi body shaping machines here for advanced fitness and exercise regimes.

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For longer stays The Middle House also has the Residences in a separate tower. Guests can book stays from 3 days up to and beyond 1 year. These residences are designed in a similar style to the hotel rooms, but have a more relaxed feel, with kitchens for guests to use at their convenience. Guests can also use all the hotel facilities during their time as residents.

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Understandably The Middle House is the hotel of choice for Shanghai’s most prestigious and stylish guests, and is particularly popular during Shanghai Fashion Week, Formula 1, and Shanghai Design Fair. So often a hotel of such calibre can forget to excel when it comes to service, but we found it to be of the highest level throughout our stay.

I would recommend this hotel to anyone visiting this cultural destination… the location, design and food at Middle House were all perfect for a Shanghai citybreak and I was sad to say goodbye when it was time to leave.

More information and book a stay at The Middle House hotel here.

‘Malaysia on a Plate’ with Essential Escapes

Essential Escapes organise the kind of holidays I love. This creative travel company was founded by Emma Barnett Spitzer (Masterchef finalist and travel fanatic) 16 years ago and originally had a focus on spa focussed travels. In recent years the company has begun to concentrate more on culinary trips that showcase the very best authentic food in some of the world’s most delicious destinations.

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I was lucky to be one of a few foodies invited to sample the new ‘Malaysia on a plate’ Essential Escapes itinerary. This exciting exploration of Malay cuisine starts on the island of Langkawi at the beautiful Datai Hotel, before a final couple of days in chaotic Kuala Lumpur (you can also opt to reverse the order if you fancy ending the holiday on the beach!)

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After a lengthy transatlantic flight, and a much shorter internal flight, we arrived at The Datai Langkawi. Refreshed with cold flannels and iced tea, we spent a few minutes taking in the breathtaking surroundings.

The Datai is found on the edge of Langkawi island, surrounded by a 10 million year old rainforest, overlooking the idyllic and tranquil Datai Bay. The independent resort has recently undergone a transformative renovation, and I was thrilled to be experiencing one of the spacious Rainforest villas on the edge of the tropical rainforest.

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The rooms were designed in a practical format, with timeless features in natural materials. The grand four poster bed was the ultimate indulgence to climb into every night, and I slept so well while here. The bathroom was very generous in size with a big bathtub, dual sinks and separate shower and toilet cubicles. Sustainable practices are present throughout the hotel and in the rooms this was also noticeable, in the recycled glass bottles of filtered water and refillable vessels of house made toiletries.

There are plenty of extras to enjoy while in the villas, from the complimentary minibar to the IPTV and multipurpose charging ports.

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I quickly realised how special the Datai Langkawi was, the type of hotel people return to again and again… one reason for this is the unrivalled food experiences available on site. During our three days we managed to tick off meals in each of the four restaurants: The Gulai House for authentic Malaysian cuisine, The Pavillion for award-winning Thai food, The Dining Room for fine dining French food and The Beach Club for lazy seaside lunches. Each meal was exceptional with thoughtfully prepared and expertly cooked recipes from all over the globe.

Of the restaurants, my favourite was the Gulai, where the talented chefs whipped up an array of specialities like Beef Rendang curry and Tandoor chicken. The flavours were intense and decadent and the service friendly and charming. I was also incredibly impressed by The Dining Room, where the chefs use flair and imagination to create immaculate French haute cuisine, often with flavours from the island.

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A highlight of my stay at The Datai was the Private Cooking Class at the Gulai House. This new cooking school is decked out with state of the art facilities and a class here is a real insight into the authentic food of the region. We began our class in the resort’s permaculture garden, where we picked herbs and ingredients for our dishes, and learnt about the crops that grow well in this unique part of the world. Then we returned to the kitchen to make Kerabu Sook Hoon (a light cold noodle salad) and Gulai Udang (a creamy sweet prawn and vegetable curry).

While at The Datai we also had the pleasure of experiencing the Datai Spa. Here you can totally relax with a treatment in an open air villa, listening to the sounds of the rainforest while enjoying a traditional Malay massage.

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I would have been completely content staying in The Datai for the whole duration of our time on Langkawi, but was also glad to see some of the island. We ventured out for a serene mangrove tour through the Kubang Badak River and learnt about the fascinating mangrove ecology and wildlife that lives here, before settling for lunch at a local Malay family house. Here we feasted on Fried Pomfret Fish with spicy sambal, Sticky Soy Chicken and the most tender and addictively tasty Turmeric Fried Aubergine, all cooked by the lovely, and terribly humble, Mrs Raijah.

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Our final night at The Datai was perhaps the most memorable, a sunset cruise on the Naga Pelangi boat. This 97-foot traditional wooden schooner-replica was hand built by the Captain and is the last remaining boat of its kind in Malaysia. We sipped champagne as we floated gently on the waves and watched the sun slowly fall behind the sea.

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Kuala Lumpur (KL) is Malaysia’s capital, a modern city with a bustling business district. Though it was once known for its charming colonial style architecture the skyline is now dominated by towering skyscrapers, shopping malls and office blocks. And with a tropical climate which rarely dips below 30 degrees, walking around outside can be a hard work. In the daytime locals stay indoors where the air-conditioning is a relief, and at night the streets come to life with food markets and outdoor bars.

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Our home for a couple of days in KL was Samadhi Retreats, a boutique hotel on the outskirts of town. The hotel was a calm oasis to rest while exploring the city. It is a converted traditional Malay house with 21 Asia-inspired rooms set around a exotic lagoon pool.

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The hotel owns four eateries outside of the city, including Tamarind Springs, a destination restaurant set amongst the dense rainforest serving refined Thai-Malaysian cuisine. We enjoyed an atmospheric meal here under the stars, while monkeys bounced about in the nearby trees.

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Our time in KL was limited and the food on offer is endless so we had to be selective about where we spent our mealtimes. Essential Escapes had organised a vibrant evening tour of the Jalan Alor night market, a fragrant street filled with local specialities. Among other things we tried lok lok (sticks of fresh ingredients dusted in flour and deep fried) and beef and chicken satay (fired over an open flame and served with plenty of rich satay sauce) all washed down with fresh coconut water.

The next day we ventured further into Kuala Lumpur to check out some of the historic sites and heritage areas of town. Chinatown was a favourite area for us all, and we settled on Madras Lane for a local breakfast… Egg Noodle Laksa, a rich curry broth filled with green beans, mini aubergine, bean curd and clams. It was a bowl of heaven and a must while in Malaysia.

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After exhausting ourselves sightseeing in the stifling heat, we stumbled into PULP by Papa Palheta, a speciality coffee gem, serving Rocket Espresso alongside an array of delicious sweet baked treats.

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Our trip ended on a high, as we toasted to Malaysian adventures with great cocktails at PS150, a prohibition-style speakeasy recommended to us by Malaysian food writer and chef Guan Chua.

Six days is not enough to see and eat it all in Malaysia, but this brilliant Essential Escapes trip was a great way to get an insight into the magic of Malaysia and the irresistible food culture.

I was a guest of Essential Escapes, The Datai Langkawi and Samadhi Retreats. We flew as guests of Malaysian Airlines.

For more information on the wonderful Essential Escapes itineraries, visit the website here.