RISE AND SHINE: tai chi at dawn on the Bund under the Oriental Pearl Radio & TV Tower
Jon Hicks/Corbis

One of the world's most populous cities in the world's most populous country turns out to be surprisingly manageable for tourists. But experiencing serene mornings, sights-filled afternoons and shimmering nights requires a touch of planning.

It’s morning on the western bank of the Huangpu River in Shanghai, where the Bund — one of the most tourist-heavy thoroughfares in the world — is mercifully, uncharacteristically quiet. Noon will bring throngs of sightseers, but for now, there is serenity.

August men practice tai chi against the imposing neoclassical facades of the Customs House and the former Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank. Other buildings bespeaking 1920s and 1930s prosperity — in Art Deco, Beaux Arts and Renaissance styles — flank them, continuing the iconic architectural lineup along the narrow, gently curving river.

You Are Here: A tourist plots her course at Yu Garden
Emanuele Ciccomartino/Corbis
Dvir Bar-Gal, a seasoned tour guide and photographer who has lived in the city for 11 years, tells me that during its halcyon days, the Bund was “the Wall Street of Asia.” Emigrated Jewish business magnates, he explains, erected some of the Bund’s most significant Art Deco landmarks, such as the Peace Hotel (originally the Cathay Hotel).

Across the Huangpu, Pudong — the new face of China — commands equal attention, punctuated as it is by wildly imaginative, singularly tall towers. By the light of the quickly brightening day, the two centuries regard each other, Pudong exaggerating the prosperity and ambition that built the Bund. Shanghai rose, and it rises again.

I wake up in Pudong in my river-facing room at the Ritz-Carlton Shanghai, Pudong, a modern and wired hotel with gracefully integrated design references to Shanghai’s Art Deco heyday. I reach over and open the curtains by pushing a bedside button, jump out of bed and see that the Bund’s promenade holds only a scattering of people. It is time to act. Fighting the urge to take a long, hot soak in the room’s ornate slipper bathtub (that will come later), I fortify myself with dim sum from the Club Lounge and get myself together for the brisk, 15-minute walk to the ferry. I buy a red plastic token for the crossing and, 10 minutes later, I am walking the Bund.

Morning is the best time to be here. The golden light shines on the buildings’ iron doors, Jinshan stones, and Ionic and Corinthian columns. Traffic is light, and I get to see locals finding peace as I pass more tai chi practitioners, solitary or in enthusiastic groups. I watch a man in khakis fly a bird-shaped kite over the former Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank. I notice more kite-fliers as my eye moves south along the Bund. The kites share the airspace with the red Chinese flags that top each roofline and finial. The Customs House’s clock chimes as gardeners in aqua coveralls water the cylinders of flowering plants that encircle the lampposts.