The tree-lined streets of the former French Concession
Lonely Planet Images

When I want a little elbow room, I follow the old rule of thumb: No matter what the culture, look for a place that requires an entry fee. That takes me to the City God Temple of Shanghai. I step over the threshold and, suddenly, it’s quiet. I lean against a wall in the main, open-air hall. The temple dates from 1403 during the Ming Dynasty, and I watch as the scene unfolds: people collecting improbably large bundles of pink incense sticks and burning them in a covered shrine set in the middle of the square. The dozen or so worshippers have armed themselves with so much incense that the air fills with curls of ash. It drifts down and dots my arms and smudges the pages of my notebook. In any other context I might get annoyed. Here, I feel ethereal.

In the nearby Yu Garden (How nearby? I’m told to exit the temple and turn right … at the Starbucks.), I find a similar sense of peace. The foliage is conveniently marked: bonsai and ginkgo biloba, wisteria and camellia japonica. Dating from 1559, the garden is a tranquil, five-acre maze of footbridges and pavilions, ornately carved balconies and rock walls. The most exalted is the 46-foot-high Grand Rockery. People gather around the entrance to the hall holding a 5-ton jade boulder. And it’s all positioned over turtle and koi ponds. I duck under a branch and follow a tiny dirt path to the edge of the water, finding a seat within the cleft of a rock.

The dome of the former Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank building
Chris Mellor/Alamy
The former French Concession, also on the Bund side of the river, is a different scene entirely. It’s artsy, fashionable, geographically amorphous — and a magnet for expats. A Beijing-based friend who writes features for The New York Times instructed me that there is no center to the leafy, human-scale area — that I should just stroll around and poke my head into shikumen: charmingly gritty, labyrinthian neighborhoods that “feel private.” I follow his advice and am surprised by how nonchalant the locals are about it, continuing their oil painting, card games and house chores.

Eventually, as so many tourists do, I find my way to the decade-old Xintiandi (it means “New Heaven and Earth”), an upscale, outdoor dining-and-boutique complex fashioned from two blocks of gentrified shi­kumen constructions. I finger the fine cashmere scarves at Unique Piece, take a walk through the most crazy-­elegant Häagen-Dazs café in the world — it serves elaborate, sculptural desserts with weirdly Euro-centric names like “Love in Belgium” — and finally settle in at a sidewalk table at Xintiandi 1930 for a bowl of crab fried rice and a steamer of juicy, perfectly pleated pork dumplings. For me, this is Love in Shanghai.

Nighttime turns Shanghai into a jeweled city. The formidable buildings of the Bund light up in gold, and I head to the far end, where I’ve checked in at The Peninsula Shanghai, to dress for dinner. The hotel is so grand, and it’s a wonderful surprise to discover that it’s only a few years old. With its meticulous, luscious Art Deco interiors and swing-era bandstand in the lobby, the hotel looks like it’s been on the Bund for a century. The Pe­ninsula reminds me of its flagship property in Hong Kong, with amenities like transfers provided by a Rolls-Royce ­Phantom. From my corner suite, I can see the cars and pedestrians crossing the landmark Waibaidu Bridge.