Shanghai is a common stopover destination for Kiwis travelling to Europe. But there are plenty of reasons China's biggest city is a fantastic travel destination in itself, writes Kate Ford.

We hurtled into Shanghai at 300km/h. We were on the high-speed train from Beijing and had spent the past five hours watching looped flickers of barren countryside and bland, uniform apartment blocks until the repetition gave way to the skyscrapers and neon lights of China's biggest city.

Shanghai is a stopover hub for travellers going on to other places in China or further afield and the 72 hours of visa-free transit is mighty convenient. But the extra effort of getting a tourist visa for a longer stay in China is worth it, because Shanghai is an exciting destination in itself.

Like the bullet trains that take you there, the city is fast-paced and swollen with people. It only takes a short stretch of the legs around the Bund or People's Square on a Saturday night for you to become tangled, noodle-like, with the swarms of people who have the same idea.

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Despite the crowds, the Bund - that riverside strip that showcases the glittering skyline so well - is the city's most alluring spot. The Huangpu river slices through downtown, splitting up Pudong (East Bank) and Puxi (West Bank) and emphasising the dominating high rises.

Arguably a better way to experience the sparkling cityscape is from a comfortable hotel close to the action.

We stayed at the Mandarin Oriental Pudong, a lush hotel kitted-out with all the luxuries you could think of, and just a dumpling's throw from the iconic bulbous Oriental Pearl Tower. We had a front and centre view through floor-to-ceiling windows and were reluctant to close the curtains when it came time to rest our spoiled heads on the Frette linens.

In this city of 24 million people, finding peace and quiet outside your hotel room is rare but it exists.

Right in the middle of the city a parade of skyscrapers curl around a rambling Chinese garden.

Built in the 16th century Ming Dynasty, Yuyuan Gardens features ponds, carvings, beautiful greenery and places to sit and relax. It screams serenity. It is yin and yang personified because as soon as you step outside you are right back in the throes of the lively metropolis.

One minute you are contemplating your navel and the next you are being reminded of your tourist status. Outside the entrance to Yuyuan Gardens there are salesmen touting fake watches to your left; a sea of flag-wielding sightseers to your right; and that universal symbol of capitalism, Starbucks, staring you down from ahead.

It is an understatement to say China's history is extensive and fascinating, though unless time is on your side (check the "Rolex" you just bought to see), deciding on which historical attractions to see can be an exercise in rock, paper, scissors.

If you only see one museum in Shanghai, make it the Aurora Museum.

Its exterior beauty, thanks to internationally-renowned architect Tadao Ando, hints at the treasures inside. Aurora features exquisite ancient Chinese pottery, porcelain and jade, some of which dates back to the Neolithic period. The top floor showcases Buddhist sculptures, including a 2.3-metre statue of Guanyin Bodhisattva, goddess of compassion. The museum is beautifully presented, modern and tasteful.

This is the kind of domestic history you expect to encounter when you visit China. But perhaps a lesser-known part of Shanghai's past is its Jewish history.

In the 1930s and 40s, China granted asylum to more than 20,000 Jewish people fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe. Shanghai was one of the few places open to immigration at the time and Jews did not need visas to enter the city. They were, however, confined to the Restricted Sector of Stateless Refugees, more commonly known as the Shanghai Ghetto.

Once the war was over the Jewish population rapidly declined as people began moving elsewhere.

The old Jewish Quarter is now just a remnant. The synagogue is a museum dedicated to this period of Shanghai's history and tells the story with photographs, video, artefacts and first-person accounts.

Until January, it's home to a temporary Anne Frank exhibition featuring extensive excerpts from her diary, along with photographs and documents written by her father.
Shanghai is a flashy international city, one of the biggest economic hubs in the world. But beyond the financial coating lie riches of another kind as Shanghai's deep history and culture snakes through the city like the Huangpu river.

FACT FILE

Getting there

Air New Zealand

flies direct from Auckland to Shanghai, with one-way Economy Class fares from $749.

Staying there
The Mandarin Oriental Pudong.