50 Moganshan Road
Also known as M50, this arts district is often compared to New York's Soho (i.e. it's one of the city's most prestigious gatherings of galleries). It's located in a former industrial area along the Suzhou Creek, and the factories and buildings have been converted and now house a mix of galleries, artist and design studios, as well as some cafes and shops. ShanghArt is one of the most established galleries here; others to look for are M97, H-Space, Eastlink, 1918 ArtSpace and Art Scene Warehouse.
With one of the best reputations in Asia, Banyan Tree is a Thai resort company that has expanded its spa business into a few city hotels like this one at Westin Shanghai. The treatments incorporate Asian healing practices.
Beijing Side Car Tour
For travelers who are a bit more adventurous and for whom a drive through the city or to the Great Wall via car simply will not do, Indagare can arrange for a half or full-day riding shotgun in a motorcycle side car. To fully experience the sights sounds and smells of the city this tour is highly recommended. However, those who are susceptible to motion sickness or dislike fast driving will not enjoy this tour as it is a wild and gripping experience. Indagare members can contact the Bookings Team to arrange a tour.
Beijing Urban Planning Museum
A great way to get an overview of the city’s growth and landmarks is a visit to the Urban Planning Museum.
China Art Museum (China Art Palace)
The former Shanghai Art Museum moved to this new Pudong location in 2012. Originally, the museums was housed inside a former race club and also hosted the well-regarded Shanghai Biennale (which is now held in the Power Station of Art). The spectacular setting, housed in the former China Pavilion of the 2010 Expo, is matched by the incredible collection focused on Chinese modern art and special exhibitions. The largest museum in Asia, it was conceived to be the country’s answer to New York’s MET and Paris’ Musée d’Orsay. It’s not to be missed as a demonstration of China’s every-growing, strong art scene. Admission is free but you have to reserve your ticket in advance online.
Dashanzi Art District
Anyone with even the vaguest interest in contemporary art should set aside a half day for a trip out to this former factory complex, now given over to scores of studios. The main space, Factory 798, still has slogans from the Cultural Revolution era on its walls—characters that tell people to study Chairman Mao’s works diligently, learn from the Communist Party and study Marx. Instead of revering the old dictator, the young artists use him as a cartoon figure; he is featured regularly in modern-art paintings, but Chinese creative types know just how far they can go in lampooning the nation’s figurehead. The atmosphere at the compound is raw and energetic, not yet subject to the marketing makeover that will inevitably come. As well as scores of small art galleries, there are also some delightful little coffee shops, so the walkabout can be undertaken with latte-and-muffin stops or even lunch. Many galleries are closed on Monday. The best way to tour the area is with an expert guide who knows the artists and the galleries. Members can contact our Bookings Team to arrange a guided visit.
Day Trip: Zhujiajiao Ancient Water Village
Often likened to Shanghai’s Venice, Zhujiajiao water village is located one hour from the city and has a history spanning over 1,700 years. The tiny town (it’s only about 20 square miles), is a charming place to explore (via gondola and on foot) both modern and ancient China. The village boasts a number of historical monuments, like the Kezhi Garden, which was built in 1912 and is one of few monuments in the country that blends Chinese and Western architecture style, but has become a hotbed for artistic creativity since the Shangduli project launched in 2014.
The waterfront development is focused on bringing contemporary art to the town, and a number of modern exhibits (murals, vibrant installations) line the streets. The project also operates a four-room hotel, Shang Du Li Clubhouse (No.3, Lane 24, Xinfeng Rd.), which provides a chic hideout for visitors that want to spend a night before returning to Shanghai (contact Indagare to book). Styled like a traditional teahouse, the property is a study in minimalist elegance. A number of stylish boutiques line the streets surrounding the hotel, including You Mu You Tao for pottery, Choc Choco Chocolate Bar and SJPC Bookstore.
One of the city’s lesser-known temples, located just a stone’s throw from the main drag, it has just undergone extensive renovation. In earlier centuries, hundreds of monks called it home. One novel feature is to display plaster models of the colorful characters that would have inhabited the temple during its heyday, along with fantasy figures from Chinese tradition such as dragons and monkeys. It is not a huge temple, but it is peaceful.
If you want to discover why the Shanghainese never seem to falter, try a foot massage, a daily ritual for many. For an authentic Shanghai experience and a terrific treatment, head to one of the many branches of this contemporary Chinese spa. Reflexology massages are given in a candlelit room, which you share with fellow customers, everyone stretching out on comfortable chaises. The Nanchang Rd. outpost feels like a private home, put your feet up and discover heavenly renewal.
This inexpensive spa chain specializes in reflexology massage and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) acupressure massage.
Drum and Bell Towers
Directly north from the Forbidden City sits the ancient Drum and Bell Towers which once told the time to citizens. Known as Gulou in Chinese the Drum Tower was first built in 1272 but has since undergone a series of reconstructions in following centuries. Today, tourists can climb Gulou for a spectacular view over the capital’s remaining hutongs and the quaint tiled roofs of the courtyard houses below. The central square between the two towers is filled with tourist buses by day; but in warm summer nights, after the tourists leave, old Beijingers come out in droves to play mahjong, chew the fat, or dance. After visiting the Towers make sure to spend time exploring the maze of hutongs that surround them which provide a slice of local life. They may not be around for much longer; in 2012 the government announced plans to knock down the old houses around the square before rebuilding them in a faux 18th century Qing Dynasty style to cater to domestic tourists. For now plans have apparently being stalled; yet the fate of the Drum and Bell Tower area remains uncertain.
HSBC Building on the Bund
The HSBC is one of the most famous of the gorgeous neo-classical buildings on the Bund. It's luxurious inside and out, but particularly known for gorgoues mosaics dating from 1923. Hidden under plaster and paint during the Cultural Revolution and rediscovered in 1997, they show the banking capitals of the world with landmarks of that time. It’s fun to note the cityscapes that have stayed the same and those that are virtually unrecognizable.
Indagare Tour: Tai chi Lesson with a Master
Enjoy a private lesson on the forested banks of West Lake with the current Master of Shen Gong, the oldest and most difficult form of Tai chi. Best practiced in the morning (when the Lake is quiet), our Master will teach the principles behind Tai chi and demonstrate the three main styles. He will then teach the technique to participants – don’t be surprised if you have an audience by the end!
Indagare Tour: Tea Fields and Villages
You can visit Longjing Village and the Dragon Well Tea Plantation. Tasting, sampling and trying tea is best done with a Mandarin-speaking guide, as the subject is fascinating and you will have a lot of questions for the growers and producers. If you are visiting the TCM, you can also have a tasting at the tiny tea shop right across from the entrance of the pharmacy, where you can sample such teas as oolong and ginseng, along with the region’s green tea (tip: the best time to buy green tea is in the spring, and Chinese never consume green tea in winter, as it is considered to have cooling properties.)
Indagare Tour: Traditional Chinese Medicine
Also part of the Old Town is the renowned Hu Qing Yu Tang Museum of Traditional Chinese Medicine, called TCM by most everyone, which is housed in a beautifully restored ancient building. Don’t miss the working pharmacy where Hangzhou locals still come to pick up herbal concoctions based on medical prescriptions in a soaring central hall complete with intricate architectural details. Afterwards visit a local medical clinic with a local doctor who can explain how Chinese medicine is practiced currently in China.
Indagare Tour: West Lake Boat with a Local Guide
A lot of the Hangzhou action centers around the lake, though be aware that this main attraction draws throngs of tourists. The best resorts, like the Amanfayun and Four Seasons West Lake can arrange boating when the lake’s shores are still relatively serene and you can watch older Hangzhou locals practice Tai Chi. Another option is to ride atop the Lake and its canalways with an expert local guide and learn about its history. Traditional wooden boats are rowed like gondolas and come with built in tables so picnics or canapés are encouraged. For romantic occasions a second boat with a Chinese harpist and guitarist can be hired.
Indagare Tours: Beijing’s Historic Hutongs
Visit an ancient quarter of Beijing, whose traditional alleyways known as hutong are being preserved. Your expert local guide will explain how traditional life and modern ways are merging as you witness two very different sides of the city. Explore an outdoor market and a bustling residential neighborhood on foot and then climb into pedicabs and travel along the lakeside to an affluent area, where you can see how China’s new wealthy have restored traditional courtyard homes. The tour ends with the opportunity to learn calligraphy.
Indagare Tours: Beijing’s Private Panda Visit
China is famous for its pandas and while Chengdu’s panda project is the most famous place to visit the black and white bears, we can arrange special access in Beijing at the zoo. Members can contact our Bookings Team to arrange for this special private tour.
Indagare Tours: Bike Tour in the Former French Concession
Indagare Tours: Caochangdi Art District
Beijing’s contemporary art scene can seem overwhelming with galleries and foundations spread out in district 798, suburban Songzhuang and Caochangdi, so it is advisable to hire a good guide who can steer you to the top places and make personal introductions to dealers. (Contact our Bookings Team for an art curator/guide.) Caochangdi has become the new cutting-edge art district. Among the top galleries in Caochangdi, which is definitely the more avant-garde art scene, are Chambers, F2 Gallery, Three Shadows Photography Center and the Taikang Art foundation.
The advantages of visiting 798 or Dashanzi is that there are more galleries and a better infrastructure (for instance, lots of restaurants, cafes and shops are interspersed with the galleries). The disadvantage: it feels a bit like Disneyland for artists (Dashanzi is now officially the third most popular tourist attraction after the Forbidden City). Members can contact our Bookings Team to arrange a guided visit.
Indagare Tours: Discovering Beijing through its Religion and Philosophy
This three-hour walking tour of central Beijing with an historian explores 4,000 years of Chinese thought, from Confucianism to modern Buddhist practice. Visit several important temples still active in central Beijing and learn how the three major religions of China—Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism—overlap and diverge through history. You will also walk through a traditional hutong neighborhood and discuss how religious practice fits into contemporary Chinese life since 1949. Although we'll discuss a history of ideas on this tour, it's a very tangible experience of Beijing and her neighborhoods.
Indagare Tours: Food Tour
Indagare Tours: Forbidden City
A mind-blowing experience. Even the entranceway seems to go on forever, as visitors pass through the magnificent gold-studded vermilion gates. It was meant to be an intimidating experience, of course, emphasizing to Chinese and foreign visitors alike that the emperors were all powerful. Merely walking through the courtyards from south to north, stopping to admire and inspect the temples, takes the better part of half a day. In fact, the Forbidden City is so vast, so overwhelming, that it is hard to take it all in. The 1987 movie The Last Emperor gave some idea of what the place was like on ceremonial occasions, when the emperors appeared in full regalia, with a retinue of soldiers, courtiers, eunuchs and advisors. The compound has buildings for every occasion and purpose—worship, concubine accommodation, formal meetings, kindergarten. Whatever the size of your own house, it will seem tiny after a visit to the Forbidden City. To put the history in context, it is advisable to hire an expert guide for a visit. Members can contact our Bookings Team to arrange a guided visit.
Indagare Tours: Great Wall
It truly is, as Richard Nixon famously (and rather fatuously) said, a great wall built by a great people. But not all parts of the walls are equal. Badaling, the most popular spot, is a shocking example of how to let a tourist gem be destroyed by over-commercialization, unnecessary building and sheer greed. Making a trek to the Wall at this spot can be hard work; at times it seems the entire population, together with a small army of hawkers, has gathered there. Opt instead for the slightly less crowded Mutianyu, which has a cable-car ride to the top, or even farther away, at Huanghuacheng. Many hotels offer a car and driver so you can find your own spot along the wall for a picnic—it’s expensive but worthwhile. If time prevents anything more than a quick trip to Badaling, be sure to walk as far along the Wall as possible, away from the crowds, to get a real flavor of its grandeur. The Wall itself was pretty useless as a deterrent—Genghis Khan and his marauding troops conquered it with ease. Tour operators often include the on-the-way Ming Tombs as part of the day out; they are a rather dull collection of imperial tombs and statues and can easily be dispensed with.
Tip: One of the most fascinating ways to visit the Wall is with one of Indagare’s preferred guide. We can arrange for day visits with special picnics, hikes with historians, even an overnight with the foremost authority on the Great Wall at his remote farmhouse with access to isolated sections of the Wall. Members can contact the Bookings Team to arrange for a guided visit.
Indagare Tours: Insider Shanghai
Unlike many other Asian destinations, where you can fudge your way with English and sign language, Shanghai remains one of the hold-outs of communication issues. Most people in the service industries do not speak English, and this includes wait staff and taxi drivers. Tenacious traveler who do a lot of research in advance and have print-outs of where they want to go and what they want to order etc can certainly get by. But it's much more relaxed to tour with a local guide who can translate and help with getting around, allowing you to make the most of your day. Shanghai is a sprawling, throbbing, busy place, so it helps to understand how to craft an itinerary, whether it's based around history, art, shopping, architecture, food or a combination thereof. Indagare members can contact our Bookings Team for help with trip planning, including customized recommendations and itineraries.
Indagare Tours: Vintage Motorcycle Tour
Jazz at the Fairmont Peace Hotel
Formerly the Cathay and Palace Hotel, this is one of those old-school Shanghai properties with a lot of history (it's where Noël Coward wrote Private Lives). The Communist government used to have the rooms bugged, and one former guest told me how he’d commented to his companion on his room’s foul-smelling carpet, only to return later to find it freshly deodorized.
Following a $60 million, plus three-year restoration, this is now the Fairmont Peace Hotel, and the bar has been restored to its 1930s glory, making a visit feel like time travel. Visitors can also sip cocktails and listen to the octogenarian Jazz band who have played together since the 1980s (two members were in Jimmy King’s legendary 1940s jazz ensemble). A charming way to kick off or end an evening.