For the traveler accustomed to navigating through Europe and South America with a smattering of French, German, and Spanish, the language barrier in Shanghai—as in the rest of China—can be a humbling experience. However, if you are no more conversant in Mandarin than the average Shanghainese is in English, the staff at any of the following three hotels should be able to help you overcome any communication problems and make the most of your time in the city.
The Portman Ritz-Carlton, Shanghai
Conveniently situated on Nanjing Xi Lu road, one of the world’s busiest shopping strips, the hotel includes amenities such as squash and racquetball courts and a high-security elevator that President Bush rode in from the underground parking garage directly to his quarters on the 45th floor during his 2001 visit. An especially appealing feature of this hotel is the sheet of water that endlessly cascades over the facade of its lower floors, producing a relaxing white noise in the mezzanine-level bar. For guests who want to immerse themselves in the hurly-burly of Shanghai, general manager Mark DeCocinis might offer a spin through the city in his sidecar-equipped antique motorcycle. The Portman Ritz-Carlton, Shanghai, +86.21.6279.8888, www.ritz-carlton.com
For sheer nostalgia, no hotel can compare to this Bund landmark, which comprises two gray, institutional-looking buildings separated by a street. Both buildings were built by one of Shanghai’s most prominent citizens, the opium merchant and financier Victor Sassoon. The older, shorter structure first opened as the Palace Hotel in 1906. The newer, 12-story building opened as the Cathay Hotel in 1929 and was celebrated for its luxury, for its revels, and for hosting such distinguished guests as Charlie Chaplin, George Bernard Shaw, and Noël Coward, who completed the play Private Lives while residing at the hotel. Today, with its copper-sheathed, pyramidal roof, the hotel is the most widely known in China. The 380 rooms and suites all have been refurbished to convey a sense of Old Shanghai style. As in the 1920s and 1930s, jazz is a popular drawing card at the hotel; the current troupe of musicians, the Peace Hotel Old Jazz Band, has been playing in the bar since 1980. Peace Hotel, +86.21.6321.6888, www.shanghaipeacehotel.com
Grand Hyatt Shanghai
Best known for its altitude, Pudong’s signature hotel is as handsome as it is high, with an Art Deco theme accented by works of contemporary Chinese art. Of course, when you are at this elevation, you spend a lot of time looking out the windows, and the scenery is spectacular, especially the view of the Bund across the river. Looking up can be as awe-inspiring as looking out when you are seated in the hotel’s atrium, whose vaulting periphery is ribbed by walkways leading to 33 stories of suites and rooms. At the restaurant Canton, specialties include crystal shrimp, hairy crab, and a delicate tofu under exotic sauces. The Shanghainese staff members also urge visitors to try the Italian restaurant, where the Chinese-made noodles, they claim, surpass anything made in Italy. The hotel’s spa features a cascading overflow pool set in a two-story space on the 57th floor. Acrophobes can take comfort in the 88-story height of the Jim Mao Tower that houses the hotel; 88 is a lucky number according to Chinese lore. Grand Hyatt Shanghai, +86.21.5049.1234, www.shanghai.grand.hyatt.com