Secret Hotels of the Amalfi Coast
Maria Cinque makes a point of chatting with every one of her guests, if not at check-in (which her son Gianni sometimes handles), then at breakfast the next morning. She's particularly delighted to meet Americans, as she and her husband Antonio lived in the Bronx for nine years, returning to Italy in 1974 to run a family hotel five minutes' walk from the center of Positano--and to teach their children "what it means to be Italian," in Maria's words. Six of the 15 guestrooms are in the original 1777 Palazzo Bruno, including four upstairs rooms with 18th-century ceiling frescoes. Many regulars prefer ground-floor rooms 51 to 55, however, because they open directly onto the magnificent, long entrance terrace and enjoy postcard views of Positano framed by ivy trailing off the shady trellis. Rooms without sea views (they actually look out to a wall) cost $65 less--an option certainly worth considering, since all guests have access to the terrace. Each of the California's rooms is spacious, and seems even more so due to minimal furnishings. At sunset, small groups gather on the terrace to sip wine, plan the next day, and pinch themselves, realizing that they've got the same view as the chichi Le Sirenuse hotel down the street for one-third the price. Via Cristoforo Colombo 141, Positano, 011-39/089-875-382, hotelcaliforniapositano.com, doubles from $180 in low season and $190 in high season, including breakfast, closed mid-November to mid-March.
La Rosa dei Venti
Positano long ago traded its fishing village ambience for the role of chic jet-setter resort. But sleepy old Positano still exists, just around the headland. A five-minute walk on a narrow path carved into the cliff leads to the secluded beach at Fornillo, a quiet neighborhood in a steep valley. Halfway up Fornillo's sole, stair-stepped street lies La Rosa dei Venti. Each of the six rooms comes with a small terrace, decorated with flowers, that offers a view of the beach, mountains, turquoise waters dotted with anchored ships, and a medieval tower built as a lookout against Saracen pirates. Tramontana is the most elegant room, with a gold brocade bedspread, antique writing desk, a nonworking brick fireplace, patterned ceramic floor tiles, and floor-to-ceiling drapes. The two rooms that have kitchenettes, Libeccio and Scirocco, cost $25 more than a regular double. Rather than closing in winter like many area inns, the B&B just drops its prices by $65 from October through May (excluding Easter). Via Fornillo 40, Positano, 011-39/089-875-252, larosadeiventi.net, $130-$190.
Sometimes, a gem hides right in plain sight. The blandly named Hotel Residence is in the middle of town on the main drag. Less than 200 feet away are the beach in one direction and the cathedral, famous for its mosaic facades, in the other. Beyond the reception desk, which is wedged between a souvenir shop and an eyeglass kiosk, guests take an elevator up one floor and step into the foyer of an 18th-century patrician palazzo. The skylit, three-story atrium is centered on an elegant curved staircase. Inside the atrium and surrounding corridors are Victorian-style Italian ornaments: marble busts, gilded mirrors, illuminated manuscripts, antique dioramas, a papier-mache ballerina under a glass dome. The rooms themselves, however, tend to be tiny, with solid, slightly scuffed antique wooden furnishings offset by new upholstery and brocade bedcovers. A few have magnificent frescoed ceilings and balcony views of the beach, just across the road. Street noise is the trade-off for the view. Double sets of double-paned glass on sliding doors don't completely block out the sound, but the commotion outside generally subsides well before midnight. Rooms over the side street leading to the cathedral are quieter, while those on the opposite alley, with balconies on which guests can catch a little sun and glimpse a sliver of sea, are nearly silent. Corso delle Repubbliche Marinare 9, Amalfi, 011-39/089-871-183, residencehotel-amalfi.it, doubles $155-$165, closed late October to late April.
The Astarita sisters, Rita and Annamaria, turned a rambling apartment just a block past Sorrento's cathedral into a welcoming, six-room B&B with a personal touch. "This is our family palazzo," says Rita in her smoky rumble, as she joins her guests for a communal breakfast of croissants, cheese, fresh fruit, yogurt, cakes, and homemade marmalades. Family heirlooms mingle with Ikea-esque furnishings under high archways, and the fireplace is flanked by a courtesy tray of limoncello liqueur on one side and a computer with free Internet access on the other. Three rooms (Mitica, Mediterranea, and Moderna) have little balconies that hang over Sorrento's main drag. The other three (including Romantica, with a high-backed inlaid wooden bed; and Storta, a narrow, wedge-shaped room with stairs leading to the bed) overlook the greenhouse-like roof of the popular restaurant next door (La Favorita) and cliffs that glow golden at sunset. Corso Italia 67, Sorrento, 011-39/081-877-4906, casastarita.com, doubles $110-$120, closed December 1-March 31.
Locanda Costa Diva
Many Amalfi Coast visitors spend their time in the three most famous resort towns--Amalfi, Positano, and Ravello--with little thought of the less-heralded villages in between. Halfway from Positano to Amalfi, Praiano is a nondescript old fishing village with a small beach; it's secluded enough that few tourists hop off at its bus stop. Spilling down the hillside in a series of lush garden terraces and rural structures converted into secluded rooms, the Costa Diva was opened four years ago by the Milo brothers, Pino and Filippo. They named the rooms after film divas of the mid-20th century who vacationed or shot movies here, such as the Sophia (Loren) and the Marilyn (Monroe). The two non-movie-star rooms are Ester, in honor of the brothers' 96-year-old grandmother, and Rafaella, a little stone house with a balcony on the sea, at the end of a long path lined by oleander and daisies. Rafaella is named for their mother: "A bigger diva, you won't find," says Filippo with a grin. Pino, who tends the gardens, leads the way through the tangle of flagstone pathways and tiled terraces cutting though the foliage; he points out grape vines, prickly pears, red hibiscus, palms, rosemary, and pink roses, as well as the lemon, lime, orange, and fig trees. "I could have had a place in Amalfi--for much less money, too," he says. "But there's no tranquility there. I could only get guests who are passing through, not ones who will stay." He smiles. "Stay and then come back again." Via Roma 12, Praiano, 011-39/089-813-076, locandacostadiva.it, doubles $100-$140, open year-round.
The island of Capri, in the Tyrrhenian Sea, is a ritzy--and occasionally trashy--slice of la dolce vita. On the south side of Capri town, amid the hills and winding paths of Giardini di Augusto park, is Villa Krupp, clinging to the subdued grandeur of an era when Russian intellectuals such as Lenin and Gorky were lodgers (before the villa became a hotel). Owner Valentina Coppola hasn't raised prices much to keep up with the island's popularity, though she continues to fuss over the details, carefully selecting the local reproduction antiques and Florentine artisanal furnishings, positioning the breakfast terrace for optimal views, and counseling her guests on which are the best trattorias. Her 12 rooms are often booked by repeat guests who stay for a week or longer every summer. While the rooms have air-conditioning and telephones, you won't find TVs. "Our clients come for quiet," sniffs Signora Coppola, though she has relented and installed a TV in the lounge, just in case. It's rarely switched on. Most guests prefer to sit on their room balconies, gaze over umbrella pines to the famous faraglioni sea stacks, and listen to the chirping cicadas and the water splashing against rocks far below. Standard rooms are on the ground floor, with views of more trees than sea, and rent for $180. For $200, the primo piano rooms upstairs offer better views from colorfully tiled terraces and slightly fancier digs: elaborately painted furnishings, wooden bed frames sculpted with birds, and mirror frames finished with gold leaf. Viale Giacomo Matteotti 12, Capri, 011-39/081-837-0362, doubles $180-$200, closed November 1 to early April.
A teensy public bus departs from the Marina Grande docks--just outside Capri town--for a 20-minute drive to Anacapri, the island's other village, on the slopes of Monte Solaro. Ask the driver what lies beyond the village and he'll say, "Nothing." That's not entirely true. There's a cement pathway, with scurrying lizards and high walls that spill over with bougainvillea, as well as fig, olive, and oak branches. Follow the path for 10 minutes, past the wrought-iron gates of houses scattered across this back side of the island, and you arrive at the Girasole, a set of four buildings with killer views across brick terraces to the Bay of Naples far below. Rooms 16, 18, 19, 22, 23, and 24 have the best panoramas; the views from rooms 8 to 11 (under the pool deck) are partially blocked by flowering vines. Unless you're desperate to save the extra $15 to $20 per night, avoid rooms 3 to 5, which are under the reception hall and offer views only of the linen closet. All the numbered rooms are decorated with tasteful modular furnishings and padded headboards. The two named rooms (Aurum and Raggio di Luna) are larger, pricier suites that have been gussied up with reproduction antiques, stuccowork or painted motifs on the walls, and picture windows. Via Linciano 47, Anacapri, 011-39/081-837-2351, ilgirasole.com, doubles $90-$190, closed November 1 to early April.
The Villa Eva isn't just Eva Balestrieri's hotel. It's her childhood home; she was born in room 5. The room, which now welcomes guests, has a huge terrace, cupola ceiling, and walls covered in watercolors and chalk drawings. Eva's husband, Vincenzo, is the artist; he also made furniture throughout the property, and spent decades transforming the grounds into a carefully tended jungle. Stone paths twist past nooks and gazebos, and the outdoor pool and attached bungalow bar (with TV lounge and Internet stations). Cottages scattered about have been turned into guest rooms stuffed with idiosyncratic details: sculpted columns, Moorish windows, painted tile work, stained glass, old fireplaces, and Gaudi-esque chimneys. The main house consists mostly of oversized, multiroom suites designed for families or small groups of backpacking buddies. It's a warren, with many rooms accessible via outdoor staircases over the roofs of the rooms below, and lounge chairs on every available flat space. Villa Eva is halfway along the country road from Anacapri to the Blue Grotto. Take a taxi, or arrange for the hotel's shuttle to pick you up at the main Capri port or in Anacapri. If you really want to get there on your own, ask for specific directions when you make reservations or you'll never find the place. It's a 20-minute walk downhill from Anacapri--and a world away from the hobnobbing crowd in Capri town. Via La Fabbrica 8, Anacapri, 011-39/081-837-1549, villaeva.com, closed November 1 to mid-March, doubles $115-$145.
How to get around the Amalfi Coast and Capri
To go anywhere in this region, you have to pass through Naples--the only city in Italy where even Italians fear to drive. No matter how tempting it may be to rent a cherry-red convertible, tackling the Amalfi Coast by car is a mistake. Traffic is heinous (including jams at tight curves that require all stopped cars to back up in unison to allow the passage of a bus coming from the other direction), and parking is both exorbitantly expensive (upwards of $40 a day) and frustratingly limited.
Good thing there's an extensive public transportation system. At the Napoli Centrale station, catch the twice-hourly Circumvesuviana, a clattering old suburban rail line that'll take you to Sorrento (70 min., $4). From there, it's an easy transfer to a bus or a ferry.
Finding the Circumvesuviana, which runs under Napoli Centrale, is a bit tricky. Head toward the station's main exit, but just before you get there, look to the left for stairs leading down. Follow CIRCUMVESUVIANA signs; but partway along the hall, stop at the ticket windows you'll see on your left. Several commuter lines use the same platform; ask around to be sure the train is bound for Sorrento before stepping on board. Beware of pickpockets every step of the way.
To get to Capri from Sorrento, catch a taxi or a local bus to the docks for one of five daily ferries (20-50 min., $10) or 15 daily hydrofoils (20 min., $15).
To reach Amalfi, Praiano, or Positano, you'll need to head to the south side of the Sorrento Peninsula along the undulating Amalfi Coast Drive. This white-knuckle thrill ride is one of Italy's greatest wonders: just over 30 miles of narrow, S-curve roadway strung halfway up a cliff with the waves crashing below, green slopes all around, medieval pirate watchtowers on the headlands, and colorful villages in the coves. Every 50 minutes, a SITA bus (sitabus.it) runs from the front of the Sorrento train station to Positano (50 min., $2.25) or Amalfi (100 min., $4). For the best views, snag a window seat on the right side of the bus.
The ride back hugs the cliff, cutting out the views, so a fast Metrò del Mare ferry (metrodelmare.com) makes more sense--especially if you find you can't stomach another bus ride. Ferry frequency varies with the season, but there are roughly three daily between Amalfi and Positano (30 min., $8), three daily between Amalfi and Sorrento (1 hr., $9), and two daily between Amalfi and Naples (2-2.5 hrs., $13). For the latest information and schedules, call the tourist boards, below; websites are nonexistent or not very helpful.
- Amalfi 011-39/089-871-107
- Capri 011-39/081-837-5308
- Naples 011-39/081-402-394
- Positano 011-39/089-875-067
- Sorrento 011-39/089-807-4033
My Shanghai Is Better Than Yours: The Best Places to Play
Play One of my favorite things to do is wander. If you see an interesting alleyway (the older and smaller, the better), explore it; Shanghai is one of the safest big cities in the world. But go sooner rather than later. Old Shanghai, sadly, is disappearing at an alarming rate. I rarely wake up as early as most Shanghainese do; but on those odd occasions, usually thanks to jet lag, I people-watch at Fuxing Park, an old French park in Luwan. Tai chi, fishing, ballroom dancing--it's got it all. It also has a granite statue of Marx and Engels, and late at night it becomes a hot spot for those heading to the two dance clubs located inside the park. Nearby is a branch of the popular karaoke club Party World, also known as Cash Box. The Chinese love to sing, and karaoke is something that every visitor should experience (not to be confused with KTV, another type of singing establishment that has become synonymous with hookers). Party World is all private rooms that are booked in advance. If you prefer to have other people perform, go to the 76-year-old Shanghai Concert Hall, south of People's Square. Three years ago, the gorgeous hall was lifted--all 5,650 tons of it--and moved 77 yards, where it's now the centerpiece of a park. The jazz scene has enjoyed a renaissance of late, and the genre is easily the most reliable source of quality live music in the city. Some say JZ Club, in Xuhui, is Shanghai's best live music venue, period. I like the sexy laid-back feel of Number Five, in the basement of one of the neoclassical beauties on the Bund, Shanghai's majestic waterfront. For sports fans, the best game in town is soccer, even if the Chinese pro league is rife with scandal and corruption. Shanghai Shenhua matches, in Hongkou Stadium, can be electric. The season runs March to November, and tickets from the window or a scalper shouldn't cost more than $6. I'm not much of a museum person. I have, however, made a few trips to the Shanghai Urban Planning Center, inside People's Square. A scale model of what city planners envision Shanghai will look like in 2010, when the World Expo comes to town, takes up an entire level of the museum. I recently discovered the Shanghai Post Museum, which opened in January inside the impressive 1931 Shanghai District Post Office building, overlooking Suzhou Creek. The roof garden offers exceptional views of Shanghai's skyline. Further inland along Suzhou Creek sits 50 Moganshan Lu, a maze of converted warehouses and factories in Putuo District that now house the soul of Shanghai's contemporary art scene. It's easy to spend an afternoon at the dozens of galleries and artist studios. A similarly hip, though more commercial, vibe can be found at 210 Taikang Lu, an old neighborhood where many artists and designers have set up shop in renovated brick lane homes. Chinese hipsters take their laptops to Xinle Lu's Boonna Cafe . For colder beverages of the alcoholic variety, I suggest Cotton's, a bar and restaurant in a stately 1930s home that is said to have been the residence of Shanghai's first mayor. In warm weather, drink in the large tree-shaded garden. The city's most prominent places of worship are tied to Western religions, but if you have your heart set on visiting a Buddhist temple, Xuhui's Longhua Temple, Shanghai's largest and most active Buddhist center, will satisfy your needs. A seven-story wooden pagoda built more than 1,000 years ago is the signature structure. The Longhua Martyrs' Memorial, nearby, is an interesting slice of military history; it includes the original prisoners' barracks and tunnels. Now for another activity that should probably include a little prayer: riding a bike. Some folks believe you can't truly do the city until you've pedaled among the masses. I'm not one of those people. But if you are, Cycle China organizes group and individual tours. That, logically, brings me to my final tip. You can find great Chinese massages in Shanghai for around $5 per 45 minutes. Double Rainbow, where many of the professionally trained therapists happen to be blind, is reliable. Chinese massages can be intense, however, and afterward I often feel like . . . well, like I need a massage. So lately I've been splurging (about $25) for gentler hour-long oil massages. Dragonfly Therapeutic Retreat offers a tranquil setting for this heavenly experience. Stay away from the "massage parlors" with the pink lights and girls in knee-high boots. They're brothels. Capitalism is alive and well in Communist China. My first few years were pretty lean as far as live music goes. I like indie rock, while Shanghai preferred Filipino bar bands and "world-ranked" DJs. But a year ago, almost overnight, rock music arrived. Lately, two of the more reliable underground rock options have been Live Bar and Shuffle Bar. Live Bar, 20 minutes from downtown, is raw and divey. You can get a tall bottle of Tsingtao for less than $2, and you'll be sitting on plastic furniture (721 Kunming Lu, by Tongbei Lu, 011-86/21-2833-6764). Shuffle Bar has a slightly more refined warehouse feel. Prices are a little higher, but at least your feet don't stick to the floor (137 Xingfu Lu, by Fahuazhen Lu, 011-86/21-6283-2769, shufflebar.com). For current concert listings, visit Shanghaistreets.net or, of course, Shanghaiist.com. Fuxing Park 105 Yandang Lu, 011-86/21-5386-1069 Party World 109 Yandang Lu, inside Fuxing Park, 011-86/21-5306-3888 Shanghai Concert Hall 523 Yan'an Dong Lu, near Xizang Lu, 011-86/21-6386-2836 JZ Club 46 Fuxing Xi Lu, near Yongfu Lu, 011-86/21-6431-0269, jzclub.cn Number Five B1, 20 Guangdong Lu, near the Bund, 011-86/21-6329-4558 Hongkou Stadium Hongkou Stadium stop, on Line Three of the metro (three stops east of Shanghai Railway Station) Shanghai Urban Planning Center 100 Renmin Dadao, People's Square, 011-86/21-6318-4477 Shanghai Post Museum 250 Bei Suzhou Lu, near Sichuan Bei Lu, 011-86/21-6362-9898 50 Moganshan Lu 50 Moganshan Lu, near Aomen Lu 210 Taikang Lu 210 Taikang Lu, near Sinan Lu Boonna Cafe 88 Xinle Lu, near Fumin Lu, 011-86/21-5404-6676, boonnacafe.com Cotton's 132 Anting Lu, near Jianguo Xi Lu, 011-86/21-6433-7995 Longhua Temple 2853 Longhua Lu, 011-86/21-6456-6085 Cycle China 011-86/21-139-1707-1775, cyclechina.com, tours $19--$62 Double Rainbow 47 Yongjia Lu, near Shaanxi Nan Lu, 011-86/21-6473-4000 Dragonfly 206 Xinle Lu, near Fumin Lu (one of many locations), 011-86/21-5403-9982
My Shanghai Is Better Than Yours: Where to Shop
Shop In Shanghai, someone's always trying to sell you something. It can be maddening, particularly when the same guy tries to sell you the same Rolex at the same corner every single day. But when you really want to shop, this bazaar-like quality is a blessing--even if the best options rarely approach you on the street. Small, unassuming Tree, in Xuhui, for example, is the perfect place to order a custom-made leather shoulder bag (around $85) or a pair of cowboy boots (around $115) for a fraction of what you'd pay in the States. Designer Yan Feng will help you with a sketch, or you can choose one of the many items on the store walls. The owner designs many of the wares at Christine Tsui's Fashion Club, where handbags (from $30) and other accessories blend modern and ancient aesthetics. The shop is in northern Xuhui on Xinle Lu, a lovely lane lined with boutiques, some set away from the street and buffered by gardens. On the west end of Xinle is Sideways, the only head shop I'm aware of in the city. Always an entertaining visit. A couple streets north is Brocade Country, filled with hand-stitched tapestries (from $24) that Liu Xiao Lan hauls back from Miao villages in central China. Walk through a nearby parking lot to get to Spin, a sleek ceramics shop. The owner of Shintori, a Japanese restaurant, was spending too much on replacing broken china, so he hired designers and started making his own. Simple cups are less than $5, a nice alternative to the tea sets most tourists buy. Many of those tea sets will be purchased at Yu Yuan, the historic garden/megamall in Old City. Before buying anything there, check out Cang Bao Lou Market, the five-story building at the end of Old Street. It's the wholesale market that supplies a lot of Yu Yuan's shops. Bargain hard. That advice will serve you well at most markets. Try to pay no more than 30 percent of the initial price, and assume that nothing's authentic. If it's a name brand, it's fake; if it's "old," it was made two weeks ago and rubbed in dirt. At the Dongtai Lu Antique Market, near Old City, sift through the junk to find fun gifts. Across the street is the Xizang Lu Flower and Bird Market, which is what it sounds like (except the bird-flu scare has chased away most of the birds). In the fall, you might catch some cricket-fighting. Two of Shanghai's most popular markets are in flux. The Dongjiadu Lu Fabric Market has just moved 500 meters and will now be called the South Bund Fabric Market . The new air-conditioning is a plus, but the market has lost some of its character. It's still the spot for affordable made-to-measure clothes; just don't expect perfection. I once got a tuxedo there for $50. The famous Xiangyang Market (a.k.a. the "fake market") is slated to close June 30 to make way for an office, retail, and hotel complex. For old stuff that's actually old, head to Guo Chun Xiang's Curiosity Shop on Duolun Lu, a pleasant walking street in Hongkou. Guo has a spectacular U-shaped showroom packed with relics from the first half of the 20th century. Art Deco, in the fabulous Moganshan Lu art district, also offers a glimpse into the city's roaring pre-Communism years. Husband and wife team Ding Yi and Wang Yiwu have assembled a grand collection of furniture from the 1920s, '30s, and '40s. For a little fun, try Nantai Costume Company, five minutes west of the Bund. Nantai outfits many of the local opera troupes and has the ambience of a factory store. Shelves are stacked with everything from tasseled platform slippers to stringy beards. Say hello to Chun Ge, the store's pet mynah bird--he'll say ni hao back. The kid in you will enjoy POP Shanghai, a quirky housewares store in the Bridge 8 complex in Luwan. I can't get enough of the retro tin wind-up robots (from $5). Finally, there's the Shanghai Xin Mai Peng Electronics Market. Known to some as the Gray Market, it's dark and a little dirty. There are lots of electronics, but I've seen everything from swords to baseball bats. A couple of shops sell iPods: Best not to ask where they came from or, as a friend discovered, expect them to work very well. A little pink book called inSHop ($4) provides brief introductions to 50 cool boutiques and studios, as well as interviews with 20 up-and-coming designers. The text is in English and Chinese, perfect for showing taxi drivers during communication breakdowns. Everything is organized by neighborhood, with maps. Zheng Ye, one of the book's editors, says they plan to release a new edition each year. In a city changing as rapidly as Shanghai, that's a necessity; sections of the 2005 edition are already out of date, thanks to good ol' Mr. Wrecking Ball. InSHop is available at two of my favorite bookstores, Garden Books (325 Changle Lu, near Shaanxi Nan Lu, 011-86/21-5404-8729) and Shanghai Foreign Language Bookstore (390 Fuzhou Lu, near Fujian Zhong Lu, 011-86/21-6322-3200). Tree 126 Wulumuqi Nan Lu, near Yongjia Lu, 011-86/21-6467-1758 Christine Tsui's Fashion Club 24 Xinle Lu, near Shaanxi Lu, 011-86/21-5403-3156 Sideways 144 Xinle Lu, near Fumin Lu, 011-86/21-5404-5350 Brocade Country 616 Julu Lu, 011-86/21-6279-2677 Spin 758 Julu Lu, Building 3, 1st Fl., 011-86/21-6279-2545 Cang Bao Lou Market 457 Fangbang Zhong Lu, near Henan Nan Lu Dongtai Lu Antique Market Dongtai Lu and Liuhekou Lu, near Xizang Lu Xizang Lu Flower and Bird Market Xizang Lu, near Liuhekou Lu South Bund Fabric Market 399 Lujiabang Lu Guo Chun Xiang's Curiosity Shop 179-181 Duolun Lu, near Sichuan Bei Lu, 011-86/21-5696-3948 Art Deco 50 Moganshan Lu, Building 7, 1st Fl., 011-86/21-6277-8927 Nantai Costume Company 181 Henan Zhong Lu, near Fuzhou Lu, 011-86/21-6323-8344 POP Shanghai Bridge 8 Complex, 8 Jianguo Zhong Lu, Block 5, Room 5018, 011-86/21-5466-5108 Shanghai Xin Mai Peng Electronics Market 638 Qiujiang Lu, 91 Baoshan Lu, and 723 Qiujiang Lu
My Shanghai Is Better Than Yours
I arrived in Shanghai by accident, really. I had a decent gig at a small newspaper outside Atlanta--they paid me to try a new activity each week (bull riding, skydiving, nude water volleyball . . . ) and write about my experiences. Not bad. Of course, I also had to cover high school tennis, but there are always tradeoffs in life. Nearly four years into my Georgia stay, with another high school sports season on the horizon, I suddenly decided I needed to make a change. I didn't know what, and I didn't know where. I just knew I wanted something . . . different. An e-mail here, a contact there, and faster than you can say "career suicide," I had signed a one-year contract to teach English at a place called Shanghai University. Different, indeed. Four years later, my teaching days far behind me, I'm still in Shanghai. And I have no plans to leave. Western journalists have taken to calling Shanghai "the most exciting city on Earth," and while I generally think anyone who writes such hyperbolic swill should be fired on the spot, it's true that Shanghai is certainly never boring. The city is constantly changing, always reinventing itself. The relentless pace of the place is addictive. I have fallen in love with Shanghai (and no, that's not hyperbole). I had a personal website before I moved to Shanghai, so I kept it going once I got here. Hard to believe now, but back in 2002, there was a dearth online of English-language information about the city. My blog, Shanghaidiaries.com, quickly attracted a dedicated readership. Last summer, I launched Shanghaiist.com, a blog that has since become one of the most popular English-language websites about Shanghai. It's kind of funny: Four years ago I was the guy asking all the questions, and now I'm the one other people look to for answers. I receive e-mail after e-mail from people the world over wanting to know about Shanghai, Shanghai, Shanghai. I respond to most of them, too. Think of the following 3,000 words as a giant mass e-mail about the city that I happily call home. Eat You probably aren't visiting Shanghai for its hamburgers--which are getting a lot better, by the way--so I'm focusing on Chinese restaurants. Whittling my list down was no easy task; Shanghai is a great city for anyone who loves to eat. Shanghainese cuisine gets a bad rap: too oily, some say, or too sweet. But when prepared correctly, it can be delicious. (You'll hear that word a lot: It's one of the first English words students here learn.) On a small, dark street in Luwan District, Chun ("Spring" in Chinese) serves the best home-style Shanghainese food in town. Reservations are essential, as Chun has just four tables. Simply ask the owner what she recommends. If you don't speak Chinese, have your hotel concierge write "please feed us well" on a piece of paper. You'll be taken care of. There are a dozen more tables and an English menu at Jesse in Xuhui District, but you still need reservations. The braised pork is, well, delicious. If you're out late, hope for a seat at Jing'an District's Bao Luo, a cavernous joint that stays open until 6 a.m. and often has lines out the door. I like the sauteed tofu and crabmeat. Ye Olde Station Restaurant, in the heart of Xujiahui, is a little more upscale. Despite its name and the old train cars that double as dining rooms, it was never an old station. It was a French monastery, founded in 1921. (The equally regal St. Ignatius Cathedral is across the street.) Savor the tender Mandarin fish--a steamed river fish that the server will debone--then explore the grand building, which is the epitome of Old Shanghai. You must try xiaolongbao, often called "soup dumplings." While the steamed delicacies--thin pastry skins filled with meat and scaldingly hot soup (be careful!)--can be found on many a corner, ordering them in English will get you nowhere. The easy solution is tourist-friendly Nanxiang Mantou Dian, in the kitsch capital of Old City, Yu Yuan. Nanxiang is famous, and recognizable by the long take-out line (pay more to get a seat upstairs). Gourmands grumble about a decline in quality at Nanxiang, preferring the Taiwanese chain Din Tai Fung in Luwan's Xintiandi development, despite a sterile atmosphere and higher prices. The xiaolongbao's fried cousin is shengjian mantou, which is worth the wait at Yang's Fry-Dumpling . While we're on the subject of dumplings, I could live on jiaozi, minced meat and/or veggies in ravioli-esque skins. They're boiled, steamed, or fried and served with an addictive soy-vinegar sauce. Da Qing Hua is a chain--I go to the one in Jing'an--but it has a wonderful selection of jiaozi and other hearty specialties from the northeast. Don't miss the bizarre "penis shrine" in the men's room. Spice things up even more at Shu Di La Zi Yu Guan, a multistory Sichuan joint in northern Xuhui that specializes in la zi yu, a vat of tongue-numbing, flaky fish drowned in an oily broth and red chili peppers. (The huge bullfrogs you see in tanks just inside the entrance? They cook up quite nicely.) Slightly more sophisticated, Guyi, a Hunan restaurant in Jing'an, can make you breathe fire. I've enjoyed everything I've had there, especially the pork ribs with cumin. Personally, I had always identified with that line from Lost in Translation: "What kind of restaurant makes you cook your own food?" Oddly named Dolar Shop, however, recently converted me to hot pot. You sit before an individual pot bubbling with broth. Toss in meats and vegetables, wait a couple minutes, and enjoy. Nice view, too. Speaking of fun, Afanti serves Xinjiang food, which is more Middle East than Far East, in a raucous atmosphere well worth the 25-minute cab ride to Hongkou District. Stuff yourself with roast mutton and Xinjiang Black Beer, and enjoy the belly dancers. I've been to Xinjiang, in the west, and Afanti rings true, down to the clientele. After Afanti, a time-out from meat will be in order. My fiancee, a vegetarian, thinks Vegetarian Lifestyle is the best place in town. Drinks include a variety of juices and teas, but no alcohol, and it's one of the only nonsmoking establishments in China. Dim sum is a breakfast and lunch tradition here, so get to Xintiandi's Crystal Jade early. I'm a big fan of the Sichuan dan dan noodles--so what if they're not technically dim sum--in peanut broth. In Xuhui, Taiwanese restaurant Charmant (I don't understand the name, either) has an equally expansive menu, with creative desserts. Just don't try to drink the "smoothies"; you need a spoon. The restaurant I go to most often is Xing Xing, in the old Jing'an lane area I call home. Everything is fresh, and I love the huntun soup (akin to wonton soup, but a whole lot better). Poke around the Hua Ye Xiao Qu neighborhood: If you see a tall white guy walking a cute dog, say hello. Assuming you won't want Chinese food for every meal, let me suggest a hip new place, serving Western fare, that may not have found its way into your guidebook. A Future Perfect, in the beautifully renovated first floor of an old Shanghai lane house, is a cozy--verging on cramped--cafe, restaurant, and bar that serves up equal parts style and substance. Five of us ate there recently--appetizers, entrees, desserts, and drinks--and the bill was $120 (No. 16, Lane 351 Huashan Lu, near Changshu Lu, 011-86/21-6248-8020). A Future Perfect also boasts one of the nicest outdoor dining areas in Shanghai. The restaurant shares the 1930s brick house with the Old House Inn, one of the city's only boutique hotels. The 12 charmingly decorated rooms range in price from $65 to $130 (011-86/21-6248-6118, oldhouse.cn). Chun 124 Jinxian Lu, near Maoming Lu, 011-86/21-6256-0301, $15 (prices listed are for two) Jesse 41 Tianping Lu, near Huaihai Zhong Lu, 011-86/21-6282-9260, $30 Bao Luo 271 Fumin Lu, near Changle Lu, 011-86/21-5403-7239, $18 Ye Olde Station 201 Caoxi Bei Lu, 011-86/21-6427-2233, $40 Nanxiang Mantou Dian Inside Yu Yuan, 5 Yu Yuan Lu, 011-86/21-6355-4206, $2-$30 Din Tai Fung Xingye Lu, near Madang Lu, South Block Xintiandi, Lane 123, House 6-7, 2nd Fl., 011-86/21-6385-8378, $35 Yang's Fry-Dumpling Wujiang Lu, south of Shimen Yi Lu metro station, $2 Da Qing Hua 466 Changde Lu, by Xinzha Lu, 011-86/21-6289-9999, $16 Shu Di La Zi Yu Guan 187 Anfu Lu, near Wulumuqi Zhong Lu, 011-86/21-5403-7684, $12 Guyi 89 Fumin Lu, 011-86/21-6249-5628, $20 Dolar Shop 1728 Nanjing Xi Lu, Bailemen Hotel, floors 20-21, 011-86/21-6249-7188, $20 Afanti Tianshan Hotel, 775 Quyang Lu, 011-86/21-6555-9604, $12 Vegetarian Lifestyle 258 Fengxian Lu, near Jiangning Lu, 011-86/21-6215-7566, $15 Crystal Jade Xingye Lu, near Madang Lu, South Block Xintiandi, Lane 123, House 6-7, 2nd Fl., 011-86/21-6385-8752, $25 Charmant 1414 Huaihai Zhong Lu, near Fuxing Xi Lu, 011-86/21-6431-8107, $15 Xing Xing Shaanxi Bei Lu, Lane 193, No. 60, near Nanjing Xi Lu, 011-86/21-6272-5821, $3
Next time you're at a museum, don't assume that the guy listening to an iPod is too into his music to enjoy Monet. Podcast tours are available for a growing number of museums, from the Kansas Museum of History in Topeka to Paris's Musee d'Orsay. Tours tend to avoid the stuffy "enter here and notice . . ." lecture format so frequently heard on rented headsets. Instead, the new audio guides are big on discussions with artists, casual conversations with critics and academics, and sometimes even the irreverent comments of amateurs. And for now at least, most are free. Downloadable tours sanctioned by museums are available on websites of institutions like New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art, St. Louis's Contemporary Art Museum, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. A recent "artcast" about the latter's exhibit, "1906 Earthquake: A Disaster in Pictures," included the first winning entry from the museum's ongoing podcast competition--in which the catastrophe is re-created with narration, music, and sound effects. (SFMOMA even knocks $2 off admission if you show you've downloaded one of its podcasts.) Minneapolis's innovative Walker Art Center has iPod docks in the lobby so you can download tours on the spot. Perhaps even more interesting are unauthorized audio tours. In Slate's guide to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan (slate.com/id/2123266), which includes a printable PDF map of the tour, you can listen to art critic Lee Siegel seethe over "Therese Dreaming," a 1938 Balthus painting. "I think Balthus is one of the most overrated painters in this museum," he says. "Please pass into the next room." Like his TV shows and guidebooks, Rick Steves's podcast tours of Paris's Musee d'Orsay and Louvre are informative, with a dose of cornball humor (ricksteves.com). BBC host Paul Rose leads wacky, 25-minute tours in six U.K museums in his "Take One Museum" series (bbc.co.uk). Because these podcasts are so new and topics change frequently, a comprehensive list of where they're offered is hard to come by. MuseumPods.com welcomes museums to submit audio tours; at last check, there were 22. A search for "museum podcast" at iTunes returned more than 30 tours. For those who don't own an iPod, some museums, including the Walker Art Center and the San Jose Museum of Art, offer cell-phone tours. Dial the numbers listed in museum handouts or on plaques near sculptures and paintings to listen to artists and curators discussing the works at hand. Like podcasts, cell-phone tours are free for the time being, but the minutes are on you if you go over your monthly allotment. iPod tour help desk Getting audio files onto your iPod can be complicated. If you're downloading MP3 files directly from a website, rather than from an aggregator service like iTunes, you might have to save the files to a folder on your desktop. If you have a Mac, click on the files and they should move to your iTunes and start playing. If they don't, or if you have a PC, drag them in yourself. You can also download podcasts automatically through iTunes: Go to the "Subscribe to Podcast" option, and then manually paste the feed (links ending in .xml) into the box that pops up.