Shenzhen: Most underrated city

Shenzhen: Most underrated city

This tour of Shenzhen will change your impression of the booming southern Chinese metropolis forever
Shenzhen pictures tour

Why on earth would you go to Shenzhen? Once you've bought some fake goods, got a massage and had a karaoke all-nighter, what else is left to do? Nothing, right?

Not exactly. Long derided as a sleazy border town, Shenzhen is quickly coming into its own with an unexpectedly seductive mix of arts venues, outdoor eating, beer gardens and tacky kitsch. It's close enough to Hong Kong for a quick daytrip but different enough to made you think you've traveled thousands of kilometers. And while Shenzhen's unique character is slowly being recognized by the rest of the world -- it was recently named a UNESCO City of Design, along with cultural beacons like Berlin, Buenos Aires and Montreal -- it's still well off the tourist circuit. So while all of your friends are off joining the crowds in Guilin and Beijing, you need only hop across the Hong Kong border to experience one of China's most interesting and underrated cities.

Here's where to get started. 

Shenzhen pictures tourIndustrious creativity

It can sometimes be hard to believe that the United Nations would declare Shenzhen to be a world design city, considering how visual chaos seems to be the norm here. But it starts to make sense when you visit OCT Loft, an old factory area turned art-and-design district, tucked away inside the posh, verdant enclave of Overseas Chinese Town. Artspace/bar Idutang is especially worth visiting, if not for its nightly performances by independent and avant-garde musicians, then for its peaceful outdoor terrace and large drink menu. Nearby, a design bookshop, a few commercial and non-profit galleries, more good bars and a few tasty restaurants round out the attractions. Every week, local designers, vintage collectors and zakka enthusiasts set up stalls in a weekend craft market. 

Metro: Qiaochengdong, exit A. Turn right on Enping Street and walk for five minutes

Shenzhen pictures tourA culinary introduction

Ease into Shenzhen comfortably with a visit to the city's newest and biggest mall, The MixC. Three metro stops or a 20-minute walk from the Lo Wu border crossing, you'll find all the trappings of any upscale mall in China: luxury brands, imported food, a skating rink, a big cinema. But the real reason for coming is to try the food at Jiang Nan Wei Dao, which serves excellent food from China's Jiangnan region at very reasonable prices. Try the braised pork belly (dong po rou) and the fried pork buns (sheng jiang bao). A big lunch for two shouldn't cost much more than 40 RMB per person.

Shop B05, Level B1, The MixC, 1881 Bao'an South Road. Telephone: +86 755 8269 0135 Metro: Dajuyuan station, exit C3

{C}Shenzhen pictures tourGorgeous views with Margaret Thatcher

No visit to Shenzhen would be complete without a taste of the kitsch that made it famous. (This is the home, after all, of Windows of the World and Minsk World, the former Soviet aircraft-carrier-turned-theme-park.) In this case, it's an observation deck dedicated to Hong Kong. RMB 60 will get you on the lift up to the Meridian View Centre on the top floor of Shun Hing Square, Shenzhen's tallest building, where you'll be greeted by a life-sized wax replica of the famous meeting between Deng Xiaoping and Margaret Thatcher that paved the way for Hong Kong's return to China. There's also a mural depicting the history of Hong Kong through old newspaper photographs and hilariously odd English captions, plus a few rooms full of animatronic creatures and a talking robot.

As for the view, it's fun to peer out at the vast, unruly expanse of the city, but what people come here to see is the improbable border between urban-jungle Shenzhen and the rural idyll of Hong Kong's New Territories. Join the domestic Chinese tourists with their noses pressed against the glass as they exclaim, "Wow, is that really Hong Kong?"

69/F, Shun Hing Square, corner Shennan East Road and Bao'an South Road. Metro: Dajuyuan station, exit D

Shenzhen pictures tourBeer, not dolphins, at SeaWorld

The name SeaWorld conjures images of playful dophins and jumping whales, but this corner of Shekou, a pleasant seaside suburb, offers entertainment of another sort. SeaWorld is a likable sprawl of beer gardens, nightclubs and restaurants set next to the dry-docked hulk of the Minghua, a former cruise ship that was once owned by the late French president Charles de Gaulle. Check out Lowenburg, a German-style brewpub on the top floor of the Minghua, which makes a good wheat beer and serviceable pilsner.

Bus number 230 runs from Shennan Avenue in central Shenzhen to SeaWorld

Shenzhen pictures tourHiking away the hangover

Hiking might not cure hangovers, but it's certainly a good way to atone for a night of debauchery typical of a visit to Shenzhen. Soaring 3,096 feet above Luohu District in the east of Shenzhen, Wu Tong Shan is a popular destination for Hong Kong hikers who've grown bored of Lantau Peak and the MacLehose Trail. The mountain is part of a large park that sprawls over 35 kilometres; there are several routes up to the peak, so consult the park's official website before going. It's a steep two-to-three hour hike to the top, but the views of Shenzhen and Hong Kong's New Territories are worth it.

Take bus number 211 from the corner of Dongmen Road and Shennan Avenue, near Laojie metro, to the terminus at the base of the mountain

Shenzhen pictures tourBBQ and beer

When middle class Shenzheners want to go out for a good time, they roll up their sleeves, head to the Xiangmihu Holiday Village and feast on BBQ and beer. More than a dozen different restaurants can be found in this odd entertainment zone, most of them dedicated to either hotpot or grilled dishes loaded with hot peppers and cumin. Cabin BBQ is a good bet -- it's owned by Barack Obama's half-brother, after all -- but Renjian Yanhuo Shaokao and BBQ King are even better.

Metro: Xiangmihu, exit B. Most of the outdoor restaurants are a 10 minute walk from the metro, past the village gate and a large parking lot

Shenzhen pictures tourOutdoor billiards

Baishizhou is right next door to Overseas Chinese Town, but in terms of class and atmosphere, they're worlds apart. Jam-packed, crowded and scruffy, Baishizhou is one of Shenzhen's largest and liveliest urban villages -- which are old country villages gone Blade Runner since the establishment of the Special Economic Zone -- and it's a great place for cheap food, even cheaper drinks and outdoor billiards. For just RMB 3 an hour, you can pick up a cue and play a few rounds of pool at one of the many streetside pool tables scattered around the village. If you're alone and eager to get the rust off your Mandarin, ask some of the regulars if you can join their game.

Metro: Shijiezhichuang, exit C1. Turn right on Huaxia Street and walk for five minutes until you reach the edge of Baishizhou 

Shenzhen pictures tourGlobalization with Chinese characteristics

Wal-Mart, the American big-box store everyone loves to hate, has undergone a metamorphosis on Chinese shores. Instead of mega-sized boxes of extra-salty, double-processed Cheetos, you'll find seasonal specialties and live terrapins. Lucky for you, Shenzhen has more Wal-Marts than any other city in China, and it's a one-stop place to stock up on Chinese goods that is hard to find in Hong Kong, like Sichuan peppercorns. The prepared food is surprisingly delicious, too: try the cart noodles, northern-style breads and Sichuan-style laziji.

B1/F, Kerry Center, Renmin Road South, Luohu. Metro: Guomao, exit A. For other locations, see Wal-Mart's website

{C}Shenzhen pictures tourHistory in a brand-new city

Believe it or not, there was life in Shenzhen before the Special Economic Zone. Before the free trade zone was established in 1979, the area encompassed by today's modern city was home to 300,000 people living on farms and in rural villages. In the Shenzhen Museum, you'll find a fun but thoroughly sanitized version of Shenzhen's history from prehistorical times to the present day, complete with mock streets and shops. But it's the ancient market town of Nantou, in the west of Shenzhen, where you'll experience first-hand the messy, spectacular collision of past and present.

Check out our Nantou photoessay for more details


Christopher DeWolf is a writer, photographer and self-styled flâneur.
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