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Shanghai (Courtesy of chungking/Shutterstock.com)

Sophisticated, cosmopolitan and dynamic, Shanghai is an awe-inspiring destination. China's largest city by population -- more than 23 million -- features an ever-changing skyline full of skyscrapers. As you stroll along the landmark Bund, it's difficult to imagine that 5,000 years ago this was little more than a tiny fishing village and textile town.

Shanghai, which means "city on the sea," grew because of its strategic position on the Huangpu River, a tributary of the mighty Yangtze River that flows into the East China Sea. With its advantageous port location and economic potential, the city opened to the outside world and foreign trade following the 1842 Treaty of Nanking, which marked the end of the first Opium War between the British and Chinese.

European, American and Russian traders moved in and built banks, embassies and offices, most notably characterized in the Bund, the sweeping waterfront mile that's lined with Gothic, Art Deco and other historic buildings. Today, the 19th-century architecture vies for attention with the sleek, space-age towers in Pudong, Shanghai's newest district on the opposite side of the Huangpu.

Shanghai's history tends to be eclipsed by its modern-day magnetism, but you don't need to scratch far beneath the surface of the designer shopping streets and glitzy malls to find some traditional treasures. Ancient pagodas, temples and gardens provide an oasis of calm in the 24/7 metropolis that makes up China's most contemporary city.

Photos: 12 Best China Experiences

--written by Jeannine Williamson


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