A week into Expo 2010’s [that is, the Shanghai World’s Fair’s] six month run I posted my ‘Simple Guide‘ to visiting the sprawling event that came down to one directive: go after dark. Much of that guide and advice was based upon visits during the construction phase, the soft opening, and two impromptu visits made during the sparsely attended first week. Since then, much has changed, both at the Expo (people are showing up, for example), and in my head (a dozen or so Expo visits, both as a member of the media, and as an unabashed Expo enthusiast, will do that).
So, on that basis, I’m going to offer a revised, updated Shanghai Scrap Guide to the Expo (though I continue to stand by most of my first wave advice). These recommendations are intended for people like me: people who have traveled a bit in their life, don’t find much novelty or exoticism in Western Europeans, and don’t have a desperate compulsion to spend six hours in line to see, say, what the Germans cooked up. Not that there’s anything wrong with Germans, or their take on national exhibition design. It’s just that, all things considered, I’m not six-hours interested, and neither are most of the people I know. In fact, if there’s one thing that I want to emphasize to my valued readers, it’s this: DON’T WAIT IN LINE FOR ANYTHING. There’s nothing – NOTHING – at Expo 2010 worth more than ten minutes of idling (with one notable exception – which I’ll get to). Now, don’t get me wrong: Expo 2010 is worth several days of your time. I’m just saying that, all things considered, those days are best spent seeing all of the things that don’t require you to stand in line. So let’s get down to business.
- Go to Expo at night. I realize that this is no longer original advice, but I feel obliged to repeat it. In my experience, the crowds begin to dissipate around 4:00. That’s not to say that the place empties out. But it does mean that some features requiring a wait before 4:00, open up to walk-ins around dinner-time. Sunday night is best, followed by – wait for it – Monday night.
- If you want to visit popular pavilions without waiting hours in line, visit them starting around 9:30 PM. By then, the crowds are down to the die-hards, the drunks (oh yes), and the lost. By then, much of Western Europe is walk-in, and the places that aren’t – France, Germany, and the UK – will let you in if you’re queuing by the time they close. Put differently: if you want to visit Germany, France, or the UK and wait only ten minutes, get in line at 9:50 PM. If you want to wait only five minutes, get in line at 9:55 PM. Then go home and laugh at all your friends who waited for three hours.
- If you must visit during the day, don’t arrive before 10:00 AM – unless you enjoy spending your time waiting in line behind provincial tour groups enjoying their first encounter with airport metal detectors and x-ray machines (and finding them utterly fascinating/amusing). Preferably, arrive after 11. You won’t have to wait at all.
- Expo 2010 and its media enablers have placed a disproportionate emphasis on visiting national pavilions as compared to recent Expo predecessors, most of which placed their emphases on innovative public spaces. This is a pity because, lost in all of the hyped up talk about this or that pavilion, media and visitors are missing the fact that Houtan Park, one of the very best parks in all of Asia (and certainly the best planned park in China) winds along the Pudong side of the Expo grounds. How good is Houtan Park? The American Society of Landscape Architects presented the Chinese designers with its 2010 Award of Excellence, explaining: “This is very powerful. It is done and anybody can go and see it. It’s full of the right messages of our profession. The scope is exquisite. The presentation is excellent.” Trust me: you’ve never seen Shanghai, or the Huangpu River, quite like this. You can literally hear the water lapping at the rocks. Best of all, there’s never anybody down there. It’s an urban oasis – an Expo oasis – and if you miss this, you’ve missed a lot (including the perfect manifestation of the much-mocked “better city, better life” theme to this Expo). Houtan Park runs the length of the grounds, but I suggest starting at the section behind the French pavilion. Skip the lines to that over-rated monstrosity, cross the street, and head toward the water. You’ll see what I mean. Shanghai Scrap’s highest recommendation.
- And since we’re on the topic of public spaces at Expo 2010 – why not wander over to the Mexican pavilion? There’s usually a line to go inside, but – and here’s the good news! – you don’t need to go inside to enjoy the Mexican pavilion. Instead, what you should really do is pack/buy yourself a picnic lunch and take it, a blanket, and a bottle of wine (from the nearby Chilean pavilion) onto the pavilion’s shaded, rooftop park, for a gentle hour or two of Grade A people watching. I really don’t know why more pavilions didn’t think like the Mexicans and provide spaces for people to relax and enjoy themselves. But whatever. Let’s tip a hat to the Mexicans for having the good sense to show some hospitality at an Expo where most countries turned up in order to show off.
- Go to Pudong and see the SAIC-GM pavilion (that’s the Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation – General Motors pavilion). There’s a roughly twenty-minute show, so you’ll likely have to wait a few minutes, but no worries – if you go in the evenings, your wait shouldn’t be more than thirty minutes. But – and you’re only going to hear this once from me – it’s worth your time to wait there for at least an hour. Why? Because the show is imaginative, terrific, surprising. And I’m not going to say much more than that, lest I spoil the surprise.
- Now, if you insist on visiting national pavilions, here are the ones that I suggest visiting if and only if you visit them at night and wait no more than ten minutes. I offer them in alphabetical order:
- Australia [lines aside, a great pavilion for kids]
- Canada [the second room is, easily, one of the great spaces at the Expo. Impressionistic, wonderful.]
- Iceland [it does one thing, and it does it very, very well – my favorite of the national pavilions. Interior photo, at the end of the list.]
- Latvia [the best ongoing live show at the Expo; also terrific for kids]
- Morocco. Easily the most beautiful space at an Expo where beauty really isn’t emphasized. A personal favorite to which I take all of my out-of-town visitors.
- Oman [one of the great public spaces at the Expo, and – due to the frankincense that burns constantly in that public space – the best smelling pavilion at the Expo. Will have more to say about it at a later date.]
- South Korea [but only to experience the public space and the drummers; not worth waiting to go inside]
- UK [Others have already offered rapturous praise for this masterpiece; my only complaint is the wait]
- Following upon the last bullet point, and a comment left in my first Expo guide, I recommend the following pavilions as particularly (small) kid friendly, but with the important caveat that the lines in front of some of them are not – during the day, at least – particularly kid friendly/attractive:
- Mexico (rooftop garden only)
- State Grid (Puxi Side)
- Sweden [slides and swings]
- Where to eat? At some point, somebody needs to write a comprehensive review guide for Expo restaurants. There’ve been a few, here and there, but until a publication is willing to bankroll the considerable sum necessary to eat well and frequently at the Expo, it’s going to be hit and miss. Me, I’ve eaten in more bad Expo restaurants than good ones, and I feel some obligation to point out that you’d best avoid the Chinese food street, and the restaurant housed at the Romanian pavilion (Romanian food, anyone?). Recommendations? I have one: the restaurant on the second floor of the Austrian pavilion. The atmosphere is marvelous; the food is well-prepared and delicious; the service is impeccable. I wouldn’t exactly call it cheap, but if you’re looking for something other than noodles, Papa John’s, or Burger King, then that’s the place.
And finally, to wrap this, a few of the recommended points from my first guide, that I feel are worth repeating for this one.
- When traveling between the Puxi and Pudong sides, don’t take the subway. Instead, take the ferry across the river; the views are super. [update: But beware of overloaded ferries – they are tragic accidents just waiting to happen.]
- Want to see a “4-D” film complete with shaking seats, wind, and rain? Don’t waste your time with the US pavilion’s sub-par 4-D film (one instance of shaking seats, one instance of wind, one instance of rain), and instead get yourself over to the Puxi side (again) and the flat-out awesome 4-D film in the Oil pavilion. Unlike the US pavilion, which seats its visitors on benches, the Oil Pavilion provides plush seats that offer a range of experiences, including the sensation of a — well, I don’t want to give too much away. Let’s just say that you’re going to experiences a whole lot more than a rain storm from your seat – and, unlike the US pavilion, you’ll experience it with 3-D glasses on. Awesome.
- Coffee. This is easy: go directly to the Colombia pavilion. They have a great little coffee shop there, with great Colombian coffee. [UPDATE: Stay away from Starbucks. They’re at the Expo, and they’ve jacked their prices. Expo profiteering should not be rewarded.]
- And cocktails. Trust me on this – you cannot go wrong with the small bar in the back of the Moldova pavilion. [UPDATE: Moldova’s bar is great; and so is the wine bar at the Chilean pavilion. Hit both.]
Go to Expo.