The city’s famous waterfront, which housed powerful banks and luxury hotels before the 1949 Communist Revolution, is seeing a second life thanks to the 2010 World Expo.

During Shanghai’s first golden age in the late 19th and early 20th Century, the city thrummed with life, from the busy riverside wharves and docks to the dancehalls and theatres in the city’s centre. Until the 1949 Communist Revolution, the city’s famous Bund waterfront was known as the Wall Street of Asia and housed the headquarters of the world’s most powerful banks and shipping companies. Luxury hotels and clubhouses, such as the lavish Cathay Hotel and the opulent Shanghai Club, lined the western bank of the Huangpu River.

Today Shanghai is riding a second wave of success, spearheaded by China’s unstoppable economic rise, and the Bund, which has always been symbolic of the city’s rise and fall, is returning to its former glory. The grand old buildings — many of which had been turned over to state and municipal use after Mao Zedong formed the People's Republic of China — are buzzing with glamour once again. The old Cathay Hotel, which had been used as city government offices, recently reopened as the Fairmont Peace Hotel. The Shanghai Club, a British gentlemen’s club, reopened as a Waldorf Astoria.

But the Bund’s regeneration has taken a fair amount of time. Long-time resident Luise Schafer was one of the first foreigners to move to Shanghai after China re-established ties with the rest of the world in the late 1970s. She remembers the Bund’s imposing European-style architecture as “moribund, grey and lifeless. Hardly any buildings were being used at all,” Schafer said. “A few government departments had offices there, but many buildings were viewed as dumping grounds or state warehousing. The Peace Hotel was seemingly open for business but it seemed dead inside – no coffee shop, no life, no residents or visitors.”

The waterfront remained a dingy stretch of East Zhongshan Road until the Yan’an highway connected the Bund to the rest of the city in the early 1990s. Visited only by people who worked nearby and intrepid tourists determined to see the river, the scene was far from today’s busy thoroughfare. These were the days before Pudong – the neighbourhood on the opposite bank of the Huangpu River – developed as an economic zone; the skyscrapers that now illuminate the eastern shore of the Huangpu were yet to be built.

This period of lifelessness is a stark contrast to both Shanghai’s first golden age and the Bund’s modern reincarnation, which can be largely traced to the legacy of the 2010 World Expo. “The Expo committee decided to make a showcase of the Bund, expanding the waterfront and developing the northern reaches above the Garden Bridge,” said Peter Hibbard, chairman of the Royal Asiatic Society in Shanghai. Hibbard has studied the Bund’s history from its earliest days as a trading post in the 1800s through its modern redevelopment.

The Bund redevelopment project was awarded to Massachusetts-based firm Chan Krieger Sieniewicz, which also reworked the waterfronts in Detroit, Boston and Pittsburgh. The project included a widening of the river-facing promenade and a streamlining of the East Zhongshan thoroughfare. Today, the Bund is one of Shanghai’s tourism hot-spots, attracting millions of visitors every year. “The Bund is now one of the most opulent addresses in Shanghai,” Hibbard said. “Many of the historic banking and customs headquarters have been turned into hotels, designer boutiques and high-end restaurants and bars.” Indeed, some of the city’s most famous entertainment venues are located on the Bund, such as M on the Bund, Jean Georges, Bar Rouge and the Whampoa Club.

One of the most exciting aspects of the recent waterfront redevelopment is the Rockbund complex, more than one million square feet of mixed-use space covering six blocks opposite the Garden Bridge. Quickly developing into a luxury hub, Rockbund is home to an art gallery, a five-star hotel, office space and luxury apartments. Across the Suzhou Creek in the Hongkou District, the riverfront turns into the North Bund, which has been redeveloped as a transport hub centred on a passenger cruise terminal. The Hongkou segment of the Bund was known in the past for its international tenants, like the Broadway Mansions Hotel and Russian Consulate. It now attracts big-name hotel brands like the Hyatt, whose famous VUE bar has one of the best city views in Shanghai.

As part of the 2010 Expo redevelopment project, the area to the south of the Bund was also rejuvenated. Centred around Shiliupu Dock, the district was transformed from derelict warehouses to a vibrant new entertainment hub. At the centre is Cool Docks – a complex of cafés, bars and restaurants built around a central pond with a contemporary fountain.

One of the first boutique hotels to open in Shanghai was Waterhouse on the South Bund, containing 19 guestrooms plus a rooftop bar and Table No1, a restaurant helmed by Gordon Ramsay’s protégé Jason Atherton. Built from the remains of a Japanese military barracks dating from the 1930s, the Waterhouse was designed by famous Shanghai-based architecture firm Neri and Hu. According to founding partner Lyndon Neri, the South Bund provides a much-needed alternative to the grandiose environs of the old Bund. “The Waterhouse drew attention to the South Bund, and made people aware of this part of Shanghai,” Neri said. “It’s a truly historical district, and has its own character that’s distinct from the old Bund.”

Unlike the Bund of the late 19th and early 20th Century, which had a reputation for exclusivity, modern developments have made the historic waterfront more universally accessible, opening the area to a wider demographic and providing a natural centre to a modern city.