Shanghai's Best Boutique Hotels

In an about-face away from the luxury skyscraper hotels that crowd the city, hoteliers are opening hip, unique, designer accommodations for travelers

Vertically challenged, Shanghai certainly is not, and until recently, if you were looking for five-star accommodations, you could count on riding an elevator 40 or 50 floors before even getting to the hotel lobby. The JW Marriott may boast the world's highest library—on the 59th floor—and the view from the 88th floor of the Grand Hyatt is positively stunning, yet these colossal structures can be a bit intimidating, even if you don't suffer from vertigo.

Luckily, in the past few years, Shanghai has started to sprout a number of boutique hotels that offer more than the cookie-cutter luxury found at the major international chains. Most of them have fewer than 50 rooms and offer a more intimate and unique hotel experience, making them a destination in themselves, especially for weekenders visiting Shanghai. Here are five of the top choices.

The newly opened Jia Shanghai is undeniably the hippest boutique hotel in the city. Housed in a 1920s-era building just off fashionable Nanjing Road West, Jia has nothing more than a modest nameplate on the door, but word is spreading fast that it's the top choice among travelers looking for a unique experience. The brainchild of Singapore businesswoman Yenn Wong (who also opened the Philippe Starck-designed Jia Hong Kong), Jia Shanghai is a "designer-led" hotel with 55 rooms, ranging from a 35-square-meter studio for $285 to a 160-square-meter penthouse at $2,570 per night. All rooms include breakfast and all-day beverages. There's also free evening wine served in a lobby that contains art installations and an eclectic mix of bespoke furniture by award-winning interior designer Andre Fu of Hong Kong.

Returning to the Height of Decadence

Wong, who has won acclaim for her business savvy and style (and is still under 30) has an unerring eye for detail, from the porcelain tea cups in the rooms, to the funky Gio Ponti chairs and sofas by Antonio Citterio, to her choice of chefs. The Issimo restaurant, run by celebrity chef Salvatore Cuomo, has arguably the best thin-crust pizza outside Naples and an extensive wine selection that would satisfy the most discerning oenophile. Rooms also boast state-of-the-art sound systems with iPod docking stations, DVD home theaters, and Wi-Fi.

If you are looking to recapture the Shanghai of the 1930s when life in the "Paris of the East" reached the height of decadence, a couple of nights at the Mansion is de rigeur. This lovingly restored colonial French manor-style house was built by the city's most notorious gangster of the era. The lobby is an emporium of period furniture including a wind-up phonograph, art deco desks, and original photographs.

Dean Yin, chief executive officer of Boutique Hotels International, a private hotel consortium, has spared no expense in recreating the opulence and luxury of former times, though some of the rooms, with enormous beds and Jacuzzis, feel more Vegas than colonial China. Housed in the heart of the former French Concession, the Mansion has a superb top-floor dining room and terrace offering a terrific view of one of the few neighborhoods to be spared the wrecker's ball. Its 30 rooms range from $550 to $850 per night.

A Carbon-Neutral Hotel

For green-minded visitors to Shanghai, URBN Hotels boasts the country's first carbon-neutral hotel. Energy consumption by guests—including staff commutes and food and beverage delivery—are tracked to come up with a carbon footprint for each stay. The hotel then neutralizes the stay through the purchase of carbon credits. The hotel also builds with reclaimed hardwoods and old Shanghai bricks, and uses eco-friendly solutions including passive solar shades and water-based air conditioning, as well as lighting timers. URBN's rooms have a distinctly contemporary design with large windows, freestanding bathtubs in the bedroom, stone walls in the showers, and clean lines accentuating the use of natural wood and light.

Set behind a wall with a peaceful courtyard, just two blocks from Jin An Temple subway station in the Puxi district, URBN is the perfect retreat, set in the heart of the hurly-burly city. It also boasts an excellent new restaurant and lounge called Roomtwentyeight. Rooms start at $285, and a penthouse goes for $1,145.

Surprisingly few tourists who make the pilgrimage to Shanghai's trendy Xintiandi district realize that it houses a luxurious boutique hotel overlooking the park: 88 Xintiandi was originally built as serviced studios and apartments, which explains why the rooms are more commodious and better equipped than those in standard hotels. Built in 2003, the hotel feels at once modern and traditional, thanks to the use of antique art deco furniture and Chinese screens rescued from demolished buildings in the neighborhood.

Beds on elevated woven platforms and surrounded by gauze make these rooms among the most romantic in the city. With 41 rooms and 12 suites, it is the only boutique hotel in Shanghai with a 20-meter swimming pool. Don't miss the breakfast, which is included, and which most of the year can be eaten on the second-floor terrace overlooking pollarded plane trees lining the street and the man-made lake beyond. A studio costs $258 and an executive suite with two bedrooms goes for $688.

A Bavarian Villa

Undoubtedly the most fanciful design among Shanghai's boutique hotels is found in the Hengshan Moller Villa, which looks as if it might have been inspired by the mad Bavarian king, Ludwig. Its original owner was Eric Moller, a British shipping magnate and lover of horse racing. (There's a bronze statue of his favorite horse in the garden.) Moller had it built for his daughter during the 1920s to resemble an urban castle, complete with turrets and brickwork to mimic fortified walls. The communists took it over in 1949, but in 2001 it was refurbished and opened as a boutique hotel with 28 rooms and a lush garden.

The villa is at the northern boundary of the old French Concession, just off the Yan An expressway on Shan'xi road. Visitors can choose from Italian-, British-, French-, or Spanish-style rooms, and restaurants offering Chinese, Japanese, or French cuisine. Rooms range from $250 for a standard to $740 for an executive suite.

Hotel Web Sites:

Hengshan Moller Villa: www.mollervilla.comJia Shanghai: www.jiashanghai.comMansion: www.chinamansionhotel.comURBN Hotels: www.urbnhotels.comXintiandi:

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