Thinking about heading to the Expo? You’ve probably heard by now that some of the lines are really, really long. If you want to make the most of your time and avoid the waits, here are ten pavilions you shouldn’t miss. (Sampled on a Wednesday afternoon and Sunday night.) For more Expo tips, click here.
1. Most Monumental In terms of sheer size and grandiosity, China can’t be beat. The building is stunning from any angle, though don’t get your hopes up if you want to go inside. Entry is by special invitation only, handed out to the first couple thousand visitors daily. I was advised to start queuing at 6am if I wanted to get a ticket. Admire it from the outside.
2. Best Overall The pavilions in Zone B, the Oceania & Southeast Asia area, should be one of your first stops. This zone has the best balance of short lines and quality exhibits, starting with New Zealand and Indonesia (15 minute wait max), both of which have outdoor performance areas as well. Even the biggest stars here have waits that aren’t too bad, including Australia (1 hour) and Singapore (2 hours).
3. Most Traditional Nepal’s replica of the Swyambhunath Stupa in the Kathmandu Valley is another accessible pavilion, adorned in fluttering prayer flags and with lines that don’t seem to exceed 15 minutes. The dynamic design recreates the clockwise circumambulations of pilgrims at the sacred site.
4. Best Shopping Nearly an entire continent is housed in the gigantic Africa Pavilion, which, in addition to having some good displays, has also cornered the market on souvenirs. You’ll find jewelery, statues, textiles and other handicrafts – all fairly priced – a refreshing change from what’s for sale in Shanghai’s stores. There are no lines here or at any of the other individual African pavilions.
5. Weirdest Displaying slogans like ‘Happy Street’, ‘Happy Money’, and ‘Cake’, the Netherlands takes the prize for what is the Expo’s strangest pavilion. The psychedelic Alice- in-Wonderland theme reaches its pinnacle when the theme music is played – it sounds like a cacophonic rendition of ‘My Country Tis of Thee’ played on a Celesta. Give them credit though – the dynamic layout means they’ve got the shortest lines (15 minutes max) in all of Europe.
6. Coolest In terms of overall concept and aesthetics, the spiny UK Seed Pavilion has got to be the best. Unfortunately, it has all the warmth of a gated community. For some inexplicable reason, the designers chose to surround the pavilion with an ugly grey wall, meaning that not only can you not get close enough to appreciate it, but you can’t even get an unobstructed photo. Unless, of course, you want to wait three hours in the queue.
7. Best Illumination Taiwan’s Lantern Pavilion comes into its own once night falls. Short videos and animations are projected onto a giant sphere that sits atop the pavilion, visible from all sides. For special effects, it’s the best. A close second here is the Spain Pavilion, whose woven rattan takes on an unusual texture in the soft evening light.
8. Best Drinks The Cuba Pavilion should probably be renamed the Havana Rum Corporate Sponsorship Pavilion, since that’s all that they’ve got inside. But at the end of a muggy Shanghai day, frozen daiquiris, cool mojitos and blaring salsa music can do no wrong. No lines.
9. Best Art When Denmark decided to send their beloved statue of the Little Mermaid to the Expo, they commissioned Beijing artist Ai Weiwei to create a replacement. Ai decided to install a camera in the Danish Pavilion which keeps the Mermaid under 24-hour surveillance and relays the video back to a screen where the mermaid once sat. A commentary on the blurred boundaries between real and virtual? Or on the the increasing presence of surveillance cameras in our daily lives?
10. Most Likely to Blast Off and Start Zapping All and Sundry with Laser Beams When it comes to architecture Shanghai loves sci-fi motifs, and the latest futuristic building is the Expo Cultural Center, a massive flying saucer that practically hovers above the Huangpu River. One of the most instantly recognizable Expo structures, if you want to see a performance here you’ll have to make a beeline for the ticket office first thing in the morning to reserve seats. Otherwise it’s open to visits, but expect a two-hour wait.