Shanghai is a fast-paced, modern metropolis. Its huge skyscrapers shape one of the most beautiful skylines I’ve seen so far, particularly impressive night time. Each and every district is to be discovered, with their peculiarities and local aspects, jealously kept and proudly celebrated by locals despite globalisation. Between modernity and tradition, here are some of the best things to do in Shanghai.
- Shanghai’s laid-back vibe
- Before starting your Shanghai sightseeing, a bit of history
- The best things to do in Shanghai
- Where to stay, best hotels in Shanghai
- Best time to visit Shanghai
- Fantastic day trips from Shanghai
Shanghai’s laid-back vibe
I’ve always noticed in Shanghai a sort of resilience of the population, an attitude that seemed like ignoring the fact that the city is one of the most modern in the world, and seemingly with no intention to slow down the pace. In many neighbourhoods life continues as it probably was in “pre-skyscrapers” times, a sort of village-like atmosphere.
Chinese people are very easygoing, they are not worried about etiquette or appearing polite. They spit on the street whenever they like without worrying if someone is passing by, they shout at each other as if they were in open countryside, and bikes fly around careless of cars, pedestrians and even less of traffic lights.
Most people’s attitude is clearly in striking contrast with the look of the city, sometimes I had the impression people are struggling to catch up with modernity. There are millions of citizens coming from the other provinces and very likely the countryside, so obviously they are not used to living in such a shine, but it’s not all.
I talked to a friend of mine, in his late 30s, proper Shanghainese, who told me that only fifteen years ago the city looked nowhere like today. Many areas, especially Pudong, were near to nonexistent. He definitely tickled my curiosity so I bought a book titled “The Legend of Shanghai” written by Suwen Luo, a fellow researcher at the Institute of History of Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, and started comparing the city I had before my eyes with the one described in her essay.
Before starting your Shanghai sightseeing, a bit of history
The city sits on the alluvial plain of the Yangtze River Delta, an area that dates back to 25,000 years. According to the historical research, Suwen Luo carried out, four to six thousand years ago, the ancestors of Shanghai’s natives planted rice where now lies Qingpu district, in Western Shanghai, near the lovely water town of Zhujiajiao (朱家角).
It was during the late Ming dynasty (1368-1644) and the following Qing dynasty (1644-1912) that Shanghai Port became the bigger trade centre of the Lower Yangtze River region.
In ancient times, Gusu City (today the famous water town Suzhou, 苏州) was considered paradise on earth and much more popular than Shanghai which, at the time, was a colorless town known only for being located “beside paradise” and for its strategic trading position near the sea, without even city walls, quickly built in 1553 due to the repeated raids of Chinese and Japanese pirates.
Shanghai was completely shadowed by Suzhou to the extent that it was even known as the “Little Suzhou”. Little did they know that in the not-so-distant future Suzhou would have been a water town in Shanghai’s territory.
Despite being on the sea, so naturally prone to an international destiny, Shanghai tended to focus its trades towards Suzhou and Hangzhou (杭州), a beautiful city near the West Lake.
The area of the East Asian sea was an important channel of communication between Asia and Europe, this is why Shanghai played a great role in the heyday of the trade along the Silk Road. Paradoxically, who first understood the potential of Shanghai was English businessman Huyh Hamilton Lindsay, who was working for East India Company during the British occupation of India.
In June 1840 British forces invaded the Guandong sea space causing the outbreak of the First Opium War. After having conquered some of the Chinese strongholds, the British looked at Zhengjian on the Yangtze River.
They broke into Shanghai on the 19th of June 1842 via the Huangpu River and occupied the city since the local government surrendered. After the British bombed Zhenjiang area, in August, the Qing government signed the Treaty of Jiangning with English officers, selecting Shanghai as one of the five ports aimed at the foreign trade.
The European presence in Shanghai
In December 1842 George Balfour was nominated the first British Consul of Shanghai, and the destiny of the city was going to be shaped indelibly.
Today trendy restaurants and lovely local shops are lined up along Bund, beautiful boulevard on the banks of the river between Suzhou Creek and East Yan’an Road (Yan’an Dong Lu, 延安东路), but in the 1840s here was set up the base for foreign ships, and also the first buildings of the British Settlement.
Between 1845 and 1860, Shanghai counted three foreign settlements, the British, the French and the American, all laid out around the Bund, the reference of the respective communities. Due to the revolts in 1853, thousands of Chinese refugees poured in the British Settlement and started living side by side with foreigners.
By 1858, Shanghai was one of the most important ports in Far East Asia, connecting the city to Hong Kong, Calcutta, Europe and New York.
What today is known as the Bund, one of the favourite Shanghai tourist attractions to enjoy the beautiful lighting of Pudong district, in 1848 was the major riverside road of the British Settlement. In 1862 it was named Yangtze Road, after the river, and was much wider than the other roads of the settlement.
The Bund was Shanghai’s financial district and public garden both in late Qing dynasty and the beginning of the Republic of China, the pulse from where future urbanization started from, a westernized area, where even a “European War Memorial”, probably slightly out of context, was erected in 1922.
Right after Shanghai was opened to international trade and to the foreign world, locals were a little less enthusiastic about the relocation of so many Europeans in Chinese sole, to the extent that foreigners were commonly called yi (夷), “barbarians”, the settlements yichang (夷场), “barbarians’ ground”, and their houses yiwu (夷屋), “barbarians’ house”.
Little by little, around mid-1870s, the derogatory yichang was replaced by yangchang (洋场), “foreign ground”, and locals themselves started spending some of their leisure time in the settlements.
Despite being in Chinese sole, Europeans didn’t miss the chance to show their disrespect: when they started building parks, one of the regulations stated carelessly “Chinese are not admitted except in the case of native servants accompanying their white employers.”
It was after these regulations that Shanghai Municipal Council carried out a plan to separate foreigners and locals, especially because foreigners were worried that if Chinese were allowed in, “their parks” would have been too crowded and, absolutely shameful, some snobbish families feared that their children would communicate with locals and catch some not better-specified disease.
The words “Chinese are not admitted into the park” were written in Chinese on a wooden board in front of the gate. An account of such humiliation comes from scholar Chen Daisun (陈岱孙), on summer 1918: “When I was about to enter the park, I suddenly saw a white board with black characters on the front side of the lawn. There were several large Chinese characters on the board reading “No Chinese or Dogs allowed”. I was not prepared to face such humiliation. The anger was burning my heart, and it was a deep shock for a young man to face the wound and humiliation that our nation was under suffering.”
In 1928, sixteen years after the creation of the Republic of China, finally Chinese people managed to reach an agreement with the foreigners in Shanghai and parks and gardens were open to everybody.
Despite such ongoing injustice, Chinese people have managed to retain the good aspects foreigners had brought, and Shanghai was on its way to becoming the Pearl of the East.
In the 1860s, when Chinese and foreign residents were getting used to living side by side, some pioneer tried to reduce the cultural barriers and promote communication and collaboration between the ethnic groups. Churches, schools, education institutes were all involved in this plan, and Chinese and Western systems started cooperating, making Shanghai become the evidence that multicultural creativity produces wonderful results.
The best things to do in Shanghai
Yu Yuan and the Old Town
These gardens are usually known among expats as “Yu Yuan Garden”. The denomination is actually incorrect because the Chinese word yuan (园) already means “garden”, so it would be more appropriate to say either “Yu Garden” or “Yu Yuan” (豫园).
Located in the heart of the Old City, 16th-century Yu Yuan is a perfect example of Chinese gardening style, with large use of stones in their natural shape, as Nature’s gift to men.
Not far from the Bund, Yu Yuan is the only garden left in Shanghai from the Ming Dynasty. It’s absolutely beautiful and makes it for a lovely day out in Shanghai.
Wandering the alleys of Yu Yuan, you can do some shopping, enjoy the traditional Chinese architecture, the bridges, and have some delicious Chinese food. I loved the dumplings there, they make them in many different versions.
How to get to Yu Yuan Garden: The closest metro station is Yu Yuan (豫园站) on line 10, Exit 1.
Opening hours of Yu Yuan Garden: 8.30 am-4.45 pm.
Entrance fee to Yu Yuan Garden: 30 CNY July 1st-August 31st and December 1st-March 31st; 40 CNY April 1st-June 30th and September 1st-November 30th. Free for children younger than 6.
Located in the central People’s Square, Shanghai Museum enters the list of top things to do in Shanghai with full rights.
The four floors of this top-notch museum in Shanghai will take you on a journey to discover the rich and fascinating Chinese culture, the diversity of their ethnic groups, their long history, and charming art, handicraft, and calligraphy.
Address of Shanghai Museum: People’s Square.
Opening hours of Shanghai Museum: Daily 9 am-5 pm (last entry at 4 pm); closed on Monday, unless it’s a public holiday.
Entrance fee to Shanghai Museum: Free, but you will still need to get a ticket issued.
⇒ Shanghai boasts a huge choice of museums, from the Tobacco to the Natural Insect, from the Postal Museum to the China Maritime one. Check here for a more comprehensive list.
Jade Buddha Temple
Jade Buddha Temple, (Yu Fo Si, 玉佛寺), is a traditional haven in Putuo western district. A pretty popular Buddhist temple, here monks and faithful praying are not a rare sight.
Today’s temple was built in 1928 after the old temple housing the two jade Buddha statues brought to Shanghai in 1882 had been destroyed during the revolution that put an end to the Qing Dynasty.
Precious porcelain artwork, the two jade Buddhas are carved out of huge, sparkling white jade pieces.
The emerald-encrusted Sitting Buddha is 190-cm-high and represented in the meditation position, while the 96-cm-long Reclining Buddha is portrayed in the resting position with the right hand supporting his head, the position representing the passage to the other world.
Even though the temple is not too old, it’s a great example of Chinese traditional architectural style. There are several halls to be visited and whether you are a Buddhist follower or not, it’s a great experience and one of the best places to visit in Shanghai.
Opening hours of Shanghai Jade Buddha Temple: Daily 8 am-5 pm, at 4.30 pm is the last admission.
Entry fee for Shanghai Jade Buddha Temple: 20 CNY, plus an extra fee of 10 CNY to see the Buddha statues.
Definitely one of the most famous Buddhist temples in Shanghai, Jing’an Temple is located on West Nanjing Road. Dating back to the 3rd century, when it was named Hudu Chongyuan Temple, and moved to the site where it still stands in the 12th century, it was renamed Jing’an by a local calligrapher in 1945.
The original structure of this famous Buddhist worship place has been destroyed by a fire in 1972. In 1984, the restoration/reconstruction works began and in 1990 the temple was reopened to the public.
A beautiful courtyard packed with praying crowds is framed by the different halls of the temple, such as the Hall of Heavenly Kings and the Three-Sage Hall.
Be it for its very central location, be it for its historic importance, Jing’an Temple is definitely one of the top Shanghai attractions for both Chinese and foreign tourists.
Address of Jing’An Temple: 1686, West Nanjing Road.
How to reach Jing’an Temple in Shanghai: Metro lines 2 or 7, Jing’an Temple Station, Exit 1.
Opening hours of Shanghai Jing’An Temple: Daily 7.30 am-5 pm except on the first two weeks of the lunar month when it’s open 4.30 am- 5 pm.
Entrance fee to Shanghai Jing’An Temple: Always CNY50, CNY100 from the 1st to 15th days in the first lunar month.
A beautiful temple devoted to Chinese philosopher Confucius, this is often neglected by tourists who are inevitably captivated by the lights and opulence of Shanghai’s modern districts and state-of-the-art architecture. If you do manage to spare some time for the Confucius Temple, though, I assure you, you won’t regret it.
A beautiful example of Chinese traditional architecture, with a rich presence of rocks in their natural shape, if you are still wondering what to see in Shanghai, this is it.
Originally built between 1368 and 1398 to worship Confucius, the Chinese great philosopher and educator, and the founder of the Confucianism, this temple has been regarded as one of the top learning institutions in Shanghai and China. Famous for being the ‘Treasure House of Stone Carving Art’, at Confucius Temple you can admire its ancient buildings, beautiful courtyards and the many stone carvings, including Zunjing Pagoda, Dacheng Hall, and Minlun Hall.
Address of Confucius Temple in Shanghai: 215, Wenmiao Road.
How to reach Confucius Temple in Shanghai: Metro lines 8 or 10, Laoximen Station. Take Exit 7 and walk along Zhonghua Road. Wenmiao Road is one of the back streets.
Opening hours of Confucius Temple in Shanghai: Daily 9 am-5 pm.
Entrance fee for Shanghai Confucius Temple: 10 CNY.
A stroll around TianZiFang and the French Concession
With its many bars, cafes, restaurants, galleries, and shops selling local handicraft, TianZiFang, also spelled Tian Zi Fang (田子坊) in Shanghai’s neighborhood known as French Concession due to its former status of foreign settlement when the city was under British, American and French control. The first settlement to be established was the British in 1845, followed by the American in 1848 and the French in 1849. Although the foreign concessions ended during the Japanese occupation, they were officially dismantled in 1943.
Populated with artists, photographers, and designers, many of whom have opened their own studio, TianZiFang hosts hip boutiques selling everything from scarves to jewelry, cozy cafes, and restaurants. This cultural neighborhood is a tangle of picturesque and narrow alleys that make for a great subject for street photography. Here you can spend an afternoon in a village-like atmosphere in the heart of Shanghai.
How to get to Shanghai’s French Concession: Metro line 1 (red), South Shaanxi Road station.
Visit modern and historical Xintiandi
The lovely Xintiandi is located in Shanghai’s city center. Adored by foreigners and locals alike, here you can find foreign-style restaurants and bars, and monuments highlighting the most important moments of China’s modern history.
It is one of the urban attractions that holds the historical and cultural legacies of the city. A pedestrian street mixed with Shimen and modern architecture, Xintiandi is special because of its structural concept. The interior of Xintiandi embodies a completely different world of international galleries, bars and cafes, boutiques, and restaurants. When you step into it, you will get the taste of both Shanghai in the 1930s and the modern lifestyle of its 21st-century urban architecture.
The Shikumen buildings date back to mid-1800’s and were rebuilt in 1997 since they could no longer satisfy the locals’ demands. Residential buildings for local Chinese in the early 1900s, they now represent modern Shanghai history and culture.
Xintiandi Di is divided into two parts: the modern architecture enriched with Shikumen-style features in the south and the old Shikumen structure in the northern part.
How to get to Shanghai’s Xintiandi: Bus 146 and get off at Xingye Road Madang Road Station, or bus 781. You can also go by subway: Metro line 1 (South Huangpi Rd. Station, Exit 3 and walk southwards along South Huangpi Road), Metro line 10 (Xintiandi Station, Exit 6 to Madang Road, then walk a bit to the north), Metro line 13 (Xin Tian Di Station).
Shanghai Ocean Aquarium
Located in the fashionable Pudong District, Shanghai Ocean Aquarium draws a million visitors every year. It is one of the longest underwater tunnels in the world where visitors can experience the open ocean. You will see many different species of fishes, sharks, turtles as well as color changing jellyfish and many other species divided by continent.
Address of Shanghai Ocean Aquarium: 1388 Lujiazui Ring Rd.
How to reach Shanghai Ocean Aquarium: Metro line 2, Lujiazui Station, exit 1.
Opening hours of Shanghai Ocean Aquarium: 9 am-6 pm (until 9 pm in August and during holidays).
Entrance fee to Shanghai Ocean Aquarium: 160 CNY for adults, 110 CNY for children between 100 and 140 cm tall, free for children below 1 mt.
Oriental Pearl TV Tower
Attracting around 3 million visitors every year, the Oriental Pearl TV Tower is a great work of state-of-the-art architecture constructed with spheres of varying sizes, all connected by three big columns. Located on Century Avenue in Shanghai’s Pudong district, Oriental Pearl TV Tower offers several sightseeing terraces and opportunities and hosts Shanghai Municipal History Museum, a Space Capsule, and a revolving restaurant.
This beautiful tower is what mainly defines Pudong’s skyline and one of the main Shanghai attractions tourists like to photograph from the Bund across the Huangpu River.
If you are still wondering what to do in Shanghai exclusive district, Century Boulevard, Century Park and Shanghai Science and Technology Museum (Shànghǎi kējì guǎn) are all within walking distance of each other in Pudong district.
Address of Shanghai’s Oriental Pearl TV Tower: 1, Century Boulevard, Pudong District.
How to get to Shanghai’s Oriental Pearl TV Tower: Metro line 2, Lujiazui Station, Exit 1. You can also reach by bus (n. 81, 82, 85, 774, 789), by ferry (Lujn and Taigon lines), or by taking a tour to the Bund Sightseeing Tunnel.
Opening hours of Shanghai’s Oriental Pearl TV Tower: Daily 8 am-9.30 pm.
Entrance fee to Shanghai’s Oriental Pearl TV Tower: Tickets vary depending on which floors you want to visit. 220 CNY for all floors including Shanghai Municipal History Museum, 160 CNY for floors 1 and 2, and the museum, or 35 CNY for only the museum.
Go on a shopping spree in Nanjing Road
Always packed with shoppers, both tourists and locals, Nanjing Road is Shanghai’s shopping Mecca. Here you will find the best brands and flashy shopping malls, exclusive restaurants, fast-foods, as well as delicious smaller eateries in the back streets.
Nanjing Road is more than 5 km long, but thankfully there are metro stations in different parts of it so depending on where you want to go, you pick your metro line.
Where to stay, best hotels in Shanghai
The Peninsula Shanghai. In a beautiful Art Déco style, The Peninsula is one of the best hotels in Shanghai. Located near the Bund and East Nanjing Road shopping street, spacious rooms featuring amenities like a large working space, a Nespresso coffee-making machine, and an iPod dock, make it a favourite Shanghai accommodation. The bathrooms include a spa and a separate shower, while the hotel also features an on-site spa, a fitness centre, an indoor pool, and delicious restaurants.
Click here for details and the current price.
Mandarin Oriental Pudong. Conveniently located near the subway in Pudong district, Mandarin Oriental pampers its guests with an indoor pool, five dining options, a spa, a fitness centre and soundproofed rooms complete with flatscreen TV, tea and coffee-making facilities, a fridge and a minibar among the other amenities.
Click here for details and the current price.
Jing An Shangri-La. One of the favourite luxury hotels in Shanghai, Jing An Shangri-La is located close to Shanghai Exhibition Center and Jing’An Temple. This wonderful five-star hotel in Shanghai features a spa and wellness centre, an indoor pool and stylish restaurants and bars serving gourmet cuisine. Alongside the most modern amenities, the rooms include also a large working desk.
Click here for details and the current price.
Okura Garden Hotel. Not too expensive but a great Shanghai accommodation, Okura Garden Hotel is a favourite. Stylish the hotel and stylish the location in the heart of the French Concession neighbourhood, Okura Garden features five restaurants and three bars, rooms beautifully decorated in Japanese style and complete with all modern facilities, an indoor pool, a tennis court, a gym, a beauty salon, and free WiFi.
Click here for details and the current price.
Best time to visit Shanghai
Shanghai attracts tourists and business travellers all year round, but if you can choose the time, I suggest not to go in summer as it’s very hot and humid. Winter is pretty cold, but still more bearable than summer. Autumn is humid and rainy, while, weather-wise, spring is the best time to visit Shanghai.
Fantastic day trips from Shanghai
Suzhou. One of the best day trips from Shanghai is certainly to Suzhou. An enchanted town west of Shanghai, Suzhou is famous for its canals and wonderful rocky gardens Chinese-style, among which worth a visit are The Humble Administrator’s Garden and the Lion Grove Garden. Some 42 percent of the town is covered with water, and this is one of the reasons why it’s known as the “Venice of the Orient”. Built in the 6th century BC, you will love your day trip to Suzhou.
Hangzhou and Qiandao Lake. The capital of Zhejiang Province, Hangzhou is an interesting town that offers both cultural and natural landmarks. Alongside the several temples, in fact, here you can visit the scenic West Lake (Xi Hu) and Qiandao Lake, also known as the One Thousand Island Lake.
ZhouZhuang. Another water town worth a day trip near Shanghai is the scenic ZhouZhuang, where you can visit several museums, temples and have a taste of the local cuisine. More about a trip to Zhouzhuang water town on our dedicated article.
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