There are just so many things to do in Shanghai. Your challenge will be to prioritise the city’s attractions and accomplish all of your goals in the limited time you have here
Shanghai is a unique Chinese city, linking modern times with ancient China. It is also one of the most populated areas in the world, allowing travellers to get a complete picture of modern-day China. Huangpu River splits Shanghai into two districts: Pudong and Pux.
The Puxi side allows one to walk the Bund and get a taste of the older side of Shanghai. At the same time, this side of the river allows for an unobstructed view of the modern part of Shanghai. This Pudong side of Shanghai, holds the financial district and the Maglev Train. It is safe to say that most sights and things to do in Shanghai are found on this side of the river.
THINGS TO DO AROUND SHANGHAI
There are several things to do in Shanghai, and they are divide over the old and modern part of the city. In the old city, things like the Yu Garden deserve a visit. But there are a lot more impressions of historical Shanghai in that area. Think of the Bund, a must for tourists.
This area combines different architectural styles with a scenic waterfront area. And while exploring the Bund, it is impossible not to notice the other side of the river. The massive skyline of Shanghai’s financial district looms over the old city. More on that later, but read up on some of the sights in the old city below:
THE OLD CITY – YU GARDEN OR YUYUAN GARDEN
The Yu Garden is an ancient complex of six different areas. Each area is more beautiful than the next, employing classical Chinese design principles. To Westerners, the Yu Garden is everything they expect of ancient China, and then some.
Rock gardens that seemed to have originated from a fairy tale, along with dragon statues. Every few meters there is a scenic pavilion to admire, and the trees and plants look majestic. My personal favorites are the koi pond and the many different rockeries.
THE OLD CITY – THE CITY GOD TEMPLE
The City God temple is another example of typical Chinese historical architecture. In China, many walled cities contained a temple dedicated to one or more immortal or god. Lauded as the protector of the city, these temples are popular as locals pray for good fortune and health.
Over time, more and more entrepreneurs opened up shop around the temple. Today, the surrounding streets have turned into a busy and scenic marketplace. Again, the area looks like a Kung Fu movie, with traditional gates (Paifang) and curved rooftops. It is important to understand that the temple is not one building. Instead, the complex consists of nine different palaces.
Apart from praying and shopping, visitors of the Old City God Temple can do a variety of things. During my two-hour visit, I witnessed a folk performance, several cockfights and calligraphy stands. Xiaolongbao can be had at several little restaurants and I heard from there are acrobatic performances too.
THE BIG DRAWS OF SHANGHAI
Since Shanghai is considered the most populated area in the world, there is a serious need for open space. The municipality has met that need by incorporating as many parks as possible. Shanghai currently has over 150 public parks in the city and many of them are free of charge. After checking in, simply ask your receptionist what the most beautiful park in the area is.
I bring this up, as you will need to get out to the parks every now and then for some open space. Shanghai is extremely crowded and unlike the locals, who are used to it, you are not.
Other than the parks, there are countless temples. The Jade Buddha Temple is popular for its white-jade statues. The Shanghai Museum is an obvious choice for all things Shanghai. Xujiahui Cathedral and the Sheshan Basicila are reminders of Chinas multicultural past. And personally, I am always intrigued by unique attractions that blend several cultures. Similar to the Shanghai Disney Resort, the Cathedral is fascinating. Think of Christianity, with a hint of Chinese characters in the stained glass windows.
Other great attractions are Oriental Pearl Tower and the Shanghai Disney resort. Both attractions are discussed below, as they attract an interesting mix of foreign and Chinese tourists.
THE BIG DRAWS – SHANGHAI DISNEY RESORT
By no means am I a Disney fan. Don’t get me wrong, I love the classics as much as the next guy. But their theme parks have always weirded me out, starting with EuroDisney in 1992. Most of their theme parks have a high berm of earth around them to block outside views. Which coincidentally, Shanghai Disneyland Park does not have.
Shanghai Disneyland Park was also developed with cultural sensitivities in mind. Knowing that most visitors are Chinese, several ‘normal’ attractions are not included. Instead, other more traditionally Chinese themes are integrated into the park. There is less emphasis on the rides, and the restaurants are bigger than usual.
The most interesting attraction by far though, is seeing how the Chinese behave. Line-cutting is a local tradition that the Chinese have elevated to an art form. Also note that the Disney Castle in Shanghai is currently the biggest Disney Castle in the world.
THE BIG DRAWS – ORIENTAL PEARL TOWER
For anyone who is old enough to remember The Jetsons, the Oriental Pearl Tower is a must-see. Anyone familiar with high-rise building, knows there are limitations to this type of architecture. The designers of the Oriental Pearl Tower were well aware of these limitations of course.
But they decided to flush the rules down the toilet anyway. What they came up with, is unlike anything you have ever seen. Supported by three large underground support units, the tower looks like a spaceship. The two biggest spheres are clearly visible, but there are nine more inside the complex.
I’ve heard people say that Shanghai is too big to appreciate from a ground level. A view from the Oriental Pearl Tower certainly helps to put things into perspective. A great way to get around the annoying waiting times is to turn up in the earlier part of the day.
So, to have a great Oriental Pearl Tower experience, 1) check the weather and turn up early. Otherwise, the complex is hard to ignore as it is a very dominant part of the Shanghai skyline. Looking at it from the outside works as well, and there are other viewpoints in the city which are less crowded.
Note that the Shanghai World Financial Centre (the bottle opener) is publicly accessible too. And the Shanghai Tower observational deck has been open since early 2017.
WHAT TO EAT IN SHANGHAI
Bangkok has often been called the world’s centre of street food. But Shanghai can certainly compete with some of the best Thai hawkers. Keep in mind though, that Shanghai is located in a river delta. What this means, is that there will be copious amounts of freshwater fish, eels and crustaceans. And don’t forget about water plants and lotus roots thrown in for good measure.
The reason why the street food is so diverse, is because of the constant influx of migrants. People from all over China come to Shanghai. And when they can’t land the position they had in mind, starting a street food business is often the next best thing. This way, Shanghai has a constant flow of provincial food culture heading its way. Everything is on sale, so don’t worry about what to eat in Shanghai.
A local delicacy that westerners can eat without hesitation is ‘xiaolongbao’ or dumplings. These little steamed buns come in small bamboo steaming baskets and taste delicious. They are white and feature a circular cascade or ripples around the crown, making them easy to spot.
Traditionally filled with pork, xiaolongbao are also available with minced crab meat or vegetarian fillings. There is also a soup-filled variant which bursts in your mouth, with an explosion of flavours.
THINGS TO DO IN SHANGHAI ALONE
With just one exception (I am looking at YOU Manila) all Asian cities I’ve been to feel very safe. Shanghai is no different, and whether you are a man or a woman, getting into trouble is unlikely. Don’t do anything you wouldn’t do at home and you should be fine. That advice extends to scams like art shows or tea ceremonies; look them up. They are notorious and once you know the drill, it is easy to spot them from a mile away.
Traffic is a little peculiar so keep an eye open for that, but you really should be fine. There are tons of foreigners in the city, so connecting with people from your country is easy enough. I recommend Facebook groups like ‘Shanghai Expats’, or ‘Expats Shanghai’.
It’s true that Facebook isn’t accessible through a regular connection. But you can get around this with a VPN connection or a secure proxy. Maybe that should be your conversation starter right there? “Excuse me, I was wondering how to get onto Facebook – I know all the locals do it.” Note that this sophisticated strategy extends to the nightlife as well. To find out what
things to do in Shanghai at night, simply pick a victim and fire away. It is my understanding most nightclubs play an interchangeable brand of EDM.
There are two main attractions I would list as ‘things to do in Shanghai alone’. First off, there is the waterfront area or ‘The Bund’. The Bund allows for an excellent view of the skyscrapers and is one of the most popular tourist areas in Shanghai. And the Yu Garden I mentioned earlier is also highly recommended.
A possible third recommendation is the Maglev train or SMT. I understand this is not for everyone, but to those with an interesting in engineering, go check it out. It is currently the fastest commercial train in the world, and it’s been losing money since it opened. So who knows for how long it will be open to the public? Better be safe than sorry, and make that 431 km/h (268 mph) ride before its too late.
I believe that unlike Hong Kong, Shanghai gives the best impression of modern China. There is the Old City full of different and beautiful traditions. And then there is the Pudong district. Intimidating and rising to the skies, it boasts one of the most recognizable skylines in the world.
Shanghai visitors from outside of China can almost catch a national identity, caught between two worlds. There is the west and its capitalism, personified by the financial district. And on the other side of the Huangpu River lies the historic past.
First time visitors wanting to see the top tourist attractions are best of staying in the centre. Any hotel near the Bund is fine, as the famous waterfront promenade intersects with the shopping district. This area, Nanjing Road, together with the sights, can keep one busy for at least three- to four days. Another popular area would be near the People’s Square, as there are several attractions in its vicinity. Think of the Grand Theatre, the Exhibition Center and the Shanghai Museum.
The best time to visit Shanghai by far is from October to November. The temperatures during this Autumn period are moderate, and there is considerably less rain than in the summer. Note that the crowds will also be less than the summer time. Winter in Shanghai is chilly, making city exploration much less pleasant. Shanghai experts have also mentioned late March, because the weather is similar.
Pro tip: Check whether your trip overlaps with domestic holidays. The Chinese tend to travel during their holidays, and there is quite a lot of them. Don’t get swamped by the hordes, plan your trip smart!
Sacha Albarda is an copywriter/online media expert living in South-east Asia for the better part of a decade. Asked what he likes best about living there, he usually answers that it’s “the tightly organized anarchy”.