See also: Where to stay in Shanghai
Revel in the natural beauty of Shanghai’s slow becoming, the narrow streets of old quarters and grand European-styled waterfront examples of how time makes it mark through space. Now an international hub of classic landmarks and modern ventures, the city invites increasing flow of visitors. Discover the most riveting attractions through this list of the 30 best things to do in Shanghai:
Scale up Shanghai World Financial Center’s Observation Deck
No trip is finished without the inevitable sky-high observation deck. One of the tallest buildings in the world, Shanghai World Financial Center juts majestically even against Shanghai’s skyscraper-lined silhouette. Three observation decks enable slightly different perspectives over the city, with the highest topping at 100 floors. Hang on tight 1,555 feet above ground!
Seeking peace and culture at Yuyuan Garden
Despite its Old City locality, Yuyuan Gardens deserves its own place on the list. Founded by rich Ming Dynasty officials, the gardens suffered much destruction since its founding in mid 1500s, now restored to former glory. Of classical Ming design, Yuyuan Gardens is composed of fish-inhabited pools beside pavilions and shaded alcoves, open spaces thick with the scents of pine and gingko. Warm seasons see luxurious bloom of magnolia flowers, Shanghai’s symbol. The famous Mid-Lake Pavilion Teahouse is an adjacent attraction and additional comfort for tired explorers.
Conquering Nanjing Road East
Divided into East and West Nanjing Road, blazing neon signs illuminate this crowded pedestrian shopping street. First exploring the East section of this massive 5-kilometer commercial hub, you should start from the historic Bund end. Squat buildings and historical shops slowly lead into more modernized malls – check out Shanghai Laojiefu Department for abundant silks and fabrics and Shao Wan Sheng for specialty local foods, then hit up Shanghai No. 1 Department Store for a taste of China’s first shopping mall.
Wander the beloved streets of Tianzifang
Tianzifang might not be the quaint walk-down-history-lane area you’re expecting, but the narrow lanes are nevertheless characteristic of humbler times. Crowds shuffle around the boutique shops, craft stores and dining establishments in full appreciation of its relaxed atmosphere. Kitschy gift shops focusing on retro Shanghai goodies like old-styled creams and classic steamed bun desserts are plentiful. Creativity is also a running theme, leading to quality cafés and concept brands.
Revisiting old Shanghai through architectural highlights
For more of Shanghai’s shikumen stone housing, the Old City blends this older architectural design with modern apartment blocks. Amid the souvenir shops of Old Street is the Old Shanghai Teahouse of shabby charm, scratched records, typewriters and odd eccentricities. Predating early 1800s, this part of Shanghai retains high concentration of temples, exuding not only a nostalgic glam but spiritual tranquility. Offering a multi-faith hall worshipping both the Buddhist Guanyin deity and Taoist Tianhou and Yanmu Niangniang, the Temple of the Town God sits alongside Fazangjiang Temple and Confucius Temple, as well as Dajiang Pavilion.
Stop by the green oasis
Green spaces are rare in metropolitan cities, but Shanghai’s generous span can afford parks like Fuxing Park. Catch a glimpse of local living here; whilst the sporadic sculptures and manicured landscape is suitably impressive, its true charm comes from a sense of community. Older couples waltz slowly to radio tunes, a laid-back display to ballroom dancing aunties. Loud mahjong games and elegant calligraphy practices out among paved paths and colorful shrubs become live peeks of Chinese culture. Families with kids are frequent, as are people with pets. Fuxing Park might not be eye-catchingly beautiful, but it is perfect for a relaxing afternoon break.
Visit an ancient water town
Imagine a beautiful canal flanked by white-washed stone houses with slanted roofs, the smooth arch of a bridge connecting the two sides. Qibao is picturesque with equally delicious street food to match – but its history is that which is truly riveting. With a name deriving from the Chinese characters “seven treasures”, Qibao Ancient Town is a living fossil first built in Northern Song Dynasty around year 960. Said to contain the “seven treasures” in the town’s name, Qibao Temple is an insightful architectural piece that reflects different periods of rule. Live demonstrations of olden Chinese entertainments reveal a bit more about local culture; shadow plays and cricket fights popular folk activities that persist today.
Window-show plants and miscellaneous
Go local with a gloss-through of charming Caojiadu Flower Market. With succulents, leafy herbs and a menagerie of small animals spilling out of the small stores to crowd the walkway, there’s no better place to dream of a Bohemian home. Where the ground floor sells mainly potted plants, wholesale flowers and bird supplies out the back, Caojiadu Flower Market’s second floor has sections for fake floral décor and homeware. There’s also an area dedicated for DIY craft materials such as ribbons and faux jewels. Cheap supplies and beautiful flowers? So worth carrying home.
Disney is not just for kids
Think big and you’ll get big! Shanghai’s Disneyland may have opened for a few short years only, but its generous display of rides and recreational space is nothing to scoff at. Put on your adventurer’s hat as you traverse the terrain of Adventure Isle, or shrink down on the set of Toy Story Land. You can meet Alice, Winnie the Pooh, Peter Pan and Snow White at Fantasyland, or head towards the future at Tomorrowland. For easy access, why not stay the night at either of the two Disney resorts?
Look into the future of technology
Step into the sleek and slick interior of the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum. Designed to encourage thinking, the Museum has two wings devoted to nature exhibits and cutting-edge space and technological advancements. For instance, the World of Robots raises questions on the role of robots and their current capabilities, while the Information Era sector discusses how computer and information technology has transformed our lives. The Spectrum of Light exhibit mimics a nature reserve to showcase not only diversity of wildlife but ecological systems. You can spend hours dreaming of all that science can offer.
Pray at a Buddhist temple
Admire the age-old Longhua Temple, constructed during the Three Kingdoms era in 242 AD. With area coverage of over five acres, it easily houses six halls and two towers. Designed with traditional Buddhist symmetry, the Bell Tower and Drum Tower mirrors each other with hexagonal window and curved eaves. Beautiful Longhua Pagoda sits in the path to Longhua Temple, each shrinking level outfitted with balconies and elaborate banisters, its octagonal eaves tinkling with bells. It is this vibrant but dignified sanctuary that hosts the Evening Bell-Striking Ceremony every New Year’s Eve, ringing in new beginnings with its venerable copper bell.
Bike through the city
There’s nothing like exploring a city on your own feet, but bikes are a must to cover Shanghai’s vast grid. Cruise leisurely under canopied roads around French Concession and Jing’an, or hurtle down the long stretch of waterfront for some light exercise. For an impromptu history lesson, cycle from Binjiang Avenue and across Nanjing Road to transition from glitzy towers into older, narrow lanes. Scenic Century Park towards Jinqiao Road will grant you an easy and tranquil route, whereas weaving from Wukang Road through Dongping to Toajiang Road will offer a glimpse of Shanghai residential life. To jazz things up, join a Factory Five Night Ride which regularly fills up with over 100 riders.
Checking out urban renewal at Cool Docks
Cool Docks may have been an age-worn waterside area that was decidedly uncool but with new tenants moving in after extensive renovation, the docks have been rejuvenated. A trending complex which entertains with indie cafés and a crop of international restaurants, Cool Docks posits slick bars in reworked buildings like South Bund 22. Warehouses have transformed into boutique hotels that fall under global names, such as InterContinental, as well as original projects such as the Waterhouse.
Bound for The Bund
Arguably the first thing tourists head toward, The Bund stretches along the west bank of Huangpu River in all its 1.5 kilometer glory. Walk the distance for two contrasting architectural sights. The waterfront promenade sits before grand, colonial European buildings and in perfect vantage point of opposite shore. River facing, Shanghai’s post-card representative skyscrapers stand in impressive relay, including the lauded Oriental Pearl Tower. If you time an afternoon stroll, reach Waibaidu Bridge during sunset for a golden view.
Tap into the heart of art at Moganshan 50
Known more colloquially as M50, the area’s graffiti strewn walls and downtrodden streets paint a gritty picture. Yet, the almost careless upkeep of external appearances adds a certain something to its otherwise ultra-hip reputation. An emerging hub of art galleries and museums that feature contemporary pieces, Moganshan 50 is a trending creative space for young artists. Home to over 100 community artists whose studios are open to public, permanent and temporary exhibits take place to a backdrop of restored factories.
Be dazzled at a circus
Body contortions and acrobatics have always been the highlight of Chinese circuses. In a spectacular performance titled ‘ERA Intersection of Time’, the Shanghai Circus World moves through time to present the story of China’s growth. Highlighting the culture around ancient methods of soothsaying and conjuring, performers erupt into a whirlwind of martial arts and dance. Delicate porcelain jars and props emerge in juxtaposition to modern water-screens and smoke effects to showcase artisanal history. Display of modern achievements follow on the specialized stage, a concerto of live music, lighting and visual props meant to stun.
Time travel to the colonial times
The French Concession isn’t a singular landmark but an area of unique architecture remnant of Shanghai’s colonial days. Stroll down the tree-lined avenues at even pace to find outdoor cafés set in brick houses with balconied lofts. Wukang Lu for instance, evokes a European pedestrian space with Ferguson Lane, restaurants and wine bars featuring tastings and tapas. Funky art stores are nestled in art-deco style buildings such as Normandy Apartments and The Cottage Shop. Treat yourself to some of the finest wine and dine in Shanghai, before retiring to a cozy bar along Donping Lu and Yueyang Lu.
More time travelling with museums
Museums are plastered all over Shanghai, but none carry a collection as impressive as Shanghai Museum. Artifact series span varied mediums: bronze, sculpture, seal, coins, ceramics and calligraphy are only few of the categories on display. Ranging from 15th century porcelain wares to ancient Chinese lacquers to modernist art from the West, Shanghai Museum presents special exhibitions for all audiences. Seminars and events bring visitors closer to their object of admiration, as do small talks purporting particular objects. With over 120,000 pieces of history tidbits, it formulates an all-rounded image of Shanghai through the times.
Day trip to Shanghai Film Park
Located in Chedun, a ways off Shanghai downtown, Shanghai Film Park plays set and witness to award-winning films such as Lust, Caution and Kung Fu Hustle. Visitors can watch dramas being filmed on replica sets of ‘old Shanghai’ landmarks. Craftsmen are often reworking props and building façades, and stunt shows are scheduled twice daily. You can also rent costumes and pretend to be a star in the making.
Then tackling Nanjing Road West
Department stores and smaller shops line the avenue for a truly varied shopping experience, where upscale hotels and offices complement in grandeur. HKRI Taikoo Hui features hundreds or brands and eateries, including the multi-sensory Starbucks Reserve Roastery experience. For more shopping and the additional attraction of Madame Tussauds Wax Museum, visit Shanghai New World City. Luxury shoppers will find Plaza 66 and Shanghai Center the high-end haven of their dreams, but budgeters will probably prefer mid-range Westgate Mall for reasonable spending.
Catch a show at Shanghai Grand Theatre
Red-lined seats and a cavernous auditorium live up to Shanghai Grand Theatre’s presumed grandeur. Whilst its distinctive exterior has become a finger-pointing landmark, true magic happens on its automatic stages. Toting three large, medium and small sized theatres equipped with cutting edge lighting and stereo technology, the Grand Theatre hosts some of the world’s top symphony orchestras and revered ballet companies. Original Chinese operas, dramas and traditional music events are also frequent features. It also has close ties with the international art scene; the Shanghai International Film Festival, the French/Italian/German Culture Year and the China Shanghai International Art Festival being a few affiliated acts.
Eat, eat, eat
Shanghai cuisine is exquisite and hearty, boasting bowls of noodles (soupy or stir fried) and bamboo-cradled bites. The Old City is home to some of the city’s best noodle shops and teahouses, as well as other bite-sized delicacies. Soup dumplings – more famously known as xiao long bao – is a local must-eat, whether with traditional fillings of pork or fancier crab roe. Steamed buns and the like are also unmissable cuisine; seek out specialty shops within Tianzifang. Upscale eating tends towards western food, which can be found around the French Concession or sleek hotels around The Bund.
Detour by Jade Buddha Temple
Skirting Shanghai borders is the stunning Jade Buddha Temple. A burnished orange entrance opens up to a Song-style temple, home to two serene Buddha statues. Incense seeps into every corner of the eight halls, all hosting antiques and gold-tinted statues. Functional, the temple observes religious ceremonies and daily prayers, led by live-in monks. You can enjoy a Buddhist vegetarian meal after your tour.
Hop on a riverboat tour
Take in the sky-breaking sights of Jinmao Tower, Shanghai World Financial Center and Shanghai Tower from a low-down angle. Depending on the route, you may pass by other iconic sights including Nanpu Bridge, Oriental Pearl Tower, Waibaidu Bridge, Monument to the People’s Heroes and Shanghai Expo Area. Whilst day-time cruises offer clear views that demonstrate the breadth of the river, night cruises are stunning displays of light atop a delicious Chinese, Western or buffet meal choice. Huangpu River offers a transformative perspective through a 40-60 minute cruise, drifting you down through city center.
Immerse in repurposed spaces like Xintiandi
Crumbling housing doesn’t make for good recreational spaces, but swathes of preserved stone gate houses merged with urban demands form great upscale shop-and-dine complexes. Xintiandi exemplifies such repurposing efforts, boasting cafés and restaurants prime for people watching on balmy nights. Where the South Block offers these modern delights, including a shopping mall with glass walls and up-brand fashion, the North tips the scale. Consisting of Shikumen style buildings (set with vaulted stone frames and wooden doors), these narrow lanes are unique photography sets. Xintiandi is also a vibrant bar cluster with European flair.
Splash out for a fancy drink
Creative bars and intimate speakeasies have emerged in recent years to offer up quality cocktails and experimental drinks. Emulating the mystique of 1920s and 30s speakeasies are jazzy bars hidden behind secret entrances. Speak Low is accessed through a bookcase, second hidden floor concealed behind a map. A vintage Coca-Cola vending machine camouflages the bourbon and whiskey bar Flask. Meanwhile, El Ocho lives above a flower shop in cocktail secrecy. Feeling brave? Cozy up to the bartender and ask for a surprise cocktail – you’re bound to be impressed.
Observing the unique phenomenon of a Marriage Market
Imagine speed-dating without its participants, but their parents and written profiles for substitute instead. The Shanghai Marriage Market is a cultural phenomenon that emerged in the late 1990s, when an emerging trend of increasingly single (and aged-up) generation resulted in parents desperate to have their kids married off. Work history, educational background, age and of course, their annual earnings, are tacked onto strings in bid of finding the perfect son or daughter in-law. While its match-making success is doubtful, the Marriage Market makes for a fascinating glimpse of dating in modern China and is one of the best things to do in Shanghai.
Spend the day at the city within a city
Collectively recognized as the backyard of Shanghai, Chongming Island could very well be a city of its own. Ancient Shou’an Temple and Hanshan Temple aside, residential complexes and farmlands make up majority of Chongming Island’s downtown. Along the water front are fishing villages. However it is the island’s natural beauties that attract visitors; Dongping National Forest Park in particular, boasts of thousands of migratory birds within its thick forest. Man-made, the Forest Park provides recreational facilities that range from grass skiing to zip-lining. Outdoor aviary Pearl Lake and the reedy clutches of the wetland parks are also well-loved destinations. For a day trip out of downtown, why not explore this massive floating land?
A unique collection: the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Center
In an unassuming basement somewhere in the city is a self-owned and curated collection of propaganda posters turned unusual museum. Now exhibiting over 5,000 prints, this Propaganda Poster Art Center gathered posters from the formative decades of the People’s Republic of China. Content ranges from attacks on anti-Communist Party’s enemies to utopian imagines of a model society. Post-revolution era denouncement posters by ordinary citizens also occupy the space, as are souvenir posters and pamphlets.
Explore the hub of 1933 Slaughterhouse
Don’t let the name fool you – it’s actually an innovative hub of restaurants, shops, art galleries and performance spaces hosted within the dramatic angles of the main industrial complex. Thick walls, concrete coloring and top skylights affect a moody atmosphere in this hulking structure, the Escher-like maze interior adding to its dramatic ambiance. An architectural symbol of Shanghai’s growing power, its Gothic columns and latticed windows augment its imposing stature. Yet, the creative content bubbling within its walls comes from young and up-coming artists; 1933 Slaughterhouse ultimately represents progression. For more snap-worthy attractions in the area, old-Shanghai styled houses can be found nearby.
Snacking at Huanghe Road
Off-side People Square downtown is food central Huanghe Road. Large restaurants are plentiful, but your attention is best directed at smaller family-run eateries with outdoor seating. Cheap, steaming buns are served up in bamboo baskets, and the super hungry may even smell its characteristic warmth from a street down. Dumplings are a crowd favorite here, as are juicy crab meat.