As a megacity, you expect Shanghai to be big; just not this big.
As you drive in from the airport, the city’s shimmering urban landscape of towering apartment blocks and futuristic office buildings seems to stretch to infinity and beyond. This is China’s largest urban centre and economic powerhouse, where 24 million residents spend their days taking care of business at an electrifying pace.
Yet despite the high-tech edge, it’s not hard to connect with a more romantic notion of Shanghai; to step back to a time when the British, French and Americans all had concessions here and the city was a magnet for anyone in search of exotic adventure.
Here are ten top things to do in Shanghai.
The Bund, which runs along one side of the Huangpu River as it winds through the city centre, is the epicentre of Shanghai for visitors and an enduring link with the past. Here in the heart of what was once the British Concession, you’ll find a wealth of Gothic, Art Deco and neoclassical architecture dating back to the turn of the 20th century. The Bund promenade offers fabulous views of the Pudong financial district across the river — including the distinctive and much photographed Oriental Pearl Radio & TV Tower with its bright red orbs. At night, the view of the Pudong lights is just as amazing.
There’s plenty to do along the waterfront, but just wandering and taking it all in is the biggest attraction. Head off down any of the side streets and lose yourself in a network of local shopping streets and residential alleys lined with colonial-era buildings with French-style shutters.
British traditions die hard on the Bund and a formal high tea at one of the precinct’s top hotels is a must-do for many visitors. The Waldorf Astoria is one of the most celebrated options. The lavish Red Velvet Afternoon Tea features a three-tiered stand piled high with the usual delicious morsels, including classic homemade scones. The Jasmine Lounge at the austere Art Deco Fairmont Peace Hotel serves a classic high tea daily from 2 to 6pm.
Listen to a podcast of our tips for top things to do in Shanghai:
You can’t miss the twisting form of the Shanghai Tower over in Pudong. It’s the tallest building in the city and the second tallest in the world (behind Dubai’s Burj Khalifa). It offers access to one of the world’s highest observation decks. The 360 degree views are, understandably, sensational. Book tickets online and skip the queue.
The picturesque People’s Park and nearby People’s Square are a wonderful way to take a break from Shanghai’s hustle, bustle and traffic fumes. The People’s Park, located on what was once a colonial horseracing track, offers visitors the chance to observe a variety of slices of Shanghai life — including the weekend marriage market, where parents converge to share intelligence on the availability of their progeny. You’ll find several of the city’s top cultural institutions in this area, including the Shanghai Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art Shanghai.
The formidable looking Shanghai Museum houses a collection of one million pieces of Chinese cultural heritage. It soon becomes clear just how rich, well preserved and meticulously documented that heritage is. Some of the most interesting exhibitions include the ancient ceramics and seals, minority masks and costumes, and the Ming and Qing dynasty furniture. Guided tours are available to help you get the most from your visit.
Located right in the heart of a heaving bazaar in the Old Town (not for the enochlophobics amongst us, trust me), the Yuyuan Garden is a wonderful example of a classical Chinese garden. This one dates back to the Ming Dynasty (1500s). It’s one of Shanghai’s most popular attractions, so like the bazaar outside, expect it to be busy, particularly on weekends. However, you should be able to find a space for yourself somewhere along the pathway that twists and turns between whimsical pavilions, ponds filled with colorful carp, distinctive coral-esque rockeries, and magnificent Magnolia trees.
If you’re one of those types that feels the need for speed, you’ll definitely find it on the Shanghai Maglev Train. The futuristic-looking train travels between Longyang Road Station on the outskirts of the city and Pudong Airport — at 400+ kilometres an hour! The 32-kilometre trip takes just 8 minutes and runs on the principles of magnetic levitation.
The acrobatic tradition in China dates back thousands of years, but like many ancient art forms it has had to move with the times. Shanghai Circus World is home to the ERA Intersection of Time multimedia and theatrical extravaganza, which melds traditional physical routines with plenty of modern technical twists. While it may not be immediately obvious to western audience members, the show actually narrates the story of China’s past, present and future. You’ll be on the edge of your seat and peeking through your fingers in several spots.
Shopping has been elevated to an art form in Shanghai. After all, commerce is what this city has always been about. The glittering neon landscape of the pedestrianised section of Nanjing Road will be a magnet for shopaholics, and all the big name international brands have a presence here. For those looking for a less globalised shopping experience, you only have to take a few steps off the main drag. The retail landscape changes completely and offers a much more local flavour.
The opportunities for a good feed in Shanghai are endless, and one of the culinary specialties associated with the city that you shouldn’t miss is xiao long bao. These small steamed dumplings contain both a pork filling and a broth, which is released when you bite through the skin. It’s quite a surprise first time around. Jia Jia Tang Bao, located just north of the People’s Park, is said to do the best xiao long bao in town. Be prepared to queue.
Adam travelled as a guest of Collette on their China Highlights tour.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of ten top things to do in Shanghai? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
Adam Ford is editor of The Big Bus tour and travel guide and a travel TV presenter, writer, blogger and photographer. He has travelled extensively through Europe, Asia, North America, Africa and the Middle East. Adam worked as a travel consultant for a number of years with Flight Centre before taking up the opportunity to travel the world himself as host of the TV series Tour the World on Network Ten. He loves to experience everything a new destination has to offer and is equally at home in a five-star Palazzo in Pisa or a home-stay in Hanoi.