Avoid the hordes of tourists by checking out a few of Shanghai’s lesser-known museums, quiet parks, and other hidden gems.
Shanghai, the most infamous of Chinese cities, once known as the Paris of the East, now calls itself the Pearl of the Orient. No other city can better capture the urgency and excitement of China’s boom, understandably because Shanghai is at the center of it.
Don’t expect the grandeur of ancient sights like in Beijing, but rather relish the small details like strolling through the parks, checking out the exquisitely designed art-deco buildings, shopping for bespoke suits, or hanging out in laid-back cafés. Shanghai hides her gems well, so it’s important to be observant and look up and around.
Visit the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Center
Oddly located in the basement of an apartment complex, the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Center is a fascinating way to explore 20th-century Chinese history and art through hundreds of propaganda posters and Shanghai Lady Posters. Yang Pei Ming, the museum director, started collecting them as a hobby in 1995. Though many posters are from the Mao era, the collection spans nearly a century and offers a window into a period of Chinese history that is not well known.
INSIDER TIPEnter the apartment complex from Huashan Lu and look for building no. 4. From there, follow the signs to the basement.
Walk Among World Literary Giants at Lu Xun Park
Famous Chinese writer and political critic Lu Xun (1881-1936) spent the last nine years of his life in Shanghai, and one of the city’s many parks now bears his name. The park, which has a large lake and a lot of green space, is home to Lu Xun’s tomb as well as a memorial hall dedicated to his life. Stroll around the large lake, where locals gather to fish and play musical instruments, before meandering among statues of Shakespeare, Dickens, and other notable writers in World Literary Giant Square.
INSIDER TIPLu Xun’s former residence, which is now a museum, is a short 10-minute walk south of the Lu Xun Memorial Hall.
Make a Furry Friend at Canil Dog Café
Order a coffee (for yourself) and a dog biscuit (for a new friend), and spend some time cuddling Canil’s friendly four-legged residents. The dog café is located in 1933 Shanghai, a former slaughterhouse that’s been turned into a fashionable entertainment complex. Canil provides a welcome escape for visitors and Shanghai’s dog-loving apartment dwellers.
INSIDER TIPTake time and admire 1933 Shanghai’s art deco architecture and twisting pathways, and try not to get freaked out by the space’s slaughterhouse past.
Learn All About Chocolate at the Zotter Chocolate Theatre Shanghai
Zotter Chocolate Theatre Shanghai is a must-see for serious chocolate lovers. It’s operated by Austria-based Zotter Schokoladen Manufaktur, which is known for its organic, fair-trade chocolate. The Shanghai location offers a tasting tour that takes participants on a tantalizing journey from bean to bar and includes a wide variety of Zotter’s unique flavor combinations. At the end, mix flavors to create your own combination, and employees will make it for you on the spot. Tours are offered in Chinese and English.
Be Awed by Acrobatic Feats at Shanghai Circus World
For an evening of gravity-defying Chinese acrobatics, head to Shanghai Circus World. This 1,600-seat venue in northern Shanghai hosts domestic and international performances that include acrobatics, magic, music, dancing, and martial arts. It also is home to two long-running shows: the multimedia acrobatics show “Era: Intersection of Time” and a more traditional circus show called “Happy Circus.”
Order Bespoke Clothing at the South Bund Fabric Market
The South Bund Fabric Market is the best place to go for custom garments in Shanghai. The market is filled with tiny showrooms piled high with bolts of silk, cashmere, cotton, and other fabrics. Tailors and seamstresses often specialize in certain clothing items, such as jeans, leather jackets, suits, or dresses, all of which can be made in just a few days. Bring photos or a favorite garment you’d like to have replicated, and be prepared to shop around and bargain hard for the best prices.
INSIDER TIPMake sure to bring cash, since credit cards are usually not accepted at smaller shops in China.
Sing the Night Away at One of the City’s KTVs
Karaoke is practically a national pastime in China, and there are plenty of karaoke bars in Shanghai where you and your friends can book a private room. Depending on the location, rooms can range in style, from basic to over-the-top glam. Regardless of the outward trappings, all rooms are equipped with a TV and microphone, and you can order snacks and drinks as you channel your inner superstar. No need to worry about not knowing the latest Chinese pop songs; KTVs usually have a selection of English-language songs, including old and new hits.
Stroll Through Fuxing Park
After an afternoon of wandering around the Former French Concession, take a break for some people watching in Fuxing Park. This lovely spot in the heart of the city was established in 1909 for the area’s French residents. Now it’s a popular spot for locals to gather to practice tai chi, play mah-jongg, fly kites, or hold a community dance. The park has several sections to explore, including a rose garden and a small amusement area for children.
INSIDER TIPAfter taking a break in the park, head to the former residence of Sun Yat-sen, the father of modern China. His house is just around the corner off of Sinan Lu.
Browse Local Art at M50
When artist Xue Song opened a studio at 50 Moganshan Lu in 2000, the area was just a cluster of abandoned warehouses. Over time, other artists followed and the M50 arts district was born. Now, the district is a hip place to explore artists’ studios, which are all open to the public, and pick up a fabulous piece of art to hang in your house. Start by visiting one of the main galleries—like Island6 or Vanguard Gallery—and explore from there.
Take in a Special Exhibit at the Power Station of Art
With its towering chimney, Shanghai’s Power Station of Art is hard to miss along the banks of the Huangpu River. The building, which was modernized for Expo 2010, still retains an industrial air from its decades of use as the former Nanshi Power Plant. In 2012, it became mainland China’s first state-run contemporary art museum. Though the Power Station of Art doesn’t have a permanent collection, it hosts traveling exhibitions in its impressive space.