From exploring quirky museums and contemporary art, eating sour dumplings and drinking craft cocktails, and visiting the Buddha temple and sailing on riverboat tour, here are the very best things to see and do while visiting Shanghai, China.
At the turn of the 20th century, Shanghai was a thriving metropolis to rival Paris, with vibrant nightlife, couture houses, and posh private clubs. One hundred years later—following war, destruction, and redevelopment—it’s once again at the top—literally. It now has Shanghai Tower, China’s tallest and the world’s second-tallest skyscraper. It has the world’s longest metro. Its cocktail bars rival those of New York and London. There’s so much to see, eat, and drink in this city of 24 million, so to help you make the most of your time in Shanghai, we’ve rounded up the best things to do in Shanghai—like going for a bike ride, slurping Shanghai’s best soup dumplings, finding where to buy cool souvenirs in Shanghai, eating at the city’s top restaurants, and getting lost in Shanghai’s charming laneways.
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The Bund is Shanghai’s waterfront boulevard, lined in the heritage buildings that showcase the city’s pre-1949 past and across the river from the Pudong skyscrapers of its future. Along the Bund, Shanghai’s street life is in full force. It’s bustling even at dawn, with locals ballroom dancing, exercising, and practicing tai chi and qi gong. Day and night, Chinese tourists, foreigners, and Shanghai locals walk the Bund, snapping photos of each other backed by the skyscrapers. At night, the towers are lit with flashing neon lights reflected in the Huangpu River.
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If you’ve read J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun or seen the Spielberg film adaptation, you’ll recognize Longhua Temple. This is Shanghai’s largest and most active temple, with five halls and two towers with a 5-ton, 2-meter-high copper bell, which is struck on New Year’s Eve. The centerpiece is a 7-story, 8-sided pagoda, which is unfortunately not open to visitors. The temple was once surrounded by extensive gardens, but today these are part of neighboring Longhua Martyr’s Cemetery, the execution site of many Communists, particularly during the Guomingdang crackdown in 1927.
A labyrinth of alleyways run between the red brick lanehouses of the former residential district that makes up Tianzifang. The narrow alleyways are packed with restaurants, cafés, galleries, and shops. You’ll find everything from the ubiquitous Obamao T-shirts to leather journals and shoes, tea, and vintage photographs of Shanghai. Tianzifang has a much more traditional feel than Xintiandi, though like Xintiandi it is packed on weekends. You can enter Tianzifang from the front, on Taikang Lu, or on the back side at 155 Jianguo Zhong Lu.
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A great neighborhood for exploring and getting lost, the Old City was once the central core of Shanghai, surrounded by a fortified wall built to keep out Japanese pirates. Today, just one 50-year section of the Old City Wall remains, and the area’s old shikumenstone gate houses are disappearing rapidly. Here you’ll find the highest concentration of narrow, winding laneways where laundry flaps from bamboo poles, locals drive scooters piled perilously high with cargo, and where not so long ago chamber pots were still in use. This is one slice of old Shanghai that will never be replicated, so see it before it’s gone.
Soong Qing-Ling’s Former Residence
Soong Qing-ling was married to nationalist leader and Republic of China founder Sun Yat-sen, who was 27 years her senior. Sun Yat-sen died just 10 years later and Soong Qing-Ling soon switched allegiances, from Nationalism to Communism. (Her sister Mei-ling married Chiang Kai-shek, who was the head of the Nationalist government from 1927 to 1949.) Soong Qing-Ling’s Former Residence was built in 1920 by a German ship owner; it was her primary residence from 1948 to 1963 and has been well preserved. All of the Soong children were well educated, and Soong Qing-Ling’s study houses some 4,000 books. The bedroom is furnished with part of her dowry. Next to the house is a small museum with some sweet photos of Soong Qing-ling and Sun Yat-sen together, including photos from their 1915 wedding in Tokyo.
While the area around Yu Garden is commercialized and the garden itself not as impressive as the classical gardens of Suzhou, it’s one of the few old sights left in Shanghai, and a valuable piece of the city’s rapidly disappearing past. Commissioned in 1559 by Ming Dynasty official Pan Yunduan, the garden was built over nearly two decades by the renowned architect Zhang Nanyang. In the mid-1800s, it was here that the Society of Small Swords planned their uprising against the French colonists, who then destroyed the garden during the first Opium War. After you walk around carp-filled ponds and through the rock gardens and bamboo groves, visit the small museum dedicated to the Society of Small Swords rebellion.
Right at the corner of the Bund and East Nanjing Road is the Peace Hotel. The former Cathay Hotel opened in 1929, built by landowner and opium trader Victor Sassoon. He lived in the penthouse, housed inside the hotel’s copper roof, which has since turned green with age. It was the place to stay, see, and be seen in old Shanghai. Like so many buildings, it fell into disrepair following the Communist takeover in 1949, but was renovated in 2010 and reopened as the Fairmont Peace Hotel with its original jazz bar, tea lounge, restaurant, shopping arcade, and ballroom were restored to their former glory. Not to be missed is the small but impeccable gallery on the mezzanine level chronicling the hotel’s history.
In 1849, Shanghai ceded an area for French settlement to the French Consul. The French consulate built Western-style homes and imported London plane trees to shade the streets. Foreigners shopped, drank, and dined, and some got up to no good, visiting opium dens and brothels. As the concession expanded, British and American expats moved in, eventually followed by White Russians. Today, despite massive redevelopment throughout the city, the French Concession looks much as it did a century ago. Its streets today are comparably quiet and leafy, lined in cafés, boutiques, and restaurants.
The adage “don’t judge a book by its cover” surely applies to Shanghai Museum, whose exterior—designed to look like an ancient bronze cooking vessel called a ding—is not pleasing to the eye. Within the museum are more than 120,000 pieces spread across 11 galleries. You’ll find paintings, bronzes, ceramics, sculptures, jade, calligraphy, Ming and Qing dynasty furniture, coins, and jewelry. The dress and costume gallery showcases intricate handiwork from some of China’s 55 ethnic minority groups. English signage is quite good, and audio guides are available.
The geographical center of Shanghai, People’s Square is an enormous public square in which Shanghai denizens hang out all day, every day. Residents stroll, practice tai chi, and fly kites. Grandparents sit, drinking tea from thermoses and gossiping. Come evening, ballroom dancers hold group lessons. The subway station below people’s square is the intersection of metro lines 1, 2, and 8, and is estimated to be the busiest metro station in China, handling some 700,000 people every day. People’s Square is home to Shanghai Museum and the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center. For kids, there’s a tiny amusement park with inexpensive rides. Weekends here are extremely busy, particularly on Xizang Road.
Urban Planning Exhibition Center
Gridlock notwithstanding, Shanghai’s urban planning, particularly its expansive metro, is impressive. Within People’s Square is the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall, which looks at Shanghai’s past, present, and future from an urban planning standpoint. The topic may sound a little dry, but the museum boasts some engaging exhibitions, including its star display on the third floor. The 6,500-square-foot model of Shanghai, the world’s largest scale model, shows the city as urban planners expect it to look in 2020. The level of detail is thrilling; if you know Shanghai well, you’ll even be able to pick out your hotel. Featured landmarks include Oriental Pearl Tower, Jin Mao Tower, and Shanghai World Financial Center, as well as the China pavilion at the former World Expo site, which is now the China Art Palace.
Duolun Lu Cultural Street
For a pleasant afternoon stroll, make your way to Hongkou district’s Duolun Lu. Although heavily restored, the street’s architecture and general ambience takes you back to the 1930s, when the 1-km (½-mile) lane was a favorite of writer Lu Xun and fellow activists. The ground floors of the street’s villas and row houses have been turned into antiques shops, art galleries, and cafés. In stark contrast to these quaint businesses is the seven-story gray Shanghai Duolun Museum of Modern Art.
Jade Buddha Temple
At less than 100 years old, Jade Buddha Temple is new by Chinese standards. It was built in the style of the Song Dynasty, with symmetrical halls and courtyards, upturned eaves, and bright yellow walls. The temple survived the Cultural Revolution thanks to its smart monks, who pasted portraits of Mao Zedong on the exterior walls; the Red Guards were unable to destroy the walls without tearing down Mao’s face. The biggest draw here is the 2-meter (6½-foot) seated Buddha made of white jade with a robe of precious gems, originally brought to Shanghai from Burma. If you come during a festival, be prepared for joyful chaos. There’s a simple vegetarian restaurant here serving inexpensive noodles and tofu.
Most Shanghai residents once lived in shikumen (stone gate houses), but now many have been razed to make way for high-rises. Eight acres of these shikumen—some original and some newly built imitations—have been turned into an upscale shopping-and-dining complex called Xintiandi, or “New Heaven on Earth.” The restaurants and cafés here are busy day and night, especially when it’s warm and outdoor seating allows prime people-watching. To better understand the area’s history, visit the Shikumen Open House Museum, which is filled with artifacts and furniture collected from nearby houses that are now shops.
Shanghai’s main shopping street, Nanjing Lu (lu means road) runs in two sections—East Nanjing Road, from the Bund to People’s Square, and West Nanjing Road, from People’s Square to Jing’an district. A walk along Nanjing Road in either direction is a walk through the city’s history. East Nanjing Road is the Times Square of Shanghai, pedestrianized and lit by the blaze of neon signs. It has long been Shanghai’s high street, and at the turn of the century had eight posh department stores and a slew of smaller shops. West Nanjing Road ran through the International Settlement and was called Bubbling Well Road. It was quiet and tree-lined, a popular place for expats to stroll and home to a few residences. It was home to Bubbling Well Cemetery, which is now Jing’an Park, and all that remains of its past is a row of imported London planes. Today, West Nanjing Road is a busy upscale street, lined in gleaming malls, shops, offices, and hotels.
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St. Ignatius Cathedral
Step inside St. Ignasius Cathedral and the cacophony of Xujiahui’s gridlocked roads falls away. It’s hard to believe that a stone’s throw from a cluster of malls, a chaotic metro station, and the honking of thousands of horns is this Neo-Gothic Roman Catholic cathedral, which opened in 1910. As with so many houses of worship, St. Ignatius Cathedral (as well as its staff) suffered during the Cultural Revolution—its beautiful stained-glass windows, ceiling, and spires were destroyed by the Red Guards, and the church spent 10 years as a State-owned grain warehouse. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the cathedral was restored, and today it’s the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Shanghai.
Huangpu Riverboat Tour
The Huangpu River divides Shanghai in two. The older west side, Puxi, is the city center. The newer east side, Pudong, starts off with Shanghai’s trio of supertall skyscrapers—Jinmao Tower, Shanghai World Financial Center, and Shanghai Tower—and then gradually becomes more suburban. Huangpu River tours offer a gentle immersion into Shanghai and are particularly pleasant at night when buildings on both sides are lit up. Your best bet is the 40-minute cruise departing from the base of the Oriental Pearl Tower in Pudong. You can sit inside or out, and it’s just long enough to take in the scenery and enjoy the breeze.
Lu Xun Park
Named for Chinese writer Lu Xun, an important figure in modern Chinese literature, this leafy enclave houses Lu Xun’s tomb and Lu Xun Memorial Hall, a small gallery dedicated to his life. When the park opened in 1910, it was a pleasure ground for foreign residents only. There was a golf course, a swimming pool, a bowling green, and tennis courts. In summer, a band performed concerts for residents of the foreign concessions. During the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, Hongkou was the main Japanese settlement, and the park, like so many areas, became inaccessible. It was toward the end of his life that Lu Xun moved to Shanghai, and although he was initially buried elsewhere, his remains were moved to the park in 1956.
Once the boundary between the British and American settlements, Suzhou Creek runs across Shanghai, flowing into the Huangpu River at the northern end of the Bund. Several historical buildings sit here, among them the Russian consulate, dating to 1917. Its design is a combination of German Renaissance and Baroque elements; with its bright red roof, it’s a sharp contrast to the surrounding high-rises. Its neighbors are the 1858 Astor House Hotel, the first western hotel in China; Broadway Mansions, a 1934 Art Deco hotel; and the 1924 General Post Office Building, notable for its Corinthian columns and Baroque-style clocktower.
Puxi, Shanghai’s west side, has the city’s historic buildings, and Pudong, its east, has the skyscrapers. These are concentrated in the Lujiazui neighborhood, just across from the Bund. The 88-floor Jin Mao Tower (8 is an auspicious number), is a postmodern spin on a classic 13-tier Buddhist pagoda design. Zoom to the tower’s top-floor observation deck and take in the 360-degree views, or skip the line and settle into a window seat at Grand Hyatt’s 87th-floor Cloud 9 bar. Just across the street is Shanghai World Financial Center, aka “The Bottle Opener.” It has three observation decks, the highest of which is on the 100th floor. The view from the top is thrilling—on a clear day, you’ll feel as if you’re floating above the city, and when it’s overcast, it’s as if you’re adrift in the clouds. As with Jin Mao Tower, you can skip the crowds of the observation deck by going for tea or a drink at Park Hyatt’s 87th-floor Living Room. The crown jewel of the trio is Shanghai Tower—China’s tallest building and the world’s second tallest—gently curving 2,000 feet into the sky. Its observation deck is on the 119th floor, and your vista is a sweeping panorama of the city, looking down on Shanghai World Financial Center and Jin Mao Tower. The Oriental Pearl Tower appears like a toy; the cars, people, and trees on the road 1,800 feet below tiny as a scale model.
Time was Beijing had China’s best contemporary art, in 798 Art District, but today Shanghai is bursting with galleries and contemporary art museums exhibiting world-class shows. The Power Station of Art, in a former power plant on the one-time World Expo site has no permanent collection, instead hosting large-scale exhibitions, such as works from top Chinese artist Cai Guoqiang or a Warhol retrospective. A block in from the Bund, in a beautifully restored 1932 Art Deco building is Rockbund Art Museum, where galleries installed with temporary exhibitions from artists like Zhang Huan and Felix-Gonzalez Torres lead up to a roof deck. Down on the South Bund are Yuz Museum and Long Museum. Yuz, in a former airplane hanger, has hosted a retrospective on Charlie Chaplin and Instagram-fave installation Rain Room by Random International. Long has highlighted top artists in Southwestern Chinese modern art and French-American artist Louise Bourgeois.
Day in and day out, especially during weekends, Fuxing Park is alive with activity. This French Concession park, on the tree-canopied road of the same name, is the playground of tai qi practitioners, ballroom dancers, mah jong and card players, calligraphers, kite flyers and gossipers. Whether or not you know how to dance, if you show any interest in taking a spin you’ll be invited to join, spry, expert dancers patiently modeling the steps for you as a cassette or CD plays charmingly and at high-volume from a hand-held player. Likewise, most of the calligraphers, who practice with water on the slate paving of the park, will happily let you watch their work, and may even show you how to write a character or two. Good luck.
Go for a Bike Ride
Shanghai has the world’s longest metro—nearly 650km—and cabs and buses galore, but the nicest way to explore is on two wheels. The nicest places to cycle are in the French Concession and Jing’an, on quiet streets thickly, beautifully canopied by London plane trees. If you’re a relatively experienced urban cyclist, download Apps Mobike or Ofo, add some credit, scan, and off you go. There are thousands of these bikes all around Shanghai. When you’re done, leave it parked on the sidewalk. These don’t come with helmets; if you want to wear one (it wouldn’t hurt), bring your own or buy one at any bike shop. For those eager to roll through Shanghai but uninitiated in urban cycling, there are bike tours galore.
Sip Craft Cocktails
Shanghai has gone through a cocktail renaissance, with dozens of bars now slinging good quality and inventive craft cocktails. For an easy Shanghai bar crawl, work your way around the French Concession or Jing’an, or head down to the Bund for drinks with a skyline view. So where to drink? There are the speakeasies, like intimate, quiet Speak Low where the bartenders deliver drinks like the Sawadee-Cup, Thai-style bubble tea with brown butter-washed rum. Union Trading Company is a neighborhood bar that deals in classic cocktails but also a rotating list of the zingy and new, like Banana Alexander (cream, rum, banana liqueur). In winter, cozy, dim Senator Saloon is where you’ll find expats whiskey cocktails. At the first hint of warm weather, pony up for the Bulgari’s eponymous cocktail at their 48th-floor rooftop bar. It’s a sweet-summery mix of Aperol, gin, lime, and pineapple and orange juices.
Slurp up Soup Dumplings
Ask five locals where to get the best soup dumplings in Shanghai (that’s xiaolongbao) and you’ll get five different answers. Everyone has a favorite neighborhood joint, but there are a few clear winners of the best xiaolongbao in Shanghai award. The line outside Jia Jia Tang Bao, just north of People’s Square, is a clear indication it’s worth the wait. Grab a plastic stool and slurp up plain pork soup dumplings, pork and crab, or crab roe, the priciest. Fuchun, the original or one of its many branches, is slightly more upmarket, a restaurant where families go for more than xiaolongbao, but you’re here for just that. If you want half a dozen varieties of xiaolongbao in a lovely setting—there are truffles, the service is great—go to Din Tai Fung.
Buy Souvenirs You'll Actually Want
What is a souvenir, anyway? Who says it has to be a trinket? One of the best proudly made in China kitschy-cool souvenirs is a pair of Feiyue brand sneakers. The canvas, rubber-soled shoes are on the trendiest of feet the world over; in Shanghai, they’ll run you around ¥60; in Paris or New York, you’ll pay five times that. Stop into Madame Mao’s Dowry for Pinyin Press’ tote bags, tea towels, and cards printed with dumplings, bicycles, and noodles. Shop for ceramics, from tiny espresso cups to gorgeous, creamy vases the size of a toddler at Brut Cake (cute and quirky), Piling Palang (chic and colorful), and Spin (sleek and white).
Get Lost in Laneways
Shanghai doesn’t have loads of sites to visit and tick off your list. The best part of the city is getting lost in its lilongs or longtangs, the quiet laneways lined in brick or stone houses. Warrens of lanes form communities where residents—some of whom have lived there for generations—sit in courtyards chit-chatting, playing mah jong and cards, and hanging out laundry. Just as Beijing’s hutongs are iconic, so too are Shanghai’s longtangs. If you’ve been to Xintiandi and the lovely Shikumen Open House Museum, you’ve seen an immaculate, stage-set version of the stone houses, shikumen. Many shikumen have beautiful architectural details, like Art Deco pediments, so keep your eyes peeled as you wander. Not all laneway houses are stone; many are red brick, like English terrace houses, their tiny front courtyards bursting with greenery. Take an afternoon to stroll through the laneways tucked away off busy roads in Jing’an, the French Concession, south of Xintiandi, and near the Bund, some of which now hide cute little cafés and tea houses.
Eat Your Heart out
Mexican, Mediterranean, Mongolian, and every variety of Chinese cuisine, from spicy Hunan and Sichuan to more mellow, dim-sum slinging Cantonese: Shanghai has nearly everything you could possibly crave, at price points budget to blow out. You’re in Shanghai, so start with its food, like bowls of cong you ban mian (scallion oil noodles), before diving into greater China—hearty dumplings from northeastern China (Dongbei cuisine) at Four Seasons Dumpling King; warming, spicy hot pot from Chengdu; pan-fried cheese from Yunnan province. From here, your options are limitless: gussy up and go down to the Bund for Michelin-starred Italian food backed by a glittering skyline; head west to Hongqiao for Korean barbecue. We won’t blame you if you leave Shanghai a few pounds heavier.
Shanghai is positively teeming with museums, and among the dozens are several offbeat, quirky, museums, ideal for whiling away rainy or cold days. Film fanatics can get lost in the sleek, interactive Shanghai Film Museum or, for die-hard-fans, the pricey but cool Jackie Chan Museum, where there are knives hanging from the ceiling and a realistic shark. If you’re mad for transportation, take the metro to the Metro Museum where you can drive a train (get in line behind the kids) and the Auto Museum with its pristine collection of vintage and new cars. Then there are the truly niche museums: the Museum of Public Security (think vintage police cars, evidence from murder cases, antique weapons); tiny but lovely Gallery of Antique Music Boxes and the Camera Museum; and the Entomological Museum (everything you ever wanted, and didn’t want, to know about insects).