Shanghai is a vibrant high-paced city of bright lights, towering skyscrapers, treasure chest of styles from its colonial period, bustling markets, and creative energy. Over these years, I’ve been lucky enough to visit every so often and have had a chance to explore every corner of the city. As a first-timer though, I can appreciate how overwhelming it can be so what I’ve done with this article is highlight all the things you should do as a first-timer in Shanghai. Happy exploring 🙂
1. The Bund
Iconic waterfront viewing of the Pudong side of Shanghai with it’s enormous collection of ridiculous skyscrapers and the Huangpu River flowing through with it’s barges and cruise ships. After or during sunset is probably when you want to go and when it’s most magical when the dizzy array of lights take over the night sky. Just be prepared to deal with the massive crowds that build up where eventually you’ll be shoulder to shoulder with other tourists and Chinese alike.
Make sure you check out the The Bund and the People’s Heroes Memorial to the left and even further down cross over the Waibaidu bridge which offers up some beautiful views. The bridge changes colour too at night. Oh and speaking about cruise ships, take one along the river as it’s the best way to see both the Puxi (Bund) side and the Pudong side (all of the skyscrapers).
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Many tourists come to China to experience what it would feel like to live during one of the Chinese dynasties. A lot of times that consists of water ways, old crumbling buildings, alleyways, temples and street food. Well you can have all of that by heading out to Zhujiajiao which is around an hour away from Shanghai.
To get there you can take a bus from People’s Square for 12 RMB or you can cab there for 150-200 RMB. This is that classic ancient water village that is a great day trip to get away from the hustle and bustle of the big city. However don’t expect the crowds to be any less.
Now if you’re looking for a bit of an alternative, it’s probably worthwhile to mention Qibao which is actually accessible by subway (Qibao) which is another ancient town where you feel like you’re transported to another world but of course on a smaller scale than Zhujiajiao. If you don’t want to commute too far, Qibao may be the choice for you!
3. Yu Yuan & Cheng Huang Miao (Yu Yuan Garden and City God Temple)
A theme of tradition, culture, and ancient times is developing here and Yu Yuan and Cheng Huang Miao are one of the best travel destinations in Shanghai because it gives you a small sense of what it was like to live here in olden times despite how commercial it is today. In addition, this attraction is easily accessible from within the city via subway line #10 so there’s no reason not to go.
Where Zhujiajiao is an ancient water village, this gives you a feel for what a big market/godly temple area would be like. From the shopping aspect you get a ton of shops with handmade crafts, fake knock off stuff, folk art and other knick knacks. From a food perspective there are ton of street stalls with a random assortment of Chinese foods and snacks. Oh and don’t forget the huge signs for Starbucks and Dairy Queen there. There’s also a famous xiao long bao (Shanghai steamed soup dumpling) restaurant here called Nanxiang Mantou Dian.
From a sights perspective you’re surrounded by these tall ancient-looking well preserved area where you’re bombarded with temples, pavilions, halls, hanging lanterns. Towards the middle of the area, you’re graced with a beautiful zig-zagging pathway with a huge pond below with enormous Koi fish.
The Yu Yuan garden is absolutely beautiful inside with its well-preserved zen, greenery, and delicate flowers. Over 400 years old at this point, this is the perfect escape to the city as you get a chance to walk through pavilions, corridors, streams, and open courtyards. It is well worth the admission fee.
The only thing I warn you with is that it is hyper touristy as with many places in Shanghai so brace yourself!
4. Tian Zi Fang
There’s a real charm about this place that keeps drawing me back every time I go to Shanghai. This is an arts and crafts neighbourhood that has developed from a renovated residential area in the French Concession area. What I love about it are the maze-like alleyways that take you around to see a bunch of boutique gift shops, clothing stores, cafes, galleries, studios and other random knick-knack stores.
It feels as if the neighbourhood itself was preserved to how it was back in the 1930’s with its traditional architecture and ambiance. It’s on a way smaller scale compared to Cheng Huang Miao, trendier and less touristy.
Always a winner here. Eat, shop, and get lost.
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5. Science & Technology Subway Station Market
Okay let’s take a break from all that traditional things and let’s get real about why you came to China – to buy cheap, fake, knock-off stuff of course!
I’ve checked out quite a few of these markets and I find that the one literally just outside the turnstiles of the Science and Technology subway station (on the Pudong side) is the best for foreigners. It’s the most organized, clean and easy to figure your way around. Great buys here include phone accessories, sports jerseys, popular clothing brands, shoes (i.e. Tom’s, Adidas, Uggs), women’s bags, and other tech gear (GoPro, drones, speakers, power banks, screen protectors etc.).
The best/worst part about a market like this is that you need to know how to bargain. Never take the listed price or the price that they give you when you ask. Don’t be afraid to counter-offer their initial price at 50% off or more. If they don’t bite, just walk away. The truth is that there are so many stores that sell the same thing in the market so if you don’t get it at one of them, you’ll find another just a block down.
6. Ding Tai Fung for Xiao Long Bao
There are a ton of good food places in China and it would take forever to list all of them. If there’s one place that I “have” to go to each time it’s Ding Tai Fung. Now the funny thing is that this is actually a Taiwanese franchise, but never mind that.
Shanghai is known for their xiao long bao (Shanghai steamed soup dumplings) and these guys do it the best. They’re not the cheapest but in terms of the quality, the thin-ness of the dumpling skin, the amount of soup and the meat inside, I really can’t find anywhere else that beats this.
Party it up in Shanghai one night and check out the clubbing scene here. I can’t say I’ve done a lot of international clubbing but everything about M1nt screams high class (no kidding they have a shark tank) and fun. Though who knows, by the time you go to Shanghai the “it” club may have passed along its baton to someone else.
8. Pick a Skyscraper Shanghai World Financial Center (SWFC)
What tour of a city doesn’t include some sort of high-rise tower overlooking the landscape below? Right now, you get your choice of the Shanghai World Financial Center (SWFC), Jing Mao, and of course the tallest of them all, the new Shanghai Tower.
If you fancy something a bit more traditional, there’s also the Pearl Tower which is easier to access by the river and close to a ton of shopping malls and good food.
Xintiandi is an interesting spot in the city to check out though it is more of a hang out/party place that wakes up in the evening hours. It’s a car-free shopping, eating, entertainment district that is a gentrified area where traditional “shikumen” houses occupy the narrow alleyways.
This area is definitely prominent for foreigners and mostly ex-pats. Even if you’re not a partier, it’s still worthwhile to check out the area. It’s done up really nicely, clean, trendy, different from your typical China and also lots of great spots for photography.
10. East Nanjing Road
Perhaps this is the best for last but just as iconic as the Bund is, Nanjing Road East is buzzing with activity all hours of the day. No cars are allowed on this street and everywhere you turn there’s some sort of shopping. It’s also unlikely that you’ll miss this area because the nearest subway station to the Bund is this one so you’ll be walking through it I guarantee.
Most of the big brands are represented on this street. On top of that, there are some hidden gems food-wise here so make sure you poke inside the various storefronts to see what’s happening.
I’m not going to lie, it’s definitely very touristy here but if you want to come see the mecca of Chinese consumerism, more bright lights than Times Square, a ton of people and potential for some decent finds for shopping, you’ll want to visit Nanjing Road East.
Recommended Places to Stay
If you’re also looking for accommodations in the city and not sure where to start, check out these properties that suit your travel style.
- Green Court Serviced Apartment-People’s Square – While not a hotel, this apartment is in an extremely convenient location, only 10 minutes away from Nanjing Road East. At a fraction of the cost of brand-name hotels, this is a property that’s both highly rated and has the bonus of having a full kitchen to help you save even more money.
- Charms Hotel Shanghai – This hotel is right along Nanjing Road East which makes it desirable in terms of location. Now since it’s a budget property, it’s quite no frills and if you read the reviews, there’s definitely room for improvement. However, if you’re going to be out and about the whole day, the cost and location may be good enough for you to pull the trigger on this one.
- Renaissance Shanghai Yu Garden Hotel – As the name suggests, this is a hotel that is right by the Yu Yuan subway station which puts you right at one of the top attractions in the city. Don’t worry that it’s not by People’s Square because a quick subway hop over and you’re there.
- Pullman Shanghai Jingan – If you’re okay to be a bit further away in the area of Jingan, you’ll be able to save a lot of money. Jingan has quite a lot to explore including the famous temple and with the subway, you can get anywhere in the city.
- Radisson Blu Hotel Shanghai New World – Located in the heart of things and right across from People’s Square, it doesn’t get any more convenient than this.
- Shanghai Marriott Hotel City Centre – Another property that is right in the heart of the action and also only 5 minutes walk away from Nanjing Road East.
More on Shanghai
For more of my adventures in Shanghai, check out a few of my other posts!
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