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. As one of China’s largest cities, there is much to explore as the sprawl is massive. Luckily the metro system is insanely efficient and there is so much to occupy your time whether it’s a look at the old, the new, or the mixing of the two in this dynamic metropolis.
Here are the top 10 things to do in Shanghai that you can’t miss.
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Where to stay in Shanghai?
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Top 10 things to do in Shanghai
Over these years, I’ve been lucky enough to visit every so often and have had a chance to explore every corner of this city in China.
As a first-timer, I can appreciate how overwhelming it can be to plan a trip to Shanghai. There are language barriers, cultural differences, transportation to figure out, where to stay, and of course, what to see, do, and eat in in the city.
Whether you only have one day or you’re looking to build a 7 day itinerary, here are the things to do in Shanghai you need to consider to give you a head start in your planning.
1. The Bund
Iconic waterfront viewing of the Pudong side of Shanghai with its enormous collection of ridiculous skyscrapers and the Huangpu River flowing through with its 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).
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!
BEFORE YOU CONTINUE
You need to read the Shanghai neighborhood guide that dives into regions of the city and recommendations for where to stay.
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.
5. Science & Technology Subway Station Market (Xiangyang)
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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.
What’s strange is thatTripAdvisor says the market is permanently closed but by all accounts, this market is still open.
6. Din Tai Fung for Xiao Long Bao
Shanghai is known for their xiao long bao (Shanghai steamed soup dumplings). There’s a bit of an art to eating them but essentially what you’re supposed to do is dip them in the soy vinegar first, place it on your spoon, bite a small corner out to let the soup leak out. Next, you slurp a bit of the soup to see how hot it is and then chow down on the rest of the dumping.
There are a ton of good food places in China and it would take forever to list all of them however coming from someone that’s spent a lot of time in Shanghai, you really can’t beat the Din Tai Fung franchise. Originally from Taiwan, they’ve expanded rapidly around the world including within the city itself.
You can find Din Tai Fung practically in every corner now. They’re not exactly the cheapest in the city but honestly I haven’t come across any other xiao long bao restaurant that can beat their quality, thin-ness of the dumpling skin, the amount of soup, and the tastiness of the meat inside. You really can’t go wrong with Din Tai Fung (sometimes spelled as Ding Tai Fung).
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This may not be for everyone but Shanghai has an electric party scene that rivals cities like London, New York, Los Angeles, and others. Nightlife is something that Shanghai does well.
M1nt has consistently won awards and always draws solid international crowds on their big nights.
One of the key highlights is that they have an aquarium of sharks built in the venue. Being on the top floor of a skyscraper near the Bund also means it has sweet views.
Make sure you check out the top clubs in Shanghai and whether you go to M1nt or somewhere else, you’re going to have an amazing time.
8. Shanghai World Financial Center (SWFC)
Shanghai consistently outdoes itself when it comes to high-rise towers and skyscrapers. From the Bund, there’s a dazzling array of them lit up every night.
You almost have too many choices when it comes to observatories to visit in Shanghai:
- Oriental Pearl Tower – The OG tower and most iconic in Shanghai.
- Jin Mao – First of the trio of mega-towers in Shanghai.
- Shanghai World Financial Center (SWFC) – This is what I affectionately call the “bottle cap” skyscraper.
- Shanghai Tower – I know, the naming is confusing but this is the tallest of them (for now).
I’ve done them all and I have to say that my favourite is still SWFC.
The reason is that they have a really well-designed viewing platform that is quite long along that top part of the bottle-cap. This allows for people to be spaced out but also great top-down views of all of the other skyscrapers as well.
A word of warning, the views from up here will make your legs go jello if you’re afraid of heights like I am.
Looking for a guided experience?
Xintiandi is an interesting spot in the city to check out that’s both glitzy and posh. This pedestrian-friendly district is built upon Shanghai’s old Shikumen houses and is now best known for its fine restaurants, upscale clubs, and shops.
The best time to come to the area is at night when it comes alive with lights, music, and energy.
When I was living in Shanghai, we came here to party but for visitors, it’s worth adding Xintiandi to your itinerary for their international restaurants, boutique (albeit expensive) shops, a history lesson (Shikumen Museum and Birthplace of Chinese Communist Party), and tons of great photography opportunities.
10. Nanjing Road East
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.
Where to stay in Shanghai
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. For more detail, we have a Shanghai neighbourhood guide if you’re having trouble figuring out which area to be in.
- 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.
Map of Shanghai’s top attractions
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