The Best of Shanghai
When I was living in Nanjing, a weekend away in Shanghai was a rare treat.
“You headed to Shangers this weekend?” my mates would ask over beers at Talking 2.
“Oh yeah,” I’d reply over a glass of frothy Tiger or Tsingtao Gold, “I need a change of scene”.
While Nanjing is a modern city with plenty of amenities, there was just something special about a weekend away in Shanghai. Whether I was going clubbing with Byron & Hogg, over-indulging in delicious food with whoever I was dating at the time, or just taking my camera and doing some tourism – Shanghai was always a blast.
While it often gets compared to Beijing with its wealth of historic sites, there is still plenty to see and do while in Shanghai.
And, like many other major Chinese cities, Shanghai is part of the 72-hour visa on arrival program (although I wouldn’t advise using this with the current COVID restrictions). For a longer visit, you’ll need to make a Chinese visa application through a service like Visa Express.
Without further ado, here are a few of my favourite spots to visit when exploring Shanghai.
Seven Places to Visit in Shanghai
From its roots as little more than a small fishing village, Shanghai has fast developed into a cosmopolitan metropolis famed across the world for its fantastic shopping, dining, and night life.
Beyond the malls, restaurants, and bars, there is a wealth of things to be done in Shanghai.
The China Art Museum
The China Art Museum is, for example, a work of art all of its own. Its unusual shape evokes both China’s ancient heritage and modern art, and taking a photo in front of the museum is a favorite activity of many travelers.
One of the most important collections of art in all of Asia, the China Art Palace has 27 exhibition halls home to a colossal collection of oil paintings, prints, sculptures, and examples of Chinese calligraphy. Visitors can expect to find not only a wealth of Chinese art, but also touring exhibitions from around the world.
With more than 1,400 works of art within the China Art Museum, you would need 5-hours to see them all, and that’s assuming you saw 4 every minute you were there!
Entrance to the museum is free, but booking at least 48-hours ahead of your visit is essential to ensure yourself of a place. The popular Riverside Scene at Qingming Festival in Exhibition Hall 5 does attract a 20 RMB entrance fee, however.
Propaganda Poster Art Centre
If you’re not a huge connoisseur of art (like myself), you might appreciate this smaller, more specific museum. Hidden in an otherwise unremarkable corner of Shanghai, the Propaganda Museum is chock full of fascinating examples of propaganda from China’s past.
Examples of anti-American sentiment, pro-Communist rhetoric, pro-Russian propaganda, and more can be seen in the dimly lit rooms of this house-sized museum. It’s absolutely fascinating.
Shanghai Natural History Museum
If you’re traveling with kids, the Shanghai Natural History Museum is a fantastic way to keep them entertained between all of the less stimulating cultural stuff. Having traveled around South Korea and China with my then nine-year-old brother, I know how hard it is to get kids excited about ancient sites and stuffy museums!
With everything from fossils dating back to the Mesozoic era to full size animatronic representations of dinosaurs to live insects to a truly impressive selection of taxidermy, the museum is a great activity on a rainy day, even if you aren’t traveling with kids.
My ex and I spent the better part of one rainy October day exploring its halls, and it’s well worth the time.
Jin Mao Tower
Jin Mao Tower is also one of the popular modern attractions in the city. One of the tallest skyscrapers in Shanghai and the 31st tallest building in the world, Jin Mao Tower is visible from all parts of the city.
While many simply stop by to photograph its distinctive architecture, those with a little more time on their hands can venture up to the 88th floor to wander amongst the clouds on the Jin Mao Tower Skywalk. You’ll pay around $60 USD for the privilege, but its an unparalleled view of the city.
Wander the Bund & The French Concession
Amidst the glittering skyscrapers and apartment buildings that dominate the Shanghai skyline, the French Concession and the Bund stand out as slices from a different time when Shanghai was occupied by foreign powers.
The upscale Bund is a popular spot for tourists and locals alike to walk along the river and photograph the distinctive European architecture, while a great many fantastic restaurants, bars, and hotels can be found for those willing to pay the premium.
For those on a tighter budget, the greener French Concession is no less charming. Packed full of quaint boutiques and trendy coffee shops, the French Concession is a popular spot with expats who want to feel like they’re in China while still having comforts from home.
Oriental Pearl Tower
The Oriental Pearl Tower is unquestionably Shanghai’s most recognisable building. It stands out in the skyline like something out of science fiction, making it one of the most photographed sites in not just Shanghai, but China.
Home to a radio and television broadcaster, the Pearl itself is not a place I’d recommend visiting up close, but it’s well worth trekking to find the perfect angle from which to photograph its War of the Worlds-esque architecture.
For those looking for an escape from the hustle and bustle of a city of 25 million souls, Yuyuan Gardens is something of an oasis at the heart of the city.
(Although it’s still going to be crowded)
The Chinese tradition of carefully groomed gardens is world-renowned, and Yuyuan Garden is a fantastic example of the Ming Dynasty tradition. Divided into six sections (known as the Suzhou Style) the gardens are full of beautiful rockeries, gracefully curving bridges, meticulously trimmed hedges, tranquil ponds, and stately pavilions.
There is also a bustling market for those looking for a souvenir and a snack, with the popular ‘Zigzag Bridge’ located here as well.
I’ve visited Yuyuan Gardens several times now, even doing a tea ceremony with my ex-girlfriend there on her first day in the country. It’s a lovely spot.
People’s Square is another great place to get away from the noise of the city. Public spaces in China are a great glimpse into local culture, with everybody from children to their great grandparents gathering to play, read, socialize, practise Tai Chi, sing, and more.
Honestly, people watching in parks and squares in China is one of my favourite things to do in the world. Hell, if you’re lucky, you might even get invited to play a little 毽子 – Chinese hacky sack!
There are also many restaurants and coffee shops in the area, offering both Western and Chinese cuisine.
Eat Xiao Long Bao
You can visit Shanghai without trying one of its famous soup dumplings. While Georgia’s kinkhali have since captured my heart, a good Shanghainese soup dumpling is a thing of beauty.
The most popular location to get one of these savoury delights is at the aforementioned Yuyuan Gardens, but you’ll be facing long lines and a steep price for the privilege.
Almost Landing has a fantastic article highlighting their favourite Xiao Long Bao spots in the city, so I’ll let them guide your tastebuds on this one!
There is so much to see and do in Shanghai, and while my favourite way to spend a weekend there was bar hopping and eating all of the things, I did my fair share of tourism when I lived in Nanjing from 2012 – 2016.
What are your favourite things to do in Shanghai?