Shanghai is an amazing city, it has been strongly influenced by both East and West, creating a diverse mix of architecture, culture, and people that is found in few other places in China. Despite being renowned as a business destination, Shanghai also offers an abundance of activities for leisure travelers. So, if you’ve been wondering what to do in Shanghai, continue reading to learn about some of the best locations and activities in the city. All of the below can be done in one day if you can walk fast enough and don’t stop at many shops, but I would suggest taking your time to properly enjoy the city over 72 hours.
– – – Day 1 – – –
The French Concession
Begin your journey by heading to South Shaanxi Road Station. You’ll know you’re in the right area when you exit if see the French Concession’s identifying characteristic: the sycamore trees lining its streets. Turns out, they were all imported from abroad by the French and remain as a symbol of the area to this day. But perhaps you will be more interested in the other things lining the streets: the buildings themselves. The European influence over the buildings in this area is evident, with different styles being found throughout the area. A visit to these will be worthwhile to anyone interested architecture.
One of the most popular parks in Shanghai, it should be visited during a weekend to enjoy what truly makes it unique: the people. Musicians, singers, martial arts practitioners and many others, this park brings together groups and individuals with various talents.
The stone floor of the park is one of the preferred spots for master calligraphists and other people learning this art to practice their strokes. But don’ expect to see them use ink, these artists use brushes to write Chinese characters using water. It’s elegant, easy-to-clean and fun. You’ll usually find them happily teaching newcomers and travelers alike how to write their first Chinese characters.
Are you more interested in some live music? Then follow your ears to find one of the local singers giving open air concerts. My local guide, Qin Qin, pointed out that some of the people who sing or play instruments in the park are retired artists and actresses who still enjoy putting on a performance for people.
The park also has something you will see in other places of China, and that you rarely see in the West: people partaking in dancing on the street. Certain individuals contribute by bringing the speakers and the music, allowing people to begin dancing with their partners, friends or complete strangers. Don’t be afraid to ask someone to dance, even if you lack the language skills, the dance moves are universal and the people in China are very friendly.
Now a hub of modern cafes, restaurants and shops, this area has had quite a bit of history. Originally a housing area for families, it was given to a real estate company some years later to develop it into its current form. The area is renowned for its “shikumen” houses (stone-frame door houses) with black-painted plank doors. At its center, you will find the statues of three men, who represent three things highly valued by many Chinese: Fortune, Prosperity and Longevity. Don’t forget to stop at the memorial site for the First National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) while you’re in the area.
People’s Square and People’s Park
Ever wanted to know how Chinese arranged marriages are set up? Now is your chance! Stop by People’s Park on a Saturday or Sunday between noon and 5pm to see parents hard-at-work trying to get their children married. The protocol is simple, they write their child’s resume (including work, salary, hobbies and what kind of partner they are seeking) and proceed to put it on an umbrella placed on the floor. The purpose of the umbrella, besides being eye-catching, is to avoid placing the child’s resume on the floor itself, which would be poorly seen. Parents can arrange a meeting for their children in person or call the parent’s number written on the resume.
After enjoying a walk through the park, take a moment to visit and photograph the Shanghai Race Club and the JW Marriot Hotel, with its Feng Shui inspired form. Nearby, in People’s Square, you can view the Grand Theater, the Urban Planning Exhibition Hall, the Shanghai Museum or indulge in some shopping in the underground Shanghai DMC Shopping Center.
– – – Day 2 – – –
As one of the major roads in Shanghai, walking its entirety to see all it has to offer will be hard. If you’re already at People’s Square, I suggest walking to the section of Nanjing Road that leads towards The Bund, with its marvelous view of the financial district. As you walk along Nanjing Road, you will find many stores selling everything from food to clothes. Since your stomach is probably growling at this point, I recommend walking into these stores to eat some local delicacies and buy some treats for later. The sheer amount of variety will ensure you don’t leave empty handed.
Shanghai is divided down the middle by the Huangpu River, with the west side being the more traditional and developed area and the east being the Financial District and location of more modern housing. The Bund is one of the most popular places to view the Financial District from the west-side of the river. If you’ve seen any photos of Shanghai, chance is at least one of those was taken here. From The Bund, you can cross the river by grabbing a boat in the nearby dock or taking the underground tunnel which has lights and sounds. I recommend the former, as the underground tunnel is a paid attraction that lasts a short while and isn’t particularly interesting.
Oriental Pearl Tower
Once across the river, your first stop should be the Oriental Pearl Tower. Regardless of whether you took the ferry or the underground tunnel, finding it should be easy as it stands out in the skyline. If you buy a ticket to the second sphere observatory, that is more than enough, as the 360° view will be perfect for seeing the surrounding areas. This level also has the transparent floor you can stand on (if you’re feeling courageous). Other attractions inside include the Oriental Pearl Science Fantasy World, which has some shows for adults and kids to enjoy, and a revolving restaurant if you’re interested in a meal with a view.
Shanghai History Museum
Want to feel like you got into a time machine and traveled back to the streets of historic Shanghai? If so, the replicas in this museum are the next best option. Here you see the first cars to be used in Shanghai, the evolution of clothing, traditional workshops, recreations of streets that you can walk through and, in general, just learn more about the history of the area. The best part is that the entry fee comes included with most tickets to the Oriental Pearl Tower. So, head up to view modern Shanghai and then go to the basement to catch a glimpse of how it was before. Any time you spend here will be worth the while.
– – – Day 3 – – –
Shanghai Old Town (Nanshi)
Take a short walk from The Bund and you will arrive at Old Town, an area of that used to be the center of urban Shanghai in previous times. However, now days it has been converted into a bustling commercial center filled with many different shops and places to eat. It’s mostly targeted at tourists, so expect to find lots of shops selling the usual souvenirs. During the day, you can visit Yuyuan Garden to enjoy a walk through a traditional Chinese garden. However, visiting Old Town at night is highly recommended as the lights from the buildings create a very unique and pleasant setting.
Definitely a place to visit at night to enjoy the ambiance at its best, Tianzifang is an area filled with shops, bars and restaurants that’s very popular with foreign visitors. It’s an incredible experience being able to walk through its small alleys while discovering something new at every corner (even when you accidentally end up at someone’s house and not a store). Take some time to shop around, grab some dumplings and challenge yourself to make exciting discoveries as you walk its alleys. Perhaps you’ll even find the small entrance leading to the music box shop and museum.
Some Last Tips
Hopefully this article has given you an idea as for what to do in Shanghai. Many thanks to my local guide Qin Qin for taking me to some of these places, helping me find the others and teaching me the history of Shanghai. If you’re interested, see some of the places Qin Qin can take you to near Shanghai. Seeing the city with a local guide is very helpful, especially when so few local people speak English. You can also view some other tours and activities available in Shanghai. Have some thoughts regarding Shanghai you want to share? Be sure to leave them below.