Mainland China’s most cosmopolitan city is a shining example of contemporary refinement melded with ancient relics for a place that truly captivates the soul. Modern and thriving like New York City, those that visit Shanghai have much to choose from to fill their itineraries. It can be difficult to choose, especially if you haven’t much time to see it all. However, these 15 things should definitely make it onto your Shanghai Bucket List.
1. The Bund
It’s the symbol of Shanghai. The iconic skyline that sits upon the famed Bund is easily recognizable. Stroll along this waterfront boulevard and look out at the Huangpu River, taking in the busy city life swirling around you. To truly appreciate it, you should visit it during the day and then again once more at night time when the towers are all lit up and the reflections bounce off the rippling waters of the river.
2. Nanjing Lu
This main shopping street has to be on your Shanghai bucket list. It runs east and west through the city. On the east, it is referred to as the Chinese version of Times Square, brilliant with neon signs and swarms of pedestrians passing by. Previously, the west end of Nanjing Lu was known as the International Settlement there expats would typically hang about but now it is as busy as the east end of the road, filled with high-end shopping malls, opulent hotels and office buildings. Nanjing Lu is a fantastic place to walk around and will immediately make you forget you’re in mainland China, in case you needed something that feels more Western to keep you grounded.
3. Yu Garden
It’s one of the few old remaining sights of Shanghai from the days of yore and something that shouldn’t be missed simply because the modernization of the city is slowing but surely gobbling up the ancient relics of its past. This garden was built in 1559 by Zhang Nanyang for the Ming Dynasty. It’s a beautiful place with an interesting twist of history. Back in the 1800s, it was where an uprising was planned against the French colonists. It’s a peaceful respite in the bustling city with ponds of fish, bamboo, and rock gardens. There’s also a small museum where you can learn more about the historic significance of this garden.
4. Oriental Pearl Tower
For many of us, 1994 doesn’t seem like that long ago, but it’s over 22 years ago now! This iconic Shanghai landmark looks like it landed straight from the future into the Pudong area which is fascinating because at that time, the area it sits upon was farmland. The tower has three spheres, or pearls (hence the name of the structure) and of course has an observation deck that will give you some of the most breathtaking views of this magnificent city from above. In the base, there’s a museum devoted to Shanghai’s history prior to 1949. You can also get a cocktail at the top and even dine there, though there are much better restaurants to feast at along the nearby Bund.
5. Jade Buddha Temple
For a Chinese temple, this place isn’t that old. It’s not even 100 years old yet, but it survived the Cultural Revolution. The monks living there were pretty brilliant, tacking up pictures of Mao Zedong along the outside which made it impossible for the Red Guards to tear down the walls. You’ll learn some history while here as well as get to see the giant Buddha of white jade and precious gems that originally came from Burma. It’s over 6 feet in height and truly splendid, though on holidays it can get quite busy so beware!
6. Shanghai Zoo
The Shanghai Zoo is one of the few zoos in China that treat the animals well and keep the grounds clean. Kids and adults love the zoo, filled with plenty of animals to gawk at and well-kept grounds to wander through. The biggest reason to visit is to see the giant pandas. The other animals will delight you too from elephants to monkeys to birds to gorillas and beyond. Your best bet is to pack a picnic or else be subjected to paying too much for mediocre snacks. The best times to visit the zoo are during the work week and if you really want to enjoy it here, don’t go during one of the Chinese national holidays.
7. Huangpu Riverboat Tour
This river is the one you’ll see as you stroll along the Bund. It’s what splits the city in half. Puxi is the older side on the west and is the city center. The newer side on the east is Pudong. The riverboat tour is a wonderful way to get a gander at the city from a different perspective, where you can see the suburban areas that suddenly give way to the urban areas with those skyscrapers and the iconic skyline. Of course, going at night is one of the best ways to truly appreciate the magnificence.
8. Longhua Temple
Remember the movie Empire of the Sun? That’s where you’ve seen this temple before. It is the largest temple in Shanghai featuring 5 halls, 2 towers, and a huge copper bell that they strike upon on New Year’s Eve. There’s also a pagoda but that’s not open to visitors. Still, you can get some amazing photos of it while you’re there.
9. Pudong Skyscrapers
When you’re on the newer side of Shanghai, you’ll want to take a look at the skyscrapers too. The Jin Mao Tower is an interesting one to see because it somewhat resemble the pagoda designs of Buddhist temples. Grand Hyatt also offers a gorgeous view from above and a fantastic bar. If you want to avoid the crowds and get a good look at Shanghai from above from this side of the river, stick to riding up to the top of the big hotels and hang out at the bar.
10. Soong Qing-Ling’s Former Residence
The history of this place will fascinate anyone, even those with no prior knowledge of Chinese history. Soong Qing-Ling married a nationalist leader Sun Yat-Sen who was almost 30 years older than she was. Not surprisingly, he died 10 years later and when he did, she switched from Nationalism to Communism. This residence served as her primary home from 1948 to 1963. There is a small museum next to her former home where you can learn even more about her and the history behind this captivating story.
11. People’s Square
It is the center of Shanghai and you’ll find the people of Shanghai hanging out at all hours of the day. You’ll find the old folks chatting over thermoses of tea, groups of people practicing tai chi, and even ballroom dancing lessons in the evening. Here is also where you’ll find the Shanghai Museum and the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center. And for the kids, there’s a small amusement park that you can walk around for free though the rides all come with a nominal fee. It’s busiest on the weekends, so to avoid the crowds, take a gander on a weekday.
12. People’s Park
It’s right next to the People’s Square where you’ll find much to do. On a beautiful day, it’s nice to walk around here among the flowers and ponds. You’ll also find the Museum of Contemporary Art here which is worth a look if you have the time. One of the most fascinating things in the People’s Park though happens on weekends. Known as the “marriage market,” desperate parents come seeking spouses for their children and brandish flyers that list every statistic about them from height and weight to annual income. It will make you appreciate that your parents didn’t meddle as much.
13. French Concession
The European influences in Shanghai are both abundant and fascinating. Among them, the French Concession remains much like it did 100 years ago. It’s here you’ll find quiet tree-lined streets reminiscent of French life. There are cafes, boutiques and restaurants, all of which make for a peaceful break in the big city. It’s very interesting to see this area because it is completely different from the rest of the city.
14. Shanghai Museum
You’ll know you’ve found the right place when you arrive at this museum. The outside looks like an ancient cooking vessel. The Chinese call it a ding, an apt name for something that is rather unsightly. However, enter the museum and you’ll find some of the most spectacular Chinese works of art from paintings to ceramics to sculptures and calligraphy. There are numerous artifacts from the Ming and Qing dynasties including furniture and jewelry. The dress gallery will absolutely impress too. You’re instantly reminded that China is home to different minorities and here is where you’ll see intricate stitching from a good portion of them.
15. St. Ignatius Cathedral
What’s most fascinating about this Catholic cathedral is that it’s surrounded by the utter chaos of the city. Inside though is an air of calm that envelops you from the moment you walk in. Opened in 1910, this Neo-Gothic Roman Catholic church was actually largely affected by the Cultural Revolution. The Red Guards made short work of the stunning stained glass windows and then, this place become a state-owned warehouse for grain for a good 10 years. Finally in the 1980s, it was restored to its former glory, a truly spectacular sight to behold.
In addition to these incredible things to do in Shanghai, you’ll find so many more that will appeal to you. You can take bus tours of the city if you’re on a time crunch. And you can also explore the cuisine. Don’t forget to sample the xiaolong bao, Shanghai’s most famed food. It’s a soup dumpling that you’ll find everywhere from restaurants to street stalls. Be sure to bite it while on the big soup spoon or else you’ll lose the very thing that makes it so renowned – the tasty soup within!
Shanghai is a very affluent city so be prepared to spend a pretty penny, but it’s all worth it to truly experience one of the world’s prettiest cities.