It’s tempting to picture Shanghai as a city of glistening neon towers and financial behemoths, but it would be an injustice to reduce to that a city with such a rich and nuanced history, dynamic and innovative culture, and a gigantic and diverse population. Shanghai fuses East and West like no other city on Earth: traditional shikumen houses coexist with art deco buildings; cathedrals, synagogues and Buddhist temples, with some of the world’s tallest skyscrapers; cheap Shanghainese street food can be found next to Michelin-starred haute cuisine; traditional Chinese opera next to luxury brand malls.
It is now possible for many travellers to visit Shanghai visa-free for up to 144 hours (a transit visa is issued on arrival), so here are our recommendations for what to see, do, eat and experience on your next visit to China’s most exciting city.
Do & See
One of the city’s most iconic sights, the riverside Bund hearkens back to the 1930s, when Shanghai was the business and financial center of the entire Asian continent. Gorgeous concession-era buildings, which used to house powerful banks and trading houses, line the pleasant riverside promenade, which boasts the very best views of Pudong, as the past and future centers of Asia’s financial world face each other from across the water. Sunset is a particularly popular time for a stroll along the Bund, when visitors crowd the railings in search of that perfect selfie with the iconic Shanghai skyline, a fact which would have been unimaginable just 30 years ago, when the Pudong side of the river was little more than grass fields.
The Bund connects with People’s Square – a large public plaza, park and transportation hub and home to municipal government buildings, as well as numerous hotels and museums – via East Nanjing Road, one of Shanghai’s premiere shopping streets and a river of neon signs and bewildered crowds. Mainly dominated by large department stores and brand-name clothing shops, East Nanjing Road also hides some seriously good eats and peddlers of knock-off goods.
Venturing a bit further afield, to the French Concession, reveals quite a different side to this multifaceted city. Gracious tree-lined boulevards and narrow lòngtáng alleyways house intimate studios, concept stores, galleries and vintage boutiques, as well as chic bars and cafes, all infused with generous doses of charm and authenticity. The areas of Tiánzǐfáng and Xīntiāndì especially showcase what the French Concession is all about, though the latter has acquired a bit of an up-scale feel to it in recent years (and prices have increased accordingly).
For another taste of traditional Shanghai, the Yùyuán Gardens and Bazaar, in the Old Town, can’t be beat. Exquisitely designed Ming-era gardens, pools and streams surround beautiful wooden buildings and pavilions and provide a peaceful retreat from the busy city streets. If you manage, take a break at one of China’s most famous tea houses and get all your souvenir shopping done in the surrounding area after taking in one of the city’s finest sights.
It’s time to cross the river and explore the glistening forest of skyscrapers in Pudong. In less than 30 years this area has transformed from a flat, unexciting neighborhood to the center of Asian business and finance, to a thriving district with exciting shopping and entertainment options. Watch your neck as you lean back to try to take in the enormity of the area’s buildings, and be sure to catch the views from the observation deck at the top of either the iconic Oriental Pearl Tower or the newly built Shanghai Tower (currently the second tallest building in the world, boasting the planet’s highest skydeck).
Shanghai is a shapeshifting city in more ways than one, with more than glitz and glamour to offer, so be sure to check out some of its less frequented attractions. For a glance at 20th century Chinese history, check out the staggering collection of Mao-era Communist propaganda posters at the Propaganda Poster Art Center, or discover alternative Shanghai at M50, a fascinating industrial art complex where artists have set up studios and galleries among old factories to promote local artistic production.
A generous 144 hours’ allowance gives one plenty of time to delve into the local culinary scene, and some of its offerings can simply not be done without. One such treat are the xiao long bao – steamed dumplings oozing a heavy, flavorful soup that melts off the gelatin-infused stuffing. Ground pork is the classic, but crab meat and roe become common in late fall.
For a less refined take on, essentially, the same concept, try the sheng jian bao – these are buns rather than dumplings, pan-fried on one side, with a significantly thicker layer of dough containing the precious stocky insides of pork and, arguably, the world’s most addictive substance – the familiar thick, scrumptious soup. Traditionally, these are eaten for breakfast, but we find they work best as a street snack between meals.
Noodles are ubiquitous in Shanghai, and come both broth-deluged and fried, topped with meat and vegetables (try the scallion oil or eel noodles – shansi leng mian – if in doubt). Thanks to its coastal location, Shanghai also enjoys easy access to fresh seafood, and the local speciality hairy crab is harvested (and featured on menus) in late fall. Despite the unfortunate crackdown on the city’s longstanding food streets, Shouning Lu remains the place to go for crayfish, grilled oysters, and more. For dessert, pop a Portuguese egg tart or two (Lillian Bakery and street corners).
With one of the country’s highest concentration of expats and an ever-increasing youthful populace, Shanghai is a city whose evenings start slow (yet early – the sun sets already at 7pm) with casual drinks, and get increasingly louder as the night progresses. This certainly is the case at the legendary speakeasy-style Monkey Champagne in Donghu Lane, as well as other similar lounge bars embracing the Prohibition theme.
The Bund remains a glamorous magnet for those looking for an outing in style (panoramic Bar Rouge and M1NT are the longstanding classics, but they lack the excitement and energy of Unico), while the bars of the French Concession offer a more laid-back, hip alternative to the flashiness of the riverside (try The Shelter – contained inside an actual former bomb shelter – and Arcade, where patrons try a hand at a nostalgic vintage video game simulator).
Shanghai boasts a wealth of accommodation options, ranging from simple functionality to exorbitant luxury, but for the best stay we highly recommend the Grand Kempinski Hotel Shanghai. Boasting state-of-the-art facilities, world-class service, spacious and elegant rooms, exquisite dining and one of the finest locations in the city, you’d be hard pressed to find better accommodation in Shanghai.
Situated in the heart of the financial district in Pudong, it is right in the middle of the action in the most modern part of town, and has quick and easy access to transportation that can take you to the city’s best attractions in minutes. The hotel’s pièce de résistance, however, are the astounding views of the Bund, which really set it apart from the competition. Learn more about the Grand Kempinski Hotel Shanghai in our full review.