Looking for tips on things to do in Shanghai?
As part of our city guides series, we interviewed Reena Ganga from Wanderplex who first traveled to Shanghai more than six years ago, and has been back many times since.
Reena shares with us her insider tips on the best things to do in Shanghai, plus advice on where to eat, sleep, drink, shop and explore.
Why Visit Shanghai?
It’s hard to explain the sense of optimism and excitement that you feel when you walk through Shanghai – it’s a city that is just alive and buzzing.
I think this is because China is a country that is developing so quickly and playing an increasingly important role globally.
So for visitors, Shanghai is a great place to get an understanding of modern China’s role in our global future.
The city also offers a great mix of old and new – on the one hand you can see old-school produce markets in the streets, eat traditional cuisine, and witness time-honored customs, but on the other hand you can see a rapidly expanding skyline that is so gleaming and futuristic it almost looks like it was built by aliens.
Where else in the world can you experience such a contrast?
Things to Do in Shanghai
To me, a visit to Shanghai is more about people watching and observing what life is like in modern China, rather than hitting up a series of historic sites.
With that in mind, here are a couple of activities I highly recommend for soaking up the city’s culture and atmosphere.
- The Shanghai Museum, located in People’s Square, is excellent if you want to learn about traditional ceramics, furniture, jade, coins, paintings and so on.
- The Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center is also worth a visit, if only to see the enormous scale model of the city. You get to see what the city looks like now, as well as all the developments that are planned for the coming years.
- If you’re in town on a weekend, you definitely shouldn’t miss the marriage market held at the north end of People’s Park. This is where parents gather and scour notices in the hopes of finding a suitable spouse for their adult children.
- Without a doubt, one of the highlights of a visit to Shanghai is seeing the city skyline all lit up at night. There are lots of rooftop bars that offer great vantage points (see my tips below about where to drink for more on that) but a really enjoyable way to take it all in is to go on a cruise along the Huang Pu River and The Bund, which is the waterway that runs through the city. The cruises are cheap (around $6 or so) and you can buy tickets from the booths at the southern end of the Bund promenade.
- Planning to visit Shanghai with kids? Here are some great Shanghai Disneyland tips.
Best Neighborhoods in Shanghai
The French Concession
The French Concession is a part of Shanghai that was once a French settlement, and it’s a lovely area to stroll through.
The streets are quiet and leafy – which is a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of the city – and there’s lots of nice architecture. The area also has great shopping (see below for more specifics).
If you want to see the more traditional side of Shanghai, the area surrounding the Yuyuan Gardens is full of little alleyways dotted with fishmongers and local markets, and consequently, not many tourists!
And of course, to explore modern Shanghai, you can’t go past Pudong. This is the newer section of the city that stretches along the east side of the river, opposite the historic city center. The Lujiazui area is particularly dense with unusual and futuristic skyscrapers.
Where to Eat in Shanghai
Let me start by warning you that Chinese food in China tastes nothing like the Chinese food we’re used to eating in the Western world.
A lot of the food is either really bland or really unusually spiced, or made with parts of animals we could never in a million years fathom eating, or the food is just so bizarre you don’t even know what it is.
With that said, there are still some great restaurants in Shanghai if you know where to look.
- Xintiandi, which is an affluent pedestrian-only area of shops and restaurants, has lots of great food options including both Asian and Western fare.
- Sinan Mansions, made up of a bunch of renovated villas, is also full of restaurants that appeal to Western palates.
- For Yunan food and beautiful décor, I really enjoy Lost Heaven. It’s sister restaurant, Coconut Paradise, serves up really good Thai food.
- For a splurge, M on the Bund offers great Bund views and mostly Western food (it’s run by some Aussies), while Mr and Mrs Bund serves fabulous French cuisine.
- If you want a really fun meal, I recommend eating at Haidi Lao, which is a chain of hot pot restaurants that offers manicures and games while you wait for your table.
- For budget eats, the Tokyo Food Court, which is under the HSBC and Cartier stores near Xintiandi, has lots of options like sushi, noodles, pizza, pasta etc.
- If you’re craving western food, check out Wagas – the chain serves up wraps, sandwiches, soups etc, which are perfect if you don’t feel like a heavy, greasy lunch.
You Can’t Visit Shanghai Without Eating?
Xiao Long Bao, which are dumplings with soup and meat in them.
What you do is bite a hole in one end of the pastry and slurp out all the liquid before eating the rest of the dumpling. This type of dumpling is a Shanghai specialty.
Where to Drink in Shanghai?
Well, there’s definitely something for everyone when it comes to drinking in Shanghai.
- Barbarossa is a Moroccan themed lounge in the middle of People’s Park.
- If you like girly, pink places, you’ll enjoy Glamour Bar.
- The Boxing Cat Brewery is great if you’re into micro brew beers.
- People 7 is a nice bar, but you have to solve a puzzle to get in the door (and to use the bathrooms), so don’t go there drunk!
- Sinan Mansions and Xintiandi are both full of great drinking spots including a wine bar and a German beerhouse.
- Shanghai also has countless rooftop bars with stunning views – VUE Bar at Hyatt on the Bund even has rooftop Jacuzzi that you can enjoy while you drink.
Best Places in Shanghai for a Night on the Town?
If you go to TMSK (a restaurant/bar located in Xintiandi) on a Friday or Saturday night, you’ll often be able to enjoy traditional music and singing. Ask to be seated upstairs where the stage is.
However, if you want to party, then you’ll want to hit up M1NT which is the hottest club in town. It’s set in a high-rise building and is so glamorous it even boasts a tank of baby sharks!
Where to Stay in Shanghai
If you’re on a budget, I recommend the Captain Hostel. The location right opposite the Bund is excellent and they have an amazing rooftop bar with views to kill for.
On the high end, the Langham Hotel in Xintiandi is a great choice. Their service is great and they are right by all the nice shopping and dining venues.
For more places to stay in Shanghai choose from the largest range of hotels, apartments, and guesthouses with our partner Booking.com. You get free cancellation on most rooms, and in most cases, you only pay when you stay.
Markets & Shopping in Shanghai
There’s no shortage of shopping to be had in Shanghai and you’ll see what I mean if you go.
Nanjing East Road, Nanjing West Road, and Huahai Middle Road are where you’ll find the big malls and flagship stores.
If you prefer markets, head to Tianzifang. This market has good prices on handicrafts, jewelry, and other souvenirs. Tianzifang is a really cool area to wander around, but the narrow maze-like streets are really easy to get lost in.
There’s also a giant underground market below the Science and Technology Museum in Pudong (you’ll see it as soon as you walk out of the metro station).
This is the place to go for fake designer stuff, as well as other random knick-knacks, but prices here are on the high side.
However, if you’re looking for something special, I recommend visiting the French Concession.
Changle Lu (“lu” means street in Chinese) near Ruijin Lu is where you’ll find good boutiques by emerging Chinese fashion designers.
The area where Xinle Lu, Donghu Lu, and Fumin Lu intersect is where you’ll find nice home-wares, fashion, and restaurants.
And Jinxian Lu is another area in the French Concession with emerging local designers. All of these spots are the cool shopping areas where people “in the know” go.
Getting Around Shanghai
Shanghai’s metro is fast, cheap, clean and really easy to use, with plenty of signage in English.
However, if you’ll have to make lots of transfers to get to your destination, a taxi can be a good option since they’re quite affordable (although you might have to contend with a bit of traffic).
Shanghai is a big city, so you’ll need to take some form of transport to get from point A to point B, but the city is quite walkable within the neighborhoods.
A lot of what there is to do in Shanghai is walk around and soak up the atmosphere.
Finding WiFi in Shanghai China
Most hotels and hostels will provide wi-fi for guests, however, if you’ll be staying for a while I recommend getting your own VPN.
This is because a lot of popular websites (like facebook) are blocked in China.
The city does have a free public wi-fi service, but I would never consider connecting to it as there are a lot of scam-y, fake services in Shanghai and you don’t want anyone hacking into your computer or accounts.
You can get aroud the Great Firewall in China with a VPN here
Best Time of Year to Visit Shanghai
Shanghai gets crazy humid in the summer time – as in, you step out the front door and in about 30 seconds your clothes are soaked through with sweat. Ick.
So I would avoid summer, but any other time is good to visit.
Favorite Side Trip from Shanghai
If you want to see traditional Chinese gardens, Suzhou can be visited as a day trip. The train between Shanghai and Suzhou is really modern and fast, but be warned that getting around Suzhou itself can be a bit confusing and not many people there speak English.
Hangzhou is another popular side trip. The city is most famous for the pretty scenery and traditional buildings along its lake.
Getting There and Away?
Shanghai has two airports, and if you’re traveling to or from Pudong Airport, consider taking the high-speed train.
The Maglev goes at up to 268 mph, making it one of the fastest trains in the world. It’s worth taking the train just for the experience.
Best insiders Tip for Shanghai
The Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Center has a fabulous collection of posters that give you a visual history of the country and help you understand the ideas put forth during the Cultural Revolution.
The museum is hidden away in the basement of an apartment building, so finding it is half the fun.
I recommend getting a foot massage in Shanghai. They’re really cheap and you can share the experience with a bunch of friends.
Just be sure to learn the word for “softer” because Chinese massages can be kinda painful!
And finally, be sure to check out the shopping areas in the French Concession that I mentioned above.
Most tourists stick to the big malls or markets, but this is where you’ll really find the up-and-coming fashions.
I love Shanghai because …
The city is constantly growing and evolving so there’s always something new and exciting to discover.
More China travel tips
Plan Your Trip to Shanghai
- Booking.com has over 900 properties in Shanghai including hotels, apartments, and hostels. You get free cancellation on most rooms and a best price guarantee.
Tours in Shanghai
- Skyscanner is a comparison website that searches millions of flights. Once you find your best flight deal, they send you to book directly through the airline or agent (no middlemen) or extra fees.
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Reena Ganga decided to start her blog, Wanderplex, after spending a year traveling around the world and realizing there was no resource that provided the kind of insider information she was looking for. She harnesses her years of experience and knowledge traveling – including luxury travel, budget travel, studying abroad, and living as an expat – and brings it together on her site.
Do you have tips on things to do in Shanghai? Please share in the comments.