As much as the biggest city in China attracts its fair share of detractors, it’s no stretch for me to proclaim (with conviction) that Shanghai is one of the world’s great travel destinations. Don’t take this as assurance that you’ll instantly fall in love with this boisterous Chinese megapolis, but more as a suggestion to give this crazy place a fair chance on your China itinerary.
To be sure, the initial impact of Shanghai is intimidating for the outsider. Whether its the traffic jams, questionable air quality, or never-ending hordes of tourists, Shanghai’s bound to test your patience in one way or another.
Once you start digging into the best things to do in Shanghai though, the petty squabbles become increasingly meaningless. Wander through the leafy boulevards of the French Concession or sip a cocktail to lit-up views over The Bund and the Pudong skyline, and you’ll discover exactly why travellers like me have learned to love Shanghai.
Not sure where to start? Plan your trip with this guide to the top Shanghai attractions…
Table of Contents
- What to do in Shanghai: The top attractions & best places to visit
- Take a stroll along The Bund
- Catch new trends in Tianzifang
- Get a glimpse of Shanghai’s past at Old City
- Marvel at the blissful Yuyuan Garden
- See Shanghai’s greener side in the French Concession
- Gaze upon Shanghai from above at Shanghai Tower
- Eat your way through Huanghe Road Food Street
- Admire Shanghai’s past in Qibao Ancient Town
- Dispense all your yuan at Nanjing Road
- Get spiritual at Jing’an Temple
- Chill out in Fuxing Park
- Oriental Pearl Tower
- Shanghai World Financial Center
- Where to stay: The best hotels for sightseeing in Shanghi
- Where to go in Shanghai: A summary of the top points of interest
What to do in Shanghai: The top attractions & best places to visit
Take a stroll along The Bund
Even if you’ve only managed to carve out one day in Shanghai, there’s no better introduction to the city than its famous riverside district, The Bund. Any expectations you’ve drawn up of what a Chinese city looks like will be instantly shattered by The Bund’s graceful European-influenced appearance.
The Bund’s architectural palette—swinging anywhere between Art Deco and Gothic to Renaissance and Baroque—hints back to the dawn of its modern age when major Western powers converged on the area, creating an International Settlement in 1863 that would last until the WWII Japanese invasion of 1941.
Besides the brilliant architecture on the western bank, The Bund presents one of the city’s most compelling cross-river viewpoints towards the futuristic skyline of Lujiazui in Pudong. As stunning as it is by day, to truly appreciate it, visit in the evening after the sun dips below the city to see the brilliant neon lights of Lujiazui overtake the skyscrapers.
Getting to The Bund: From Exit 2 or 7 of Nanjing East Road Station, it’s less than a 10-minute walk, about three blocks east towards the river, to The Bund.
Catch new trends in Tianzifang
One of Shanghai’s most artistic corners, Tianzifang is a pleasant escape from city scenes of the glass-and-skyscraper variety. Trendy Tianzifang, much like the nearby and more popular Xintiandi, throws back to a Shanghai of the 1920s.
In Tianzifang, narrow alleyways gripped by old shikumen (retro stone buildings) now hide dozens of bars, cafés, art galleries, design studios, restaurants, food stalls, and small boutique shops. Grab a drink and a snack in this bustling part of the city, insanely popular among younger hipster crowds and expats, to experience a unique side to Shanghai few travellers would predict.
Getting to Tianzifang: Via the Shanghai metro, zip over to Dapuqiao Station (Line 9). From Exit 1, walk past the Starbucks towards Taikang Road. You’ll see the entrance gate to Tianzifang across the street.
Get a glimpse of Shanghai’s past at Old City
When most travellers think about visiting a Chinese city, they probably imagine encountering something along the lines of Shanghai’s Old City (Nanshi). Even if it feels a little inauthentic in parts, Old City Shanghai is still one of the most interesting areas of the city to eat, shop, and simply wander about.
Much of what’s now considered the Old City was laid out during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) within the ancient walled city of Shanghai (encompassed within the boundaries of the modern-day Renmin and Zhonghua Roads). When the Chinese conceded other areas of the city to European powers, Old City remained a cultural enclave, changing relatively little through the years.
The most interesting bits of Old City radiate from Shanghai Old Street (officially Fangbang Middle Road), an old merchant street lined with lovely buildings that reveal glimpses of the Ming and Qing Dynasties. Stuff your face at one of the street’s many restaurants or grab the perfect gift for your family & friends back home before digging deeper into the main attractions of Old City.
Getting to Old City: The closest metro to Old City is Yuyan Garden Station. To get to the heart of Old City, take Exit 3, cross the street, and walk approximately two blocks south along Henan Road. At Fangbang Middle Road, turn left. The centre of Old City is straight ahead.
Marvel at the blissful Yuyuan Garden
Once you’ve made it to Shanghai’s Old City, there’s no escaping its star attraction, Yuyuan Garden. Dating back to the Ming Dynasty, this stunning five-acre Chinese garden sits off the main drag of Shanghai Old Street, tucked past the warrens of an old-style Asian bazaar.
After traversing over an emerald pond upon the tourist-packed zig-zagging Jiu Qu Bridge—quite a sight in itself!—grab your entrance ticket (40 yuan) to find your bliss inside. Once you’ve crossed the threshold of Yuyuan Garden, you’ll enter a world decorated with lush greenery, flowers, halls, pavilions, ponds, streams, and rockeries that will take your breath away.
Getting to Yuyuan Garden: Despite being one of best places to visit in Shanghai, finding Yuyuan Garden can be fairly tricky. Start by taking the Shanghai Metro to Yuyuan Garden Station on Line 10. Using Exit 1, walk south along Henan Road. When you find Fuyou Road, cross the street and turn left. Walk four blocks, going past Lishui Road, and take your first right into the Yuyuan Bazaar. From here, stick left and follow the signs through the small alleyways to one of the entrances.
See Shanghai’s greener side in the French Concession
If the wide boulevards and tall skyscrapers make Shanghai seem like any other city on earth, shatter your expectations with a visit to the unexpected French Concession. As you might have guessed, this leafy neighbourhood recalls a bygone era when the Chinese conceded a large part of Shanghai to France.
Today, the French Concession is one of Shanghai’s coolest districts to wander around, combining an indefinite European aesthetic with a smattering of trend-setting bars, restaurants, and boutiques.
With the immense size of the French Concession, it’s smartest to tackle it at a languid pace rather than on a time-crunch. Here are a few places to look out for:
- Huaihai Lu: The main drag stretching from the Old City to the western fringes of the neighbourhood. Exploring the leafy streets north and south of here aimlessly is one of the best ways to acquaint yourself with the French Concession.
- Wukang Lu: A lovely street in the French Concession lined with some important historical buildings and cozy cafés that exude more than a minor European vibe. Pop into Ferguson Lane, an art-deco-inspired pedestrian area between Taian Road and Hunan Road, to dabble in some fine wine and tapas at some of Shanghai’s trendiest bars and restaurants. Be sure to catch a glimpse of the Normandy Apartments (Wukang Mansion) at the corner of Huaihai Lu, a famous building from the 1920s built in French Renaissance style.
- Fuxing Lu: One of the main roads of the French Concession housing design studios and cool art boutiques shaded under the trees.
Getting to the French Concession: The Shanghai French Concession is a huge area so there’s a multitude of possibly entry points. Some of the main metro stations include Changshu Road Station, Shanghai Library Station, and Huaihai Middle Road Station.
Gaze upon Shanghai from above at Shanghai Tower
Even if it’s now relegated to a distant number two behind Burj Khalifa in Dubai among the world’s tallest buildings, Shanghai Tower is absolute must-see while visiting China’s biggest city. Crawling up the skyline a staggering 632 metres (2,073 feet), this skyscraper is an impressive feat of modern engineering, built to withstand the tough conditions of earthquake- and typhoon-prone China.
Peering up at Shanghai Tower from below (or even from the observation decks of its still insanely-tall brethren, the Shanghai World Financial Center) will truly put the building’s enormousness into perspective.
Of course, though, the most impressive way to experience Shanghai Tower is to zip up to the 118-floor observation deck on the world’s fastest elevator where you’ll be treated to epic 360-degree vistas hovering over Lujiazui, The Bund, the Huangpu River, and the rest of Shanghai & Pudong.
Want to save time on your visit to Shanghai Tower? Grab your Shanghai Tower Observation Deck Ticket before you arrive!
Getting to Shanghai Tower: Find your way to Lujiazui Station (Line 2), leaving via Exit 6. Walk southwest about 500 metres to get to Shanghai Tower.
Eat your way through Huanghe Road Food Street
Craving Shanghainese delicacies? There are few better places to load up on food in Shanghai than Huanghe Road Food Street. Famous among locals & travellers alike for its string of diverse restaurants covering the gamut of Chinese cuisine, Huanghe Road is bound to excite your tastebuds and destroy whatever cravings you might have.
This stretch of restaurants only extends a couple blocks but offers everything from soup dumplings and hotpots to seafood and hand-stretched noodles. Here are few favourites to seek out:
- Jia Jia Tang Bao: A city favourite, famous for its famous xiaolongbao, a silky-smooth Shanghainese steamed soup dumpling filled with ingredients like pork, crab, ginger, and scallions. Be prepared to wait as this place is insanely popular!
- Yang’s Fried Dumplings: Another popular choice serving up xiaolongbao‘s near-twin shengjianbao, a soup dumpling stuffed with similar ingredients but pan-fried instead of steamed.
- Chongqing Noodle Restaurant (重庆面馆): A tasty Szechwan joint firing up spicy noodle soup a-la Chongqing. Not for the faint-hearted!
Getting to Huanghe Road Food Street: Take the Shanghai metro to People’s Square Station. Use Exit 8 and cross over Nanjing West Road at the intersection. Huanghe Road starts through the large gate to the left of the Park Hotel Shanghai.
Admire Shanghai’s past in Qibao Ancient Town
Don’t have time to tackle the best day trips from Shanghai? The timeless canal-side streets of Qibao Ancient Town might be enough to tide you over. Although not as stunning as other water towns like Zhujiajiao, Xitang, Tongli, or even Suzhou, Qibao’s location—just 30 minutes by metro from the city centre—makes for a convenient jaunt that won’t eat away an entire day.
Entering Qibao Ancient Town, you’re instantly transported into a world that feels miles away from the big city that lurks just outside. Saunter through the narrow streets, pinned with souvenir shops and endless food stands in graceful buildings, to recall the glory of the Ming and Qing Dynasties.
One of the best things to do in Qibao Ancient Town is to eat. Along Qibao Old Street a whole slew of tantalizing options await. Try out the hai tang gao (海棠糕), a rice cake filled with red bean curd that’s a Qibao speciality. More adventurous eaters will likewise love the prospect of nibbling on Qibao’s popular stinky tofu or soy-braised pig trotters.
Getting to Qibao Ancient Town: Take Shanghai metro Line 9 to Qibao Station. From Exit 2, it’s a short 8- to 10-minute walk to Old Street via Minzu Road or Qixin Road.
Dispense all your yuan at Nanjing Road
Yuan burning a hole in your pocket? Pull out your wallet and start spending on China’s premier shopping street, Nanjing Road. The heart of Shanghai’s commercial universe, Nanjing Road is the top destination in the city to get your fill of all the world’s most famous brand names (and stock up on anything you forgot to pack for China) among some of the country’s most illustrious department stores and boutiques.
Even without all its shopping opportunities, strolling along the pedestrian-only section of Nanjing Road between Nanjing East Road Station and People’s Square presents one of the most stimulating scenes in the city. Visit at night when the shops’ neon lights flood the street to catch Nanjing Road at its finest.
Getting to Nanjing Road: Hop onto the Shanghai metro and venture to either Nanjing East Road Station or People’s Square Station which will put you on either end of Nanjing Road’s electric pedestrian stretch.
Get spiritual at Jing’an Temple
Unlike Beijing, Shanghai’s not exactly famous for its drawing in crowds to check out its cultural properties. And that’s all part of what makes visiting the beautiful Jing’an Temple, located just west of the city centre, all the more important when scoping what to do in Shanghai.
With a history dating back nearly eight centuries, Jing’an Temple is one of Shanghai’s most important temples. What you see today is a late-20th-century reconstruction, meticulously retaining all the finest details for an aesthetic that’s unique—even in a country where temples are hardly difficult to find.
Strolling through the three main halls—Mahavira Hall, Hall of Heavenly Kings and Three Sage Hall—be sure to check out the massive jade Buddha in Mahavira Hall. Weighing in at some 11,000 kilograms and stretching up 3.78 metres (approx. 12 feet), this dazing jade statue is the biggest of its kind in China.
Getting to Jing’an Temple: Via the Shanghai Metro, zip over to Jing’an Temple Station (Lines 2 & 7). Take Exit 1 to get spit out directly on the temple grounds.
Chill out in Fuxing Park
While you’re strolling around the French Concession, don’t miss out on a visit to relaxing Fuxing Park. Once a favourite among Ming Dynasty dignitaries, this leafy city park found new life in 1909 under French rule when it become a public park to be enjoyed by all.
The indelible mark left by European rule still appears today at Fuxing Park. It’s unique among the best parks in Shanghai as the only remaining French style garden. Walking through you’ll stroll past flowerbeds, ponds, a rose garden, and even the people’s government’s own addition, a Marx and Engels Statue, all under the shade of maple tress and sycamores.
Getting to Fuxing Park: From Xintiandi Station Exit 5, it’s a short two-block walk to Fuxing Road. After crossing under the North-South Elevated Road, you’ll see the park on your righthand side.
Oriental Pearl Tower
When the Pudong skyline comes into view, the eye immediately darts towards the Oriental Pearl Tower, a space-age TV tower built in 1995 to ring in the hopes of new millennium. At 468 metres, this tower, even if now eclipsed by its newer Lujiazui neighbours, is no slouch when it comes to delivering mega views of Shanghai.
Truthfully with the higher observation decks of Shanghai Tower, Jin Mao or Shanghai World Financial Center beckoning, it’s hard to make a case for the views at Oriental Pearl Tower above the others by day. The real treat here is to enjoy a evening buffet dinner at the Oriental Pearl Tower’s Revolving Restaurant for a unique perspective under the bright lights of Lujiazui.
Want to save time and secure your spot at Oriental Pearl Tower? Book your Oriental Pearl Tower Ticket including a buffet dinner at the tower’s Revolving Restaurant before your arrive and prepare for an unforgettable evening on the town.
Getting to Oriental Pearl Tower: Hop on the Shanghai metro to Lujiazui Station on Line 2. From Exit 1, walk across the Lujiazui Ring Road to the entrance of Oriental Pearl Tower.
For trend-setters and young hipsters, chilled-out Xintiandi is undoubtedly one of the coolest places to hang out in Shanghai. Much like Tianzifang elsewhere in the French Concession, Xintiandi exudes the feel of Shanghai in 1920s with its old stone shikumen and pedestrian-only streets where you’ll encounter du jour boutiques, restaurants, cafés, and bars.
Other than walking around and zig-zagging in and out of shops and galleries, one of the best things to do in Xintiandi is eat. The area is home to a wide variety of local and international restaurants. For a Taiwanese take on Shanghainese, pop into to the ever-popular Din Tai Fung or for something a little more off-the-cuff, grab some upscale Italian at Va Bene.
Getting to Xintiandi: Xintiandi is easily accessible from two metro stations. For the North Block, head to Huangpi South Road Station on Line 1 of the Shanghai metro. Use Exit 2 or Exit 3 and walk south along Madang Road to the corner of Taicang Road for the entrance. The South Block is most easily accessed from Xintiandi Station on Line 10 and Line 13. From Exit 1, walk one block north along Madang Road. The entrance to South Block will be to your right at the corner of Zizhong Road.
Shanghai World Financial Center
Before Shanghai Tower was completed, the sky-high Shanghai World Financial Center had its day as the city’s highest observation deck. Even with the world’s second-tallest building breathing down its neck next door, this 492-metre-tall tower, shaped like a sleek modern bottle opener, offers a unique perspective on the city that self-professed acrophiles will love.
The Shanghai World Financial Center’s real claim to fame is its 100th-floor SkyWalk. Strolling along the 55-metre-long hallway—with the Oriental Pearl Tower shrinking off to the lefthand side—you’ll feel as if you’re floating in air high above the streets of Lujiazui.
Getting to Shanghai World Financial Center: From Lujiazui Station, take Exit 6 and walk east along the elevated pedestrian footbridge, following the signs for the Shanghai World Financial Center.
Where to stay: The best hotels for sightseeing in Shanghi
As the biggest city in China, choosing where to stay in Shanghai isn’t always easy. If you’re looking to get close to the bulk of the best things to do in Shanghai, your best bet is to pick somewhere in Huangpu District in the city centre. The areas around The Bund and the French Concession (particularly Xintiandi) are particularly good for travellers as there’s a wide selection of high-quality accommodations.
Here are a few of the best hotels in Shanghai:
- Campanile Shanghai Bund Hotel: A delightful 3-star hotel close to The Bund that offers value-laden modern rooms. Within a short walking distance to many of the top things to see in Shanghai like Yuyuan Garden and Nanjing Road.
- Booking.com | Agoda
- Shanghai Marriott Hotel City Centre: A chic contemporary hotel located steps away from Nanjing East Road and and Huanghe Road Food Street. The skyline views from the rooms are simply marvelous. Get the best price and collect Marriott Rewards on your stay by booking directly at Marriott.com.
- Marriott | Booking.com | Agoda
- The Peninsula Shanghai: The top 5-star hotel in Shanghai on the western bank of the Huangpu River. This world-class hotel features luxuriant extras like an opulent indoor pool and soothing spa treatments to deliver the ultimate Shanghai accommodations experience. Finish off your evening with a cocktail at the trendy rooftop bar to wallow in incredible views over the futuristic Pudong skyline.
- Booking.com | Agoda
Where to go in Shanghai: A summary of the top points of interest
- Built up an appetite? Delight your tastebuds with cuisine from every corner of China on the eclectic Huanghe Road Food Street.
- Searching for tidbits of Shanghai’s ancient past? Recall the days of the Ming Dynasty exploring Old City including the lovely Yuyuan Garden.
- Want to escape the big city vibe? Sling through a 30-minute metro ride to explore the canal-side charms of Qibao Ancient Town.