Sure, it’s big, crowded, and noisy, but there’s still something inherently loveable about Shanghai, the largest city in the most populated country on earth.
So many East Asian itineraries skip out on this sprawling Chinese city over its lack of grand historical monuments. It’s a huge mistake, in my own opinion, as there’s far more to a destination than whether or not they’ve held onto all their treasures from antiquity.
To be sure, what’s most interesting about Shanghai isn’t it’s ancient past, but how it represents China’s present and future. The shiny Pudong skyline across the Huangpu River from The Bund, home to the city’s most compelling former colonial possessions, is a testament to how far the country’s motored along in the 20th century.
Dropping all expectations of stumbling upon ancient temples, palaces and gardens at every turn, you’ll quickly come to appreciate Shanghai for exactly what it truly is, and soon realize that, what appears on the surface to be a run-of-the-mill big urban jumble, is actually quite fascinating.
Whether your journey in Shanghai will walk you through the leafy boulevards of the former French Concession, plop you down at a café in 1920s-tinged Xintiandi or Tianzifang, or getting sense of the city’s more distant past in the Old City, get started planning your trip with this quick & easy Shanghai travel guide…
When to visit Shanghai
Unlike other parts of East Asia, Shanghai experiences a more temperate climate with vaster seasonal shifts than you might expect. Summers are hot & humid while winters are cool & dry. The spring and fall seasons fall somewhere in between.
Overall, the best time to go to Shanghai is in the autumn months of October and November. In the fall, daytime temperatures in Shanghai are still pleasantly mild to warm without the extreme heat and rains of the summer. You’ll also find better availability and lower prices for your accommodations in this months (except the first week of October, in which a Chinese public holiday falls).
What to do in Shanghai
Unlike other Chinese cities like Beijing or Xian, Shanghai isn’t as well-known for wearing its ancient history on its sleeve. That’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of things to do & see in the city!
There are a ton of surprises here from surprisingly leafy parks to entire neighbourhoods that look ripped out of a European tourist handbook.
Want to get started on planning what to do? Here are a few of the best places to visit in Shanghai:
- The Bund: Most explorers start their time in Shanghai off at The Bund, the city’s most famous area for tourists. Perched along the banks of the Huangpu River, The Bund features a lovely collection of colonial architecture left by the British and French who once called the port city home. Aside from the architecture, The Bund is the best place to catch the futuristic skyline of Shanghai’s Lujiazui financial district in Pudong.
- Shanghai Tower: Witnessing Shanghai from above is one of the top reasons to visit and an experience every traveller to China should have. And there’s no better place to do it than Shanghai Tower, the tallest building in China and (as of the time of writing) the third tallest in the world at a staggering 632 metres and 128 stories. The observation deck on the 118 floor is the highest in the entire world and delivers a spectacular panoramic view.
- Tianzifang: If there’s any place that’ll warp your image of Shanghai, it’s Tianzifang. This small enclave in the Former French Concession features narrow alleyways of red-brick residential buildings hailing back to the early-20th century, and now converted to art galleries, souvenir shops, cafés, bars, and eateries. The area is hip, trendy & artistic, if a tad touristy for some people’s tastes.
- Old City: While its authenticity is often questioned, it’s hard to not get a kick out of Shanghai’s Old City, especially if this is your first visit to China. Walking around the Old City it’s easy to imagine what the city was like in centuries past. Although much of its become quite the tourist trap, be sure to escape into the centrepiece Yuyuan Garden to see an excellent example of a traditional Chinese garden in the heart of the city.
What to eat in Shanghai
If there’s one thing that’ll tip anyone on the fence about Shanghai, it’s the food. Although it might not crack the top five among East Asian, it’s more a reflection of ultra-stiff competition than Shanghai’s gastronomical brilliance.
Not sure where to start your culinary journey? Here are a few suggestions for what to eat in Shanghai:
- Xiaolongbao: No Shanghai food discuss can begin without mention of these scrumptious little treats. Xiaolongbao are silky steamed dumplings filled with various ingredients including ground pork, shrimp, ginger, scallions and cabbage. Jia Jia Tang Bao on Huanghe Road serve up some of the city’s best.
- Shengjianbao: Like its cousin above, these soup dumplings are built similarly but fried in a pan rather than steamed. The famous Yang’s Fried Dumplings on Huanghe Road is good option for trying it out of the first time.
- Hairy Crab: Compared to the meticulous preparation of dumplings, hairy crab is quite simple. The taste sensation hinges on almost solely on the freshness of the crab. Once the perfect crustacean is found, little is done to it before steaming it and serving it. Dip it in dark vinegar to get the true Shanghai flavour.
- Hong Shao Rou: A traditional Shanghai dish consisting of caramelized pork belly drenched in a sweet sauce spun with sugar, Shaoxing wine, and light & dark soy sauce.
Where to stay in Shanghai
Like any huge East Asian destination, choosing where to stay in Shanghai isn’t always so straightforward. The city sprawls in every which direction, leaving travellers to their own devices to sort through a massive selection of accommodations.
For travellers, however, the choice can be quite simple. It’s best to stick to the central areas where you’ll be able to experience the best of the city. Start your search with these neighbourhoods:
- The Bund: The most touristy area in the city is also one of the best places to stay with a fantastic selection of hotels at every price range. The views aren’t half bad either!
- Nanjing Road & People’s Square: A little further into the heart of the city centre, this area is a superb choice for anyone wanting to dig deeper into Shanghai’s retail & food scene.
- Old City: Due to the area’s smaller stature, there’s a smaller selection of hotels in Old City than other central areas. If Shanghai’s historical charms are your jam and you’ve got a more mid-range budget at your disposal, this is a great neighbourhood to lay down your head.
- Old French Concession: As Shanghai’s most surprisingly sexy area, there’s plenty to love about staying in the OFC including the hip district of Xintiandi. This is the perfect neighbourhood for travellers who don’t mind being a bit further away from the typical tourist sites and prefer to soak up the city vibe at a more languid pace.
Transportation in Shanghai
By air: Shanghai is served by two airports, Shanghai Pudong International Airport (PVG) and Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport (SHA). Most flights from international destinations arrive via PVG although some that are routed through other Chinese cities may arrive at Hongqiao. The major airlines flying into Shanghai include Air China, China Eastern Airlines, and China Southern Airlines.
By train: As one of the most important economic hubs in China, Shanghai is a keystone in the country’s high-speed rail system. The shortest travel times to Shanghai from other Chinese destinations include Beijing (4h28m), Guangzhou (6h51m), Hangzhou (45m), Suzhou (22m), and X’ian (5h56m).
By metro: With the fantastic metro system, getting around Shanghai is an absolute cinch. Most of the top tourist sites are located within a quick walking distance of a major metro stations. To make your journeys as easy as possible, I’d recommend getting a reloadable Shanghai Public Transportation Card.
If you’re planning to travel extensively by metro on your trip to Shanghai, a 1-day or 3-day pass might be an even better option. For those coming into the city on a time-crunch from the airport, the Maglev & Metro Pass is another great alternative.