Starting as a small fishing village and market town, Shanghai has experienced an economic miracle for the last four decades which turned it into the biggest city in the world. The thriving metropolis of Shanghai now is home to not only 24 million people but also brilliant history, stunning architecture, and vibrant shopping. It may be difficult to decide what to do in such a big city like Shanghai. This blog will be my recommendations for Best things to do in Shanghai China.
How to find best things to do in Shanghai
It may take more time to search for the best things to do in Shanghai or China when compared to other cities in Asia since the most popular search engines like Google are blocked.
And so do popular social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram. But don’t worry, you can still find things to do and places to see in Shanghai via these chanel:
- TripAdvisor & Google: Search for the most recommended places and activities from tourists. However, information (opening hours) may not be updated.
- Pinterest: Pins some ideas.
- Instagram: You may be surprised since Instagram is blocked in China. However, the Chinese find their own way to access Instagram. And this would be some of the best ways to search for things that the locals crave for.
- Dianping: TripAdvisor of China. But almost all contents are in Chinese and of course, you have to know Chinese to use this app.
- Mafengwo: Mafengwo is a Chinese travel SNS website that enables users to share travel experiences with each other. This is a good source of information. However, almost all content is written in Chinese, so make sure to turn on Google Translate feature on Chrome.
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1. Take a stroll along The Bund
There is no other best thing to do in Shanghai than visiting The Bund. Previously the location of the city’s international settlement, the area has retained its European feeling. However, it is a 180-degree difference if you look to the other side of the river where massive skyscrapers rising high above Shanghai’s sky.
When the sun goes down, iconic landmarks and high-rise skyscrapers on both banks are beautifully lit up. The lights glitter brightly and reflect on Huangpu river which turns the whole area into a magical world. Walking along the waterfront promenade at this moment, you can understand why Shanghai is referred to as “Oriental Pearl”, which is rival to “The city of lights” Paris.
My first night in Shanghai was spent only for the Bund (actually I didn’t know what to do after a long flight). However, it turned out to be one of my best experiences in China. I have travelled to many countries in the world, but this is the first time I had to “say wow” as The Bund was far beyond any of my expectations.
2. Take a landscape photo with the Oriental Pearl Tower
If no trip to Paris is complete without taking a landscape photo with the Eiffel Tower, then what’s about Shanghai? Definitely the Oriental Pearl Tower.
Known as the city’s most recognizable building, the Oriental Pearl Tower occupies a prominent place in Shanghai’s city scene. The tower can be easily spotted when strolling around the main districts of Shanghai.
When it comes to taking photos, Oriental Pearl Tower stands out in every shoot as its unique shapes. There are many spots to take stunning landscape photos with this tower. The majority of tourist will go to The Bund to take the typical landscape shot of Shanghai.
However, I preferred to take photos on the west bank of the river where most of the old buildings of the city are located, as the photos will depict not just the development side of Shanghai but also the contrast between the old and new of this city. Make sure to do the photo session at night when all of the lights synchronize that doubles the beauty of every building.
3. Explore Shanghai old city
Shanghai is some of the cities in the world with an awesome setting which has an old city inside the modern city of Shanghai. Once enclaved within the old city walls, Shanghai Old Town (or Nanshi) comprises a collection of narrow streets and historical buildings.
This old city will offer you a glimpse of “traditional China” with signature architecture which dates back more than two hundreds years ago. Different from any other part of the city, the majority of houses here feature a sweeping curvature that rises at the corners of the roof.
Today the Old city became one of the most popular tourist attractions of Shanghai which has a great number of restaurants, tea houses and antique shops lying inside small alleys. Exploring Shanghai Old City when the lights are on and you will be lost in the magical world.
4. Step back in time in Shanghai Film Park
Shanghai has inspired countless Chinese and foreign film productions for its turbulent history and timeless charm. Thought that all the things you see on movies just only appear on screen, but they are available in real life in Shanghai Film Park.
Shanghai Film Park is one of the ten great film-making bases in China. Just 1 hour away from the city center and you can travel back to Shanghai in the 20s and 30s of the last century.
This theme park includes Nanjing Road, the old streets & alleyways, the Suzhou Creek Neighborhood, and the Zhejiang Road Steel Bridge, Catholic church and some European style villas with all buildings being recreated with the ratio of 1:1. You will feel like walking in the movie scene and experiencing the same mood as the actors which you have seen before.
However, Shanghai Film Park is not so accessible from the city center and takes about 1 hour to travel which involves multiple use of transportation. Make sure to search and plan your route in advanced before reaching this complex.
5. Dine at any Haidilao hotpot restaurant
Xiaolongbao, Tangbao and Jianpng are some of the most recommended things to eat in Shanghai. However, Haidilao hotpot far outweighs any other foods to be in my list of best things to do in Shanghai as it is the best representative for Chinese hospitality.
Haidilao is China’s top hotpot chain which earns a beyond-border reputation for excess hospitality. The staff will literally do everything to specialize your dining experience.
Seeing me sweating like hell for eating spicy food, the staff immediately brought me a fan and a bowl of dipping sauce (she said that this dipping sauce could mitigate the spicy level from food). Though Haidilao may not be the best food I have tried in China, their service touched my heart.
It will not be that easy to eat Haidilao since you need to queue for about 1 – 3 hours. You can go out shopping and sightseeing or just stay there for some complimentary waiting-services like manicure, shoes-shine, hand massage…
6. Explore the Shikumen architecture in Xintiandi
Another best things to do in Shanghai is exploring the Shikumen architecture in Xintiandi. “Shikumen” is a traditional Shanghainese architectural style, which combines the elements found in Western architecture with traditional Lower Yangtze architecture and social behavior. First appearing in the 1860s, Shikumen quickly became popular throughout the Old City, and became the predominant form of residential construction of Shanghai.
However, the majority of shikumen houses underwent mass demolition and reconstruction due to economic reforms and population boom in the 1980s and 90s. Nowadays only a small number of shikumen houses remain which are scattered around the city.
Xintiandi is a neighborhood which is home to well-preserved shikumen houses though most houses are turned into commercial use. You can find a wide range of shops, restaurants and bars in a labyrinth of alleyways. Don’t forget to dine in Cobra Lily – one of the most Instagrammable restaurants in Shanghai.
7. Sip a cocktail at Flair Rooftop Bar
Perched on the 58th floor of Ritz Carlton hotel, Flair Rooftop Bar offers stunning views overlooking straight to the Oriental Pearl Tower, and then beyond to the Bund. A glass of cocktail with Instagram-worthy views is all enough to make a night out.
However, being located on a high floor doesn’t mean a sky-rocket price. You can get a drink for around 159¥ which will not drive you bankrupt. Make sure to reserve a table in advance or you will need to queue.
8. Visit quirky contemporary art museum
Shanghai has seen an increasing number of contemporary art galleries and museums in recent years. They are part of projects which transform former industrial buildings into places for artworks.
Long Museum West Bund, M97 and Rockbund Art Museum are some of museums in Shanghai that display some of the edgiest contemporary Chinese and international work. Besides those, don’t miss the chance to visit pop-up museums which show some of the extraordinary works. And of course, some ready-to-pose backdrops for your Instagram shoot.
Kikyo Space is one of the pop-up museums I visited during my trip to Shanghai. It offers some of the Kpop inspirations such as pinkish playground, bubble bulbs bathtub, pastel bakery shop… After spending some hours there, I got enough photos to post for half a year (just kidding).
9. Climb up the top of Shanghai
Forty-five years ago, the area on the east side of Huangpu river was sufficiently underdeveloped with barely any big buildings. Nowadays, this area has seen a domination of high rise skyscrapers.
Twisting high above any other buildings in the financial district of Lujiazui is China’s tallest tower, Shanghai Tower. This 632-meter-tall spiral tower breaks plenty of world records, namely second highest building in the world, highest hotel and restaurant, and tallest observation deck.And climbing up to the viewing deck means reaching the top of Shanghai.
From the 118th floor and 119th floor, the city of Shanghai roars with brilliant history and dynamic modern culture. Make sure to visit the observation deck during golden hour to catch the sunset over the Bund. However, this will be the busiest time of the day so pre-book the ticket to avoid the crowds.
10. Strolling around Nanjing road at midnight
Home to a large number of shops, restaurants and department stores, Nanjing Road is always packed with tourists no matter what time of the day. However, when the clock ticks 12, “all traces of humans disappear” which leaves the most busy street in town nothing but empty.
It is definitely the best time to admire the timeless beauty of the 150 ýear-old street. So instead of booking a car, I walked all the way back to my hotel. I came across this idea after finishing my Haidilao hotpot at 12am.
When the crowds are scarce, some of the hidden charm that lies within the old buildings are revealed. Hualian Commercial Building, Shanghai Landmark, and Shanghai No.1 Department Store (Shanghai’s first department store) are more than just commercial shops, but a witness of time.
I know it may be weird to stroll around at midnight. But don’t worry, Shanghai is totally safe even at midnight since a large number of facial recognition cameras and surveillance are operated through the city.
Besides the aforementioned 10 best things to do in Shanghai, let’s take a look at some honorable mentions
Honorable Mentions 1: Visit water town near Shanghai
Jujiaja, Qibao, Xitang and Suzhou are some of the famous water towns near Shanghai. Among those, Xitang was on my wishlist since it appeared on Jay Chou’s MV “Tian Ya Guo Ke’. My friend recommended going to Suzhou which has a rich history and picturesque canals instead. And of course he took us on a road trip on the weekend.
However, it is not a good idea to travel to Suzhou on weekends. The town is exactly what I saw on the screen with charming arch bridges, ancient canal houses and well-groomed gardens…But one thing I didn’t expect that made a huge difference is people.
As a weekend getaway, Suzhou welcomes millions of people from Shanghai and other nearby cities which makes the town overcrowded. I even had no places to stand on narrow alleyways
Honorable Mentions 2: Curate your Instagram feed with Shanghai Tang streetstyle
Seamless blending of the old and new, the East and the West, Shanghai offers some of the best backgrounds for street style photoshoots. It is not difficult to find Instagrammable spots from preferred tourist attractions like Xintiandi or Waibaidu Bridge to some alleys overlooking Oriental Pearl Tower.
My recommendation is choosing red shades as it will be the best way to stand out in every background (I don’t know why but red shades appear on most of my Shanghai’s travel outfits).
If you travel solo, don’t hesitate to ask young Chinese people to help you. When it comes to taking a photo, they know how to slay the photoshoot. Make sure to learn some basic phrases to better communicate. You can say “ Qĭng wèn kě yǐ bāng wǒ pāi zhào ma” to ask someone for taking a photo.
Summary: Best things to do in Shanghai
Shanghai travel tips
– Bring your passport along since you can be checked sometimes by the police (the electric version is acceptable).
– Install necessary apps such as Baidu Maps, Dianping (TripAdvisor of China), VPN Proxy (access Facebook, Google, Instagram).
– Learn some basic Chinese words and phrases to better communicate with vendors.
– Buy a sim card at the airport or at any verified store. My friend bought a sim card in Vietnam and it unable to call a Chinese number. So I had to buy a new one in China.
– If you still don’t know how to plan your Shanghai’s itinerary, the Shanghai Hop-on, Hop-off bus Tour is a hassle free option. The bus will take you to some of the best tourist attractions in town like Xintiandi, Pudong, The Bund… See this link for more information.
– Stay near The Bund, People’s Square, Former French Concession and Shanghai Old City as central location and English-speaking staff.
– Some hotels are unable to receive foreigners. Want to know if a hotel can receive foreigners or not, take a look at their review section on OTA (booking.com, Agoda, Trip.com). If there are reviews written in other languages, not Chinese, that hotel is able to receive foreigners.
Summary: Best things to do in Shanghai
Here are my recommendations for the best things to do in Shanghai. If you need any information about traveling in Shanghai, kindly see other posts:
- Shanghai travel guide & Best places to visit
- What to eat in Shanghai: The ultimate Shanghai food guide
- What to wear and how to style your China’s trip
– MUST-USE WEBSITE TO PLAN YOUR NEXT TRIP –